The decision to embrace an aesthetic of asceticism, of essentialism, of restraint is a moral decision, a decision easier to make for those who already have an affinity with it, who are already drawn to it, than those who find themselves driven by an ethic and imagination of spectacle, expansion, and overproduction. In these times in which we speak a great deal about environmentalism and conservation, there are nonetheless those artists whose work consumes resources that might be made available to others — time, venue, and money among them (I might also add the noise that consumes the contemplative silence, and movement that consumes stillness). This came to the fore in 2005 with the Monsterist project, about which dramatist David Eldridge wrote a manifesto for the Guardian.
I find such expansive visions alien to my own nature, and the form which I draw from my own creative tendencies resists the expansive vision. When I say that the embrace of an essentialist form is a moral decision, I mean that it also implies an attitude towards the world of the art as it materializes in the culture. It is only right that I make the decision for my art to use as few physical resources as possible, in the interest that other art might also have the opportunity to thrive in a world of shrinking possibilities. It partakes also of the humility and modesty that all artists and audiences should feel in the presence of the mystery of the finished work. It may not always be the case that less is more, but it is often the case that more is less. And the resources these more ambitious failures waste leaves less for the remaining practitioners.
I am quite willing to concede that those with more expansive, what Eldridge calls “monsterist,” visions, must be allowed their work. But it should also be pursued with the knowledge that it may be wasteful — that the consumption of these resources feeds the ego of the artist rather than the art or the audience. The smaller work can’t be to blame for the massive dissipation of resources that the monsterist work requires.
The form of my new play Erlkönig expands from nothing; develops; then contracts into nothing again, opening in the day, closing in the night, which matches precisely the theme of the play: individual consciousness, or as my notebook has it, “the dynamic between expanding and contracting consciousness (world as sensually experienced). Anxiety and release.” I am reminded by this of a few of Beckett’s notes from his essay on Proust:
The artistic tendency is not expansive, but a contraction. And art is the apotheosis of solitude. (64)
… the work of art [is] neither created nor chosen, but discovered, uncovered, pre-existing within the artist, a law of his nature. (84)
Proust does not share the superstition that form is nothing and content everything, nor that the ideal literary masterpiece could only be communicated in a series of absolute and monosyllabic propositions. For Proust the quality of language is more important than any system of ethics or aesthetics. Indeed he makes no attempt to dissociate form from content. The one is a concretion of the other, the revelation of a world. (88)
London: John Calder Publisher, 1999