Research as conversation: contemplating Wicked and the Mona Lisa

Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game. … It’s time to trust my instincts, close my eyes, and leap. ~ Elphaba, Wicked

This week I took my mum to Wicked the musical. It was the third time I’ve seen it, the first being in London’s West End in 2007. I still remember the goose bumps that raced up my arms as Elphaba rose into the darkness singing that she was “defying gravity”. After seeing the show with my mum, our talk turned to art, research, and my thesis. Yep, that’s how my mum and I roll. So how did Wicked prompt talk about research?

Wicked is an example of a literary and artistic work which inserts itself into a discussion. It adds to a conversation started by the 1900 L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Loosely based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, it refers to the original story, reinventing, reimagining and conferring new meaning. It takes the Oz-Dorothy-Witches narrative from one of the value of journey, the longing for home and good triumphing over evil. It transforms the well known children’s story into a tale of the Other, accepting difference, embracing our authentic selves and fighting for what is right in the face of corrupt political systems. It takes the imagery of the written story and the film interpretation and recreates these in fresh ways through music, set design, costume (the shoes! the millinery!) and dialogue. Clever references to Dorothy’s story are woven into this back story about witches Elphaba and Glinda. In this way Wicked is a creative product which adds layers of meaning and injects new insights and perspectives into an existing story.

Artists also ‘speak’ to each other through their work. The long history of reimaginings of the Mona Lisa, a few of which I have juxtaposed below, illustrates how artists comment on each other’s work through their creations, adding to a dialogue about what art might be, how art might be created and what art might have to say about the world it inhabits.

art is conversation

art is conversation

Commenting on Da Vinci’s 1517 painting, Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, in 1919 Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee on a cheap postcard reproduction, labelled it L.H.O.O.Q. (a pun) and exhibited it in a gallery. Duchamp’s appropriation and reinterpretation of one of the world’s most famous paintings brought into question its value and challenged the then-definition of fine art. In 1954, Salvador Dali produced a work in which he added his own eyes, moustache and hands filled with coins in Self Portrait as Mona Lisa, in a kind of artistic high five to Duchamp. Pop artist Andy Warhol used the Mona Lisa image in his 60s screen prints, blurring lines between high art and popular culture. In Warhol’s work, Mona is reproduced through the then-controversial-in-the-art-context screen printing process. She is repeated in primary colours to reflect assembly-line mass production, questioning the place of art in an increasingly mass-produced consumerist world. These artworks show how artists use their processes and subjects to talk to each other across time. Each uses subject and method to add a new layer of meaning, present a critique or pose a challenge to what has come before.

Research, too, is part of a conversation. Like writers and artists, theorists communicate with each other through their work over time. A literature review places research within the historic conversation. Where and with whom does it fit? Whom or what might it challenge? Research methods draw from what has come before. The approaches of old masters and contemporary talent become models to emulate, springboards from which to adapt or materials with which to weave new forms. Discussions and conclusions are places in which researchers form reimaginings and state contributions to the greater conversation, to existing knowledge.

Research writing, too, is steeped in academic tradition, in a conversation of form and language. Some choose to adhere strictly to the expectations of academic or dissertation genres, and some choose to push and challenge those boundaries. My thesis, while not a creative work in the sense that an arts thesis with exegesis might be, draws on literary as well as academic traditions. It uses a literary work as a conceptual frame in order to draw metaphorical meaning.

Some might not agree with seeing research as creative-product-in-historic-conversation, perceiving it as a lyrical idea which undercuts the systematic science of research. Of course research is logical and systematic. It can be viewed as science but it can also be seen as story, as creative work and even as sculpture. A recent post by Lara Corr on the thesis whisperer blog talks about the creative elements of research. She plays with the ideas of being a master builder and colouring outside the lines. Pat Thomson’s post on discussion chapter as flight influenced my posts about starting the discussion chapter and building a researcher identity through it.

In Wicked, Elphaba comes to a place in which she chooses a new path and embraces a new identity. Have you found a place in your research or work where you were able to defy gravity and fly? To add your layer to the conversation in which you are engaging?

As somebody told me lately, everyone deserves the chance to fly! And if I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free. To those who ground me, take a message back from me. Tell them how I am defying gravity! ~ Elphaba, Wicked


13 thoughts on “Research as conversation: contemplating Wicked and the Mona Lisa

  1. Great blog post! Adored the musical and the placing of it into the historic dialogue which it contributes to, and the context in which it was initiated. Loved the linking of the fact humans hold discussions over time, space, across fields of interest, and genre. Recognizing that the diverse forms of human endeavor are not barriers to communication, or hurdles for ongoing dialogue. All art, history, literature, music, and research forms a part of an ongoing and active dialogue even when it crosses the genre boundaries within Art, Literature, Research and Music or amalgamates all of the above in a unique synthesis, making new meanings and adding new layers to the ongoing conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I watched the musical (more than a year ago,, I was struck by the thesis-antithesis-synthesis or as you mention old-new-tension-remix continuum evidenced in creative works. Research has been compared to several things using metaphorical language: a journey (highly popular), storytelling, narrative, art, science, conversation, and more that we can invent. To separate research as logical systematic science from the art and artistry of it is not doing research justice, I feel. It is inspired by curiosity; there is sometimes a “muse” that draws us on our quest. Sometimes, we are led by others to the muse and as we embark on the quest to articulate the story, to express our thoughts in the medium/genre we are encouraged or given approval to conduct, we birth those thoughts after a largely long process of iterative expression and re-expression, drafting and redrafting, to create meaning that is shareable and useful. At the same time, some may find pleasure in it, like popular creative works such as Wicked. Nick Sousanis wrote his entire dissertation as a comic book. It got published recently (?) as a graphic novel called Unflattening. It was an enjoyable read and yet also contributes to the conversation of multimodality and creativity.

    I hope you are having fun finishing up your dissertation. Musicals are a delight, not to mention the nourishment they offer to our souls.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally agree with the notion that research emerges from ourselves and the ongoing iterative process of working and reworking. As a neophyte researcher I sometimes feel as though my version of creative, drawn-to-it, loving-the-creative-process PhD needs to be rationalised with a reminder that I am also doing systematic work. It isn’t only one or the other; there seems to be a continuum along which research can reside.

      I am also working quite hard to do something else you mention: make the research text itself an enjoyable read! Here’s hoping!

      Liked by 1 person

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