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