Relentless curiosity: David Bowie’s creative legacy

Nach dem Konzert_ SO36_1982_Dittmer copy
After the concert, SO36, West Berlin, 1982. Photo by Anno Dittmer, used in the exhibition Geniale Dilletanten RMIT Gallery.

In the narrow focus demanded of us as we pursue our doctoral studies we so often lose sight of what David Bowie, creative polymath and one of the most influential musicians of his era, knew intuitively – it’s vital to take creative risks, and be on a constant quest for new ideas and inspiration. Even when you are facing death.

David Bowie, who has just died of cancer at the age of 69, was more than a pop star. It is no surprise that as news of his death became known the internet was flooded with respectful, grief filled tributes as people tried to grasp the complexity of Bowie’s career and creativity.

Only days ago, and without announcing he had cancer, Bowie released his 25th album Blackstar filled with songs that focused on death. Last month, Lazarus, the new musical featuring Bowie’s songs, and inspired by Bowie’s starring role in the 1976 cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth, opened to mixed reviews in New York. 

Despite his terminal illness Bowie was creatively active at an age when so many people have literally retired from creating anything new. Bowie remained so contemporary, so fresh and exciting because he was so willing to challenge and take risks.

It is no wonder then that Bowie’s music has been called the soundtrack to a generation and he has influenced countless musicians. Everyone from Iggy Pop to Sir Paul McCartney, from Madonna to Ricky Gervais, Kanye West to Midge Ure and British Prime Minister David Cameron has come forward with their own tributes on how Bowie inspired them.

And of course, as well as collective grief his fans are in shock. Despite Bowie’s heart attack in 2004 and lack of touring in recent years, Bowie had such an insatiable creative curiosity, such a vibrant mind and a talent that was a heat seeking missile for constant reinvention, that it seemed he’d evolve forever. He had just celebrated his 69th birthday. He had just put out an album.

Now he is gone.

The platitude ‘age is just a number’ takes on a new meaning when applied to the curious, to the intellectually hungry, and to the creative mind. That’s the energy and fuelled Bowie’s output.

I had insisted that my 17 year old son see the terrific “David Bowie Is” Victoria & Albert Museum touring exhibition at Melbourne’s ACMI in 2015. Not because I had a stack of well loved Bowie LPs that I treasured from my teenage days, or iconic Bowie posters that adorned by bedroom at that age – in truth, I had neither. If anything, I had come to Bowie through film – The Man Who fell To Earth, and The Hunger – both roles in which he was in some ways alien, isolated, abandoned, and fearful – all of which, it is revealed in the V & A exhibition catalogue are the subjects Bowie has always written about “even though the trousers may change”.

When I read this and felt I should not berate myself for being obsessed with writing about betrayal, obsession, revenge and jealousy. Like Bowie, the trousers (genre or writing style) may change, but my song remains the same.

My appreciation of Bowie came not because I was a ‘fan’, but because I was a writer and I had explored how his creative process unfolded. How he used his visual art background (his first job was as a graphic artist) and pursued the power of the visual image to propel his musical ideas and career as a performer. This visual literacy also manifests in his album covers as much as his reputation as a fashion icon.

I was keen for my son, an aspiring architect, to see the way Bowie channeled the avant-garde into his own work and immersed himself in art and literature and drama as well as music to produce something extraordinary that collapsed of boundaries between media as well as high art and low.

British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.” Indeed – Bowie mastered the art of the narrative, via visual and aural mediums. He was a consummate story teller, drawing on the history of so many artforms. Yes, he is gone, but we can follow the bread crumbs he left, picking our way through Andy Warhol, Bertolt Brecht, Marshal McLuhan, Kansai Yamamoto, Nicholas Roeg, Lord Byron, Vaslav Nijinsky, Beau Brummell, and of course, Lindsay Kemp, whose influence can be seen so strongly in Bowie’s physical performances.

Bowie didn’t go to art school, he didn’t do a doctorate, but he never stopped exploring, learning, and finding inspiration outside music, outside his field. As Camille Paglia notes in her catalogue essay for the Bowie exhibition, “music was not only or even the primary mode through which Bowie first conveyed his vision to the world: he was an iconoclast who was also an image maker.”

While there is a necessary narrowing of focus in the doctorate, I am passionate about the lifelong benefits of a broad and wide ranging undergraduate degree. I sometimes wondered at the wisdom of my determination, as an 18 year old, to study visual art, and during the course, take a hefty amount of drama subjects and also pursue stage craft. Paglia notes that Bowie’s flair for choreography and body language has been developed by his study of pantomime and stagecraft with the innovative Lindsay Kemp troupe in London in the 1960s.

Watch the video of Lazarus from Bowie’s final album Blackstar that I shared at the opening of this blog – what he learned about movement at the beginning and the power of the body to express emotion through movement he takes with him to express the inevitability of his demise. So powerful.

Lesson – value the roads you travelled as an artist. I am not an actor, but the ability to perform for an audience should never be overlooked in this age of social media, and indeed, there is much to be said for a writer who can confidently take to the stage to read their work.

Bowie had an early ambition to be painter and continued to paint throughout his life, especially when he was having trouble writing songs, and likewise, I continue to draw and turn to images when I need to express something that my words cannot. Lesson – continue to do what you love, even if it won’t make your fortune or be your career.

But perhaps one of the most important things we can learn from Bowie is that creative reinvention and relevance come through lifelong learning – that intellectual and creative curiosity doesn’t have a time frame on it. Even once we complete our PhD, we do not ‘stop’, we are not ‘done’ – in his catalogue essay for the Bowie exhibition, Howard Goodall writes that Bowie’s discovery of the catalogue of German-American composer Kurt Weill (1900-50) “was made not as part of a university syllabus…but as an intrigued, self-motivated adult.”

As we reflect on Bowie’s legacy, take some of his lessons into our creative lives. Find inspiration in books, in art and in music, in collaborations with others, and in the works of the past. Don’t ever stop learning, or pursuing the creative work that you love.

First published in RMIT Blog Central, with the image used to promote Geniale Dilletanten: Subculture in Germany in the 1980s showing at the RMIT Gallery until February 27 2016.