Sunday, January 01, 2012

Making It New

Scrambling around for something to do to make the new year feel new, feel worthwhile (ah, the joy of putting on a fresh ostomy appliance in the first morning of the new year! such celebration!), I stumble across in my morning reading, sipping my tea, a long interview between Robert Birnbaum and Sven Birkerts. Birkerts, always-thoughtful author of The Gutenberg Elegies, had more than one thing to say that was epiphanic to me.

This is of course the season, just after the calendar adds a number to the year date, to talk explicitly about epiphany. Epiphanies are not always revelations of the unknown: sometimes they are encounters with a formulation or explanation articulated by someone else that seems so true to your own experience that it goes off like a bomb, even retroactively, so that things in your past are reframed in a way that now makes new and more solid sense. In a sense, this other kind of epiphany is when you encounter something that you realize you already knew, all along, on some level, but you hadn't articulated it to yourself quote so clearly, elegantly, or thoroughly; so when you hear it coming from another source, there's a big "Aha!" moment, and part of the moment is your realization that this was something you already knew.

Birnbaum and Birkerts spent a long time talking about reviewing, its changing climate, its current diminution and failures (reminding me in a way of the long conversations between Michael Ventura and James Hillman transcribed in their mind-blowing book We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World's Getting Worse), and its possibilities.

One moment early in the interview that came across as an epiphany—one of those things I already knew, on some level, but hadn't yet articulated to myself—was in regard to a fundamental aspect of the creative process. They were talking about journalism and book reviews:

RB: How do you do with deadlines?

SB: Eschew them (both laugh).

RB: I guess that disqualifies you from journalism.

SB: I could have gone that way. I have done a major life-flip because I’d say the first 15 years of writing was a huge amount of reviewing and most of it was on deadline. I created a discipline-monster who I have since repudiated, or begun to. And I am not sure which leads which, but the stuff that used to arrive effortlessly in terms of the kind of mental structure of a review—it was like butter, I could just sit down and it would all come together. And that very thing has become almost unthinkably difficult for me. Everything in me resists writing the sentence that says, “In the opening of her latest novel…”

RB: Too facile, too banal?

SB: Well, you wear yourself out with your own repetitions. That’s also the basis of any progress in the arts, turning against what you can’t do anymore.

Pay attention to that: The basis of any progress in the arts is turning against what you can't do anymore. This makes so much sense to me. It strikes me as the root psychological force behind any avant-garde. All avant-gardes are on some level a rejection of the past, of the status quo, of the existing prevailing winds of artistic fashion, of received wisdom.

As an artist, there are things you have done before—whether they were rote exercises done during your apprenticeship, or whether they are received wisdom about what Art is or should be—that you can't stand to do anymore—you have an almost visceral, gut-level reaction against repeating your old habits and patterns. You wear yourself out with your own repetitions. The notion that the new is always better than the old is at root a Romantic ideal—and keep in mind that the artistic Modernism of the early 20th C. was the full and final flowering of the Romantic period that had begun almost a century before, in terms of its ideas about who makes art and why—and so the various avant-gardes of the early 20th C. were really rejecting the old ways of making art, while not really rejecting the archetypes and stereotypes of the Artist that are part and parcel of the Romantic ideal. (The Solitary Artist, the Starving Artist, the Misunderstood Rebel, etc.)

I've said often that as an artist I don't really ever get bored. And that's true. If something starts to seem stale, I can go do something else. I practice crop rotation between several artforms, as one way of staying fresh. (This past couple of weeks, even though in many ways I've had a personally crappy time, I continued to make art. I'm almost done with a new song, and I did a couple of rounds of papier-maché, and a couple of smaller poems. It's never a vacuum, even when things are bad.) Yet even though I never get bored, I do get tired of repetitions. I've invented at least four new forms for poetry, that I can recall off the top of my head, which I've then used several times for my own poems—until they seem stale, then I go on to invent new ones. (One contention that some formalist poets seem to have with what I do as a poet is not that I occasionally do use forms, but that I don't use existing, inherited, historical forms, like the sonnet: which are, after all, another form of received wisdom. The objection seems to be as much about the act of invention, itself, as it is about any poetic content.)

I am self-aware enough of my worldviews and mindsets to know how they appear in my art—and how they affect the basic assumptions I make about the nature of the Universe, of life, and therefore of art. It is characteristic of me as an artist to not repeat myself. At least, not very often. There are various creative grooves that I return to, for fresh idea-mining, but if you were to closely observe my process, it's often about variations rather than repetitions. This operates on both large and small scales. I am aware of my own preference to not repeat a melody exactly in every verse of a song; there are always a few notes different, in variation. If you listen to live performances of signature songs by familiar recording artists, they usually change the arrangement that was recorded on their album. This is another way of keeping it fresh. I am aware that when I write a poem within one of the forms I've invented, even then it rarely exactly matches its predecessors. My life's experience has led me to be very conscious that nothing ever repeats exactly the same way twice, that change is always active and inevitable, and that most things are ephemeral. One reason I don't like to repeat myself is because life's too short to waste time on repetitions. I periodically turn against what I can't do anymore, what doesn't work for me anymore. I periodically therefore must try new things, or invent them. I suppose it's a form of artistic restlessness, but it's a fertile sort.

Of course, this means that I will usually tend to find myself allied with an avant-garde, philosophically if not in terms of what my art actually looks like. I've always been allied in spirit to the avant-garde, although I have rarely used self-consciously "avant-gardist" styles or means. I'm not a member of any school or -ism. Neither an Expressionist nor an Existentialist be. I usually find myself in disagreement, sooner or later, with all keepers of artistic ideology. (The classic example was the Surrealists, who began as disruptors of the old way of making art, precisely as Birkerts stipulates, very fresh and original in their approaches to making art—yet ended up being rigidly encoded, with ideological purity enforcement about who was good enough to be a member of the group or not.)

I know that the price of this, as well as the price of not repeating myself, is likely to be a lack of popular or commercial success. Pop music audiences, for example, don't really want innovation, they want repetition. Most intelligentsia like to re-affirm existing (received wisdom) values and truths, and not seek out new territory. We still, as Jean Cocteau once said, tend to judge what is beautiful by what we are already familiar with. It takes time to educate the audience. So be it.

On the other hand, later in their conversation Birnbaum and Birkerts discuss the ongoing contemporary balkanization of popular media, the lack of a centralized critical value-system, the anarchic tendencies of the new publishing media. There is no real Top 40 list of songs in popular music any more, instead there are many genres and sub-genres each going their own way. Birnbaum is as critical of Top Ten lists as I am, and for similar reasons. Many balkanized genres openly ignore the Top 40 nowadays. Even such public praise as winning peer-recognition awards like the Pulitzer or the Oscars comes under scrutiny as meaningless to creativity. Many younger artists simply ignore the entire awards process.

So there is also the possibility, as Birkerts points out, that with all the new niches being created, an artist who might never have gotten published by a large publishing venture, or received much mainstream critical attention (such as myself, or you), can find or create their own niche to fill, and an audience that might be small but loyal. So there's hope even for me (and you).

Just as there are artists who tend to not repeat themselves, there are audiences who do like to be surprised, and enjoy the adventure of not knowing what they'll see next from the artists they like. I too am that sort of fan, and mostly follow artists who veer and migrate, rather than following the straight and narrow. Unpredictability is a positive virtue, in these cases. (Which is why I will always prefer the unpredictable Brian Eno, or the genuinely original Bjork, to the Michael Boltons and Lady Gagas of the pop music world.) Again, my experience has taught me that to embrace chance and change; which you must do, even if you don't want to, as that's how the world turns.

Which brings me around to epiphany again. Epiphany, as I said above, is about revelation, and about realization. It's also about making it new. How do we make it new? Sometimes by discovery. And at other times by refusing to re-enactment the old and familiar. It's an epiphany to realize, for myself, that I have always been inclined towards not repeating myself. It's an epiphany to accept that as being a good and proper way to be, with its many possibilities for the positive uses of restlessness.

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Blogger mscriver said...

In regards to the interview/conversation, it appears to me that we've moved from a time of leisure and space for individually reviewing works to this enormous crush of stuff that is so numerous, so various, so unfiltered or sorted, that the energy that once went into review now goes into what they are calling "discovery." Where's the stuff that's going to mean something to me? The problem is like Google or Netflix trying to predict what you want and only presenting you with those results -- it amounts to censorship in the end.

How can you have an epiphany unless you can explore the unpredicted, unsuspected, unknown?? Raw life.

Prairie Mary

2:59 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree on all counts. I agree about the process of discovery, which can be its own source of joy, and I agree about how "smart" algorithms all too easily end up being censorship. I like to be shown tips on what I might like, sure, but I also like to see everything else.

Some of the best ideas or books I've ever encountered were stumbled over by accident. It's those accidental epiphanies that have led to some of the very best explosions in my own creative life.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I often wonder at artists who, once they’ve found something that works—either personally or commercially—stick with it for years and years. I both get it and don’t get it. My poetry is more repetitive than my prose—I think the thing there is to try and get it right, write one perfect (perfect according to some vague criteria in my head) poem—but I really hate the idea of doing the same things over and over again in my prose. Having a style is one thing but there has to be scope for manoeuvre within that style. I’m not completely sure that I agree with you as far as pop audiences go. I think they do like innovation but once they find something the like they’re far slower at moving on or letting go but they do. The music of the sixties is not the same as that of the seventies or the eighties. Those with real staying power though are ones who are willing to take risks—Paul Weller jumps to mind and, of course, Bowie—and not wait until the public gets bored of them.

I’ve not had many epiphanies in my life—moments of clarity I like to think of them—when the road ahead becomes clear. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m not as productive as others online—last year I wrote a dozen poems and that was it—but I think that springs from a reluctance just to write stuff because I can. I don’t seem to have that desperate urge to be at it all the time. As long as I touch base with my artistic sensibilities from time to time I’m content these days. We’re talking output here and that’s only one means of measurement. At the moment though I could seriously do with an epiphany. My head feels like there’s an orchestra in it right now and it’s just taking forever to tune itself. Normally this wouldn’t trouble me so much but one of the definite downsides of a life lived online is that people always want to know what you’re working on and you look standoffish if you really don’t want to talk about it.

3:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think there's in reality more than one kind of pop audience. Some audiences are willing to follow their artists on whatever journey they go. The audience for King Crimson, and other groups in the "progressive rock" style actually does want new things all the time. But the audience for a lot of pop chanteuses doesn't; they might like newness, but only small amounts at a time. Variations within a strict set of parameters.

Bowie as ever is an exception to most rules, always doing something different and always still popular.

I know there's a conventional wisdom that we slow down artistically as we age, but I don't buy that. I'm more productive now than ever, even if I don't always know what to do with it, or where to share it. I keep finding new art that I like to do. It do think that it goes in waves, with fallow periods and periods of greater productivity. You might be in a slower period, that's all.

And there's a lot to be said for quality over quantity. Sheer volume of output is no guarantee that any of it's any good. As we all know and have seen numerous times.

The pressure from people online always asking what you're doing might be well-intentioned, but it can feel like peer pressure to be productive even when you're working slower and better. It's because of the pace of life online, which is accelerated. Frankly, one of the most ridiculous aspects to Facebook and Twitter is information overload: the urge people feel to always be connected, and to update their data continuously. As if anyone really cared, maybe other than your significant other, that you'll be at the dentist's this afternoon.

That's one reason I like to unplug from time to time, and put myself out there on the road, or camping, or both, where I don't even have online access. It slows you down and brings up the quality of life. You don't need to go away to get away, of course. But it's one thing about roadtrips and camping that I do like: the complete change of daily pace, the ability to avoid the clock, etc.

9:32 AM  

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