Could social, network-centred art knit sensuality, intelligence and the sublime into a John Heath-Stubbs love-at-dawn poem – or a Jane Wilson cloudscape?

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January sky  -- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

January sky
– postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Jane Wilson obituary in The New York Times, 20 January 2015

Jane Wilson obituary in The New York Times, 20 January 2015

As if bent on making sure that arts workers glimpsed nothing as frivolous as a ray of hope in entering a new year, the dear old Atlantic ushered in 2015 with this fanfare for a new order:

The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur

Hard-working artisan, solitary genius, credentialed professional—the image of the artist has changed radically over the centuries. What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?

The pessimism of William Deresiewicz, who wrote the piece, is understandably fiercest in passages weighing the most common advice meted out to anyone instructing artists, writers, musicians and their kin about the digital transition:

“Just get your name out there,” creative types are told. There seems to be a lot of building going on: you’re supposed to build your brand, your network, your social-media presence. 

… Creative entrepreneurship, to start with what is most apparent, is far more interactive, at least in terms of how we understand the word today, than the model of the artist-as-genius, turning his back on the world, and even than the model of the artist as professional, operating within a relatively small and stable set of relationships.

Yet on the evidence in his well-argued essay, Deresiewicz neither sees nor proposes an alternative to accepting this – and accepts a future with no one crafting jewels like this poem:

 

THE UNPREDICTED

The goddess Fortune be praised (on her toothed wheel

I have been mincemeat these several years)

Last night, for a whole night, the unpredictable

Lay in my arms, in a tender and unquiet rest –

(I perceived the irrelevance of my former tears) –

Lay and at dawn departed, I rose and walked the streets

Where a whitsuntide wind blew fresh and blackbirds

Incontestably sang, and the people were beautiful.

John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006)

 

This poet had no interest in fame — was, in the extreme degree, a solitary worker, and died all but unknown, except in certain poetry circles. He mocked ‘the kind of poet who follows literary fashion,’ according to a biographical note on the Poetry Archive site, He was pigeon-holed ‘first as a Romantic and then as a Classicist,’ but his work defied categorisation – ‘refused the labels critics tried to pin on it,’ and ‘often ran counter to prevailing currents’.

Scholarly critics are apt to draw attention to this failure to mould himself to any slot, even when classing ‘The Unpredicted’ as a species whose existence comes as a revelation to the non-expert reader – the aubade, ‘a song or poem about lovers parting at dawn’. That definition comes from a blog post on this form in The Guardian by Billy Mills –an Irish experimental poet and scholar – who wrote that ‘John Heath-Stubbs, in The Unpredicted, contrives to write an aubade that is both traditional and perfectly of his own moment’.

We at post-Gutenberg enjoyed encountering that description of the poem over a year after we came upon it we forget exactly where, and admired it enough to copy it into the back of our diary in January of 2008. Works of art and their makers always somehow mean more to us when we discover them independently – rather than by being lectured about their importance and place in the canon or, for that matter, by decisions based on counting ‘like’s.

To the joy of accidental discovery, in online life, we can add the more frequent delight of coming across similarities between modest records we make of some phenomenon or other — a striking thought, or a scene or image that arrests our attention — and an expert response to virtually the same phenomenon by a celebrated practitioner of an art or craft in which we claim no expertise whatsoever.

Deresiewicz only barely controls his irritation with the effect of putting digital equivalents of traditional tools of artistic creation into non-professional hands:

The democratization of taste, abetted by the Web, coincides with the democratization of creativity. … Everybody seems to fancy himself a writer, a musician, a visual artist. Apple figured this out a long time ago: that the best way to sell us its expensive tools is to convince us that we all have something unique and urgent to express.

But that is surely the wrong conclusion. We might have absolutely nothing to communicate to anyone else when we turn to those tools. We might be trying to do no more than kiss a sunbeam, metaphorically speaking – when, say, glancing out of the window and being startled by back-lit and under-lit clouds turned epiphanic by a sinking sun.

We spent not much more than five minutes capturing what we could of the skyscape in the photographs in this entry. Imagine the surprise, two days later, of staring at Jane Wilson’s ‘American Horizon’ – over which she, with her paint and canvas, probably laboured for hours, if not days. Her record of what she saw is an artistic feat; ours, capturing what we spotted, the gift of digital cameras and fast reflexes.

We had no idea this striking Jane Wilson had ever existed before we read the obituary that accompanied the photograph of her painting. Now, we are trying to learn more about the evolution of her style.

Tentative conclusions about the Deresiewicz lament:

• Artistic loners like Heath-Stubbs will always exist to make the greatest true art: collaborative originality is rare enough to be virtually an oxymoron.

• The more amateurs – gifted or not – in the audience are allowed to share the stage, or deploy tools for art and craft, the keener and deeper will be their appreciation of mastery.

Think of sports fans. Think of how many David Beckham fans love him all the more for all their years spent kicking footballs in vain – knowing they have no chance of ever learning to ‘bend it’ remotely as he can. Football, like other sports, has always been democratic.

 

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A New York Review of Books writer asks: do we have a right to drag other cultures into our 21st century?

Hasidic cantors arriving at Melbourne Airport  --postgutenberg@gmail.com

Hasidic cantors arriving at Melbourne Airport — postgutenberg@gmail.com 

The always excellent Tim Parks, writing on the New York Review of Books blog, had virtually the identical reaction to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy as we did at post-Gutenberg:

The following questions arise: Now that the whole world is my neighbor, my immediate Internet neighbor, do I make any concessions at all, or do I uphold the ancient tradition of satire at all costs? And again, is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, my twenty-first-century that is? Do I have the moral authority to decide this?

We wonder if he has noticed that it’s only when the profit motive is at risk that Western culture accepts self-censorship for the sake cultural sensitivity. See: ‘Humour does not travel well — not even in doing business — a fact that the net can only alter slowly, if at all‘.

Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, Molière, and Carl Jung: where does a fearless – heedless – sense of vocation originate?

-- postgutenberg@gmail.com

— postgutenberg@gmail.com

Still finding it hard to put the Charlie Hebdo victims out of mind, to get work done – because so many of them look like writer, journalist and artist friends of post-Gutenberg’s, over the years – we have a question. Where does a sense of vocation come from?

There is no doubt that it is an irresistible, mysterious-bordering-on-mystical compulsion. It was described penetratingly in the last century by Carl Jung, though without an explanation grasped as easily as, say, a definition of a table – or, for that matter, a layman’s guide to particle physics. He saw a vocation as a sort of daimon. In an essay on the subject, an unidentified Jungian blogger has attempted a down-to-earth summary of the psychology pioneer’s conception of it:

The word “daimon” is Greek, deriving from daiw, “to divide or distribute destinies.” [… “D]aimon” is not the negative thing we associate with “demons.”

Being well versed in the classics, Jung brought many ancient concepts into modern usage in psychology … The “daimon” became a central part of his thinking about vocation, motivation, creativity and the individual’s potential for achieving fulfillment in life.

[… ]

As “… autonomous psychic content,” the daimon is a “force as real as hunger and the fear of death.” Because it is autonomous, it behaves within us like a god, making demands of us and acting with authority. The poet and potter M.C. Richards describes the experience of the daimon well when she says, “There lives a creative being inside all of us and we must get out of its way for it will give us no peace unless we do.” Beside Jung, multiple figures in history have acknowledged being in the grip of a daimon, e.g. the Greek philosopher Socrates, the German poet Goethe, and the French ruler Napoleon.

Inclusive, democratic media of this post-Gutenberg age are making it easier than ever before for the ‘creative being inside all of us’ to get out and do something. What effect is that going to have on this world?

We suspect that no matter how many millions are freed by digital tools and the net to let their daimon out for a run, the class of people who have anything critically important to tell us — who are gifted enough to excel in exercising their talent for communicating, and in exploring new avenues — will always be small. Those who put themselves at risk will be an even tinier, vanishingly small minority.

Last week we quoted one slain Charlie Hebdo artist and caricaturist, Jean Cabut – who signed his work ‘Cabu’ – saying that art should never be constrained. Artists who honour their vocation resist re-routing into less imaginative and risky occupations, and attempts to constrain what they express.

Writing on the New York Review of Books blog two days after the bloodbath at the French magazine’s offices, Robert Darnton, a historian of French satire, said that Charlie Hebdo is carrying on a tradition of fearlessly lampooning ‘power and bigotry’ that, in France, goes back at least as far as the reign of Louis XIV in the 1600s. He mentions Rabelais, Bussy-Rabutin, Beaumarchais, Chamfort ‘…and above all, Voltaire’ as practitioners of this art.

Somehow, he (or perhaps his editor) omits Molière, who died in 1673 at the age of fifty-one as one of the greatest satirical playwrights and actors of all time – and whose short lifespan was arguably part of the price he paid for giving up life at the heart of secure, bourgeois Paris to wander in search of audiences and patrons with a band of fellow thespians.

We are guessing that the NYRB was needlessly bowing to the frenzied pace of internet news analysis when it posted the Darnton contribution – because with his expertise, given a little more time, he could have shown us how some of those 17th-century French satirists were punished almost as severely as members of the Charlie Hebdo crew.

In a sparkling, dancing, marvellously imagined biography of Molière presented as part-fact, part-fiction, Mikhail Bulgakov – the Russian novelist and satirist – tells us how he died. The Wikipedia supports his version as mostly true; not too far removed from the actual events.

The medical profession and the priesthood were two of Molière’s favourite targets. He eviscerated arrogant, all-knowing doctors and their habit, in that era, of killing off patients with bleeding by leeches — because they had neither the tools nor understanding to effect a cure. He did this in one play after another with titles translated as The Flying Doctor; The Doctor in Love; Love, the Doctor; and The Doctor in Spite of Himself (in which the writer of this post actually had a leading, non-speaking part as a mute, at the age of fourteen).

In Mira Ginsburg’s quick-stepping, compulsively readable translation of the Bulgakov biography, there is this passage:

As regards the purely external characteristics which distinguished doctors at the time, we may safely say that these men, riding through Paris on mules, wearing long, gloomy mantles and beards, and speaking a mysterious jargon, simply begged to be set on the stage in a comedy. And in his Love, the Doctor Molière brought four of them on stage upon the stage. … The first doctor was called Des Fonandrès, which means ‘murderer of people’; the second, Bahys, ‘one who barks’; the third, Macroton, ‘slow of speech’; and, finally, the fourth, Tomès, or ‘bloodletter’.

What followed was a major scandal, for the audience easily recognized in the four quacks four of the Court physicians, Sieur de Forgerais, Jean Esprit, Guénaut, and Vallot, the latter being not merely a Court doctor, but the King’s chief physician. … [I]t is small wonder that hatred of Molière among the physicians reached unprecedented proportions.

After he collapsed on stage, acting a part in his latest play, The Imaginary Invalid -– then died coughing and spitting up blood a few hours afterwards — old friends and family were obliged to cope, without his help, with the consequences of his years spent savaging mediators between the realms of matter and spirit:

[E]arth refused to receive Monsieur Molière’s body.

Jean Aubry had vainly pleaded with the priests of the Saint Eustache parish to visit the dying man. Both of them flatly refused to come. A third, taking pity on the desperate Aubry, came to the comedian’s home, but it was too late. Molière was dead, and the priest hastened away. Burying Molière without proper Church rites was out of the question. The sinful comedian died without a last confession and without repudiating his profession [acting], which was condemned by the Church. Nor had he made a written promise never again to play on the stage again in the event that the Lord, in his infinite mercy, restored him to health.

This formula had not been signed, and no priest in Paris would undertake to escort Monsieur de Molière to the cemetery. Besides, no cemetery would accept him. …

Back to the Jung blog post quoted above:

[ The daimon ] … pulls us out of conventions and social norms. Because it is archetypal, the daimon exists outside of time and cultural contexts. It doesn’t follow fads or fashions, or feel any need to measure up to social niceties and expectations.

Fair enough — and well said. But what explains the existence of daimons, and what or whose purpose do they serve? We have never read a completely satisfactory answer.

Humour does not travel well — not even in doing business — a fact that the net can only alter slowly, if at all

Everyone’s lens on the world --even from thousands of miles away -- has been darkened by the Charlie Hebdo killings  -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

Everyone’s lens on the world — even from thousands of miles away — has been darkened by the Charlie Hebdo killings — postgutenberg@gmail.com

  1. Nothing justifies butchery – ever.
  2. The right to free speech is inseparable from the joy of being alive, and deserves to be treated as very nearly our highest value (after, or on a par with, the right to love as we choose).

But underlining these truths does nothing for the anguish of looking at the Charlie Hebdo faces no longer with us. It is so close to unbearable that post-Gutenberg has grabbed at the distraction of thinking about the massacre tangentially, in the abstract.

For instance: are human beings more or less likely to change our behaviour, customs and beliefs by being teased or mocked about them? And can we expect teasing about religion to cross yawning cultural gaps, when jokes across narrow secular divides — within the English-speaking world and in business circles far removed from religion — must be made sensitively?

David Brooks, writing in The New York Times yesterday, came to a conclusion that seemed exactly right:

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should … remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

On the other hand, a quotation by the Daily Mail of one victim, Jean Cabut, induced shudders on behalf of the most heedless creative geniuses:

Despite all the controversy, Mr Cabut was insistent that art should not be constrained. Perhaps his most famous quote was: ‘Sometimes laughter can hurt – but laughter, humour and mockery are our only weapons.’

That word, weapon, arrests the eye. If your countrymen include Albert Camus’s L’Etranger – minorities still making the transition from feeling like strangers and outsiders — can wit mocking soul-sustaining beliefs of theirs make them feel like insiders, rather than victims of barbarous attacks? That would depend on the styles of humour they consider within the pale.

For a comparison, consider these illuminating, fine-grained perceptions about differences in the sense of humour of English-speaking nations on Culture Resource Centre, an Australian website – recommending extreme caution in doing business with jokes, internationally:

Have you ever been in this position in an overseas business meeting when you thought it was appropriate to crack a joke and things go horribly wrong? …

Americans often consider Australian humour offensive as it often aims at taking the ‘micky’ out of themselves or a situation. American humour is considered a bit dull by the Australians; it is too ‘safe’ and aims far more at sharing the agreeableness among business partners. The British humour takes both the micky out of themselves and others and is probably considered a bit too sophisticated for both Australians and Americans. It hints at the fact that the Brits feel they have a unique knack for using words, phrases, and expressions: it allows them to show off their intellectual ability and using their famous understatements.

Contrary to the Brits, Americans and Australians often tend to use their language much more as a functional rather than intellectual tool to get messages across as can be seen in the use of for example Australian language: arvo, barbie, mozzie, pressie, etc. The Australian humour is probably a bit too rough and shallow for the Brits as it is often too direct without the intellectual cleverness so aspired to in the UK. But in all fairness, as long as you talk among English native speakers you might actually get away with your own culturally specific humour as the concepts underlying the humour are not always so different and are less likely to be so offensive as to cost you the business relationship.

[…]

Humour is very much culturally influenced and you need to be aware of it before using your favourite joke as it might just cost you the deal… Leave it at home until you are familiar with the do’s and don’ts of humour in the new culture and then adjust your style.

In the future, will gleefully transgressive cartoonists turn in the opposite direction from open, all-inclusive net culture, to publish their work in cultural pods – like Facebook’s gated communities of friends?

 

Testimonial of an ink-stained scribbler at the digital crossroads, 3: Seven reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality

On Olten’s covered bridge, the Holzbrücke, a costumed girl-Viking recalled by a brilliant encapsulation of old-fashioned publishing by Holly Ward (see below) - HAPPY NEW YEAR from postgutenberg@gmail.com

On Olten’s covered bridge, the Holzbrücke, a costumed girl-Viking recalled by a brilliant encapsulation of old-fashioned publishing by Holly Ward (see below)
- HAPPY NEW YEAR from postgutenberg@gmail.com

[ In earlier entries here: part 1 and part 2 of this Testimonial series ]

7 reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality

  1. Ignorance

Practically no one knows that the Swiss are the world champions at working collaboratively – in ways that go far beyond the ‘extreme democracy’ by which they rule themselves. This matters because so many of us would like to see the egalitarian feeling of this internet translated into workplaces restructured to flatten hierarchies, and because inequality is the supreme flashpoint in public debate, today.

  1. Publishers can’t help being as ignorant as everyone else on this and many other subjects

Like most educated – and even over-educated – people, book publishers in the English-speaking world share a clichéd, hopelessly mistaken view of Switzerland as no more than an abettor of tax-dodgers and holiday destination for fat-cats on skis. Practically no one outside the German-speaking sphere learns any Swiss history in school. Switzerland is effectively awarded only non-speaking walk-on parts in history textbooks. Institutions such as the Centre for Swiss Politics at the University of Kent have had to be created in attempts to fill the void in higher education and research.

  1. Courting rejection from publishers who know nothing about a subject makes no sense

Preliminary conversations with publishers and literary agents made it clear that writing and submitting a book proposal to them would be pointless. The book I envisioned would have to be written without their help to show them exactly why Switzerland deserved it.

  1. Other writers on Switzerland confirmed the soundness of the indie route

I compared my impressions of publishers’ prejudices about Switzerland as a subject with the experiences of other writers – most helpfully, in a conversation with Diccon Bewes, whose elegant Swiss Watching, de-mystifying his second home for fellow-expatriates, deserves its huge success (for reasons explained in an earlier entry on post-Gutenberg.com). In looking for a publisher, he had the advantage of being a graduate of the London School of Economics working at the time as the manager of Stauffacher’s, the most popular English-language bookshop in Bern. But even he had to put up with the lazy response, over and over again, that I got from a literary agent in Oxford – that Switzerland is ‘too small and boring’ to merit attention. Anyone intellectually curious could have read Jonathan Steinberg’s riveting Why Switzerland? (1996) to be cured of that delusion. But many publishers are suffering – too lost and confused in this transition to digital media to have the mental energy to challenge their preconceptions.

  1. It is impossible to justify waiting for publishers to make decisions at their traditional pace when your subject is red hot

There is a huge appetite, now, for exploring practical egalitarianism. The German head of a small, respected literary publisher of English books referred me to her editor-in-chief, when I asked if she would be interested in a look at my work-in-progress. The reply from this colleague was friendly and encouraging, but warned that months could go by before she got to any manuscript pages sent to her for vetting, when I was ready. This is still a typical editor’s sense of time, in print publishing.

  1. Even commercial publishers who claim to be eager to cross over to e-publishing are terrified of experimenting – with, say, e-serialisation

That same editor-in-chief told me that if I were to experiment with publishing the first section of my book as Part 1 of an e-serial, I’d be ruling it out for consideration by her firm. That convinced me that serialisation was the right route for me – and, lo! … last Sunday’s New York Times quoted several writers with proven money-making instincts who are also switching over to publishing their books in parts.

  1. The most practical writers are, increasingly, most apt to choose the indie option

Also in that New York Times article is the wittiest, most incisive explanation of why writers should resist ceding control of our work to publishers in the old-fashioned way (barring exceptional circumstances — and publishers). It is in a quotation of Holly Ward – whose words instantly conjured an image of a fellow-pedestrian playing girl-Viking whom I met, fleetingly, in Olten, in my research on Enemies: a cash-strapped traveller’s search for the secret of Switzerland’s extreme equality:

“The only person I truly trust with my career is me,” she said. “If you hand over your work, it’s like dropping your baby in a box and kicking him to the curb. Maybe he’ll grow up and be awesome — or maybe he’ll get sucked into the sewers and be raised by rats.”

Published here and on Medium.com by Cheryll Barron, 1 January 2015