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?
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 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.