Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Dilemma of Art and Innovation

Years ago, while reading Robert Motherwell's history of Dada I came across a quotation by Salvadore Dali. I haven't seen it since and I didn't write it down (I gave the book away, unfortunately). But to paraphrase, with all the flaws of memory, what I remember of Dali's statement is:

The first person to compare their love to a rose was a genius. The second was a plagiarist. The rest were liars.

It isn't quite that bad, but there is an assumption that a work of art -- a true work of art -- is unique and inimitable. Lesser works in any field are often dismissed as reductive, copied, or borrowed. Pale imitations of a loftier predecessor. This rush for newness is particularly notable in the recent history of 20th century visual arts as described in Robert Hughes's book The Shock of the New.


The constant urge for newness is not as pervasive in other art forms: poetry, music, filmography. There are schools, trends, styles of the moment. But they tend to cycle over time. But these represent the arts as a whole. The question is: what happens to the individual artist? Once you have reached a certain level of success (artistically or in terms of fame), do you just repeat what you have already done or do you try something new?

The choice is not a simple one. If you are even moderately successful, those who appreciate your work want more of the same. But doing the same thing over and over can have two consequences:

  • People start to complain that you are repetitive, boring
  • You are so skilled at it and it comes so easily, what was once innovative becomes flippant, clich├ęd, and you become a caricature of yourself (think Rolling Stones, think Andy Wharhol towards the end)

What's worse, the choice is not necessarily yours. Not to make it sound too mystical, but part of the source of power of true art is the struggle the artist goes through to achieve it. I'm not talking physical pain: starving in a garret, paying your dues, type pain. I am talking about the mental struggle and revelation the artist goes through and embodies in the final work. There are only so many times you can have the same revelation before someone is going to call you on it. Only so many I-finally-understand poems or life-as-existential-metaphor short stories you can write. Eventually you are going to have to struggle and learn something new.

A few artists escape this risk. Joseph Cornell in the visual arts and Diane Wakoski in poetry are two who come to mind who have/had extended careers on a single theme or style. But Cornell operated almost entirely in a separate dimension from the contemporary art world, separating himself from outside influence. Wakoski is somewhat the same in poetry, but in a rougher, earthier sense.

But it is not easy. Even poets who try to hold to one ideal evolve over time; like Robert Creeley, who honed his elliptic style to a fine edge, as if sharpening the same pencil over and over again. Creeley's poems reflect this repetition, this refinement, as the line grows shorter and the sentences more terse and cryptic over time, until it seems like all that is required for any poem is a single word.

The examples of failure are more prevalent than those of success. You just have to consider the recent spate of "reunion" tours by 1970-80's rock bands to witness the dangers of standing still in its full fury: Blondie, the Who, X, the Police... no matter how well intentioned (or monetarily rewarding), they cannot help appearing like bad karaoke versions of their former glory.

The alternative is to give up what you as an artist have worked so hard to develop and go in search of something new. This is frightening because there is no guarantee you will find something new. Or, when you do, that it will be as rewarding as what you have learned to achieve. And, just as your detractors will berate you for repeating yourself, many of your fans will bemoan any change to what they have grown to love.

Despite the western ideal of life as the progression towards achieving some ideal, in reality art is more often a cycle of learning, creating, unlearning, and learning anew from scratch. As a novelist once said when asked at what point he feels confident in his ability as a writer, he replied “just before I write the last sentence of the book.”

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