I just don't get Prose.
- Donald Hall's poem "My Son, My Executioner"
- May Swenson's poem "Question" (Body my house / my horse my hound / ...)
- Feist's song "My Moon, My Man"
I recommend playing the Donald Hall audio clip while watching the Feist video (especially in the last minute of the video).
Similarities Excite Difference
13. Now it is time to return to No. 2 from Part One: The masters of culture (those who are praised, win awards, give talks, etc.) are the greatest imitators. If these are the greatest imitators, why do we consider them our greatest innovators? Compared to the exotic outsiders (different from the avant garde, which we will get to soon), shouldn't they be incredibly bland?
14. The first answer is that the masters of culture have so many influences that the very complexity of its parts gives rise to something that is both unique and resonates with our cultural values and aesthetic sensibilities (the way Shakespeare is a grand conglomeration of low class jokes, philosophical speculation, romance and violence). As long as you keep reading and let it influence what you write, you will develop a complex soup of material. At some point, the complexity goes beyond the comprehension of the artist/writer and the reader and we are filled with wonder, amazement. Very talented creative people seem to be able to consume cultural material and imitate it very naturally and can draw on this vast store in a way that others cannot. Less talented folks do the same thing, it just may take more time and effort.
15. The second answer is that similarities excite difference. Imagine a row of twigs. If all the twigs are crooked, you see them all as a single group. You may even notice how similar they are to each other in their crookedness. In fact, every twig is very different from the other--but your mind will always try to find the similarities. Now imagine another row of twigs, all of them are straight. You will begin to notice that one of them is particularly straight, and another is more crooked than you thought on a second look. You might even begin to rank them on their straightness--without even deciding to do it. Among disparate objects the mind looks for unity. Among similar objects the mind sees difference.
16. It should come as no surprise then that in art everything and everyone is focused on differences--it is the obsession of every artist with any inkling of ambition: How can I be different? How can I stand out? From an outside perspective it is almost humorous: Watching the art students at the Art Institute of Chicago, all dressing outrageously in order to assert individuality yet becoming eerily similar as they do so. Obviously, everyone comes to an art school in order to learn from more experienced artists--to imitate them--to do what they are doing and yet there is an intense, dogmatic pressure to be original, unique, true to your vision. Please the crowd by not pleasing "the crowd."
Similarity and Difference in Modern Art
17. This ambivalence between self-sufficient originality and imitation is at the heart of all cultural and artistic practice. And it explains the development of Modern Art and the 20th Century much better than Freudian psychology. Placing difference, individuality, at the center of art diverts our attention away from similarity and toward difference. And yet difference only makes us see similarity, and then back again--thus creating a perpetual cycle of movements and artists always trying to distance themselves from them.
18. Imagine for a moment the tradition of Academic painting in the 19th Century. Here you have the ultimate imitation method. The Academy of painting and sculpture understood that imitation was at the foundation of art. But as Academic painting reached its height (late 19th Century Academic painting is truly magnificent) difference explodes: as imitation increases, artists have an increasing need to develop a unique style, something that sets them apart. This sets up the new tradition of the Avant Garde, which raises the stakes on originality--the avant garde is actually a tightening of restrictions! 'Make art, don't imitate.' It is a desperate attempt, like a painter cutting off both his hands in order to eliminate the gesture of his teacher.
19. In same way that modern painters attempted to eliminate depth from the picture plane and failed, Modern Art attempted to eliminate imitation (either by heroic expressionism, or machine--by having total control or no control at all) and have discovered that the project is doomed to fail if we still want to have culture, which is fundamentally imitative. The postmodern reaction was a hyper-imitation, the rejection of originality, expression. A return to the figurative and representational must also be a part of this surrender--the prodigal son returning home and finding a new affection for the old habits.
Cultural Apotheosis: You Know You Want It
20. What made the avant garde collapse, what ended the Beat poets, what ended the revolution of rock and hip-hop music and any other revolutionary cultural movement is essentially the same thing: all these creative people ultimately imitate their predecessors in desiring cultural apotheosis. Those who are most adamantly different are adamant because they are so similar to the cultural institutions--and they can't stand that. (The closest thing to a Christian is an angry atheist.)
21. Cultural apotheosis is this: to play the imitation game so well that you are praised as being original and to be the desired model, to be imitated by all others. Just as the best actors are those who convince us they are not acting, and the most persuasive politicians are those who can prove they are the least political, being the greatest writer/artist/creator is based on an illusion of cultural self-sufficency, of total Originality, genius: someone who is great in himself, needing no one.
22. The masters of culture (our household gods) are so powerful because they hold out to us salvation. Artists work in the double bind of imitation and originality, always at conflict within themselves and the larger culture. They need culture, they feed on it--yet they also must avoid becoming like anyone else. The masters of culture have escaped from sameness, everyone imitates them rather than they imitating everybody.
23. As is obvious now, cultural self-sufficency is a lie. We never define culture, culture defines us. And if you speak for your generation, you've only proven how much you were like everyone else (which was usually the same moment you thought you were most an individual). And yet no matter how much we assert our independence, we still seek that glory--even unconsciously. Tell me a hundred times that the praise means nothing, that the applause is hollow. I know, I know. The household gods keep calling. I deceive myself if I say I don't want to win. I can tell everyone I don't care--but in the end, at the last word, I want that praise. And I want it right where the moth, rust and thieves are.
24. I think about all this now in graduate school. Every week I go to readings, read books myself, see plays or concerts, visit museums and libraries. I have met many people who have read more books than I have, seen more movies than I have, who talk of grants, fellowships, awards, publication. And I wonder what it all means. And I think (heaven help me) of all those who for whatever reason can't play the culture game or can't play it well. What is the point of culture? And, never allowed to be out of it, how do I work in a humble way, never trying to be more or less than I am? Art, without illusions, without gods.
"It's the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it." ~ Andy Warhol
Culture and Imitation
1. All culture is mimetic. (imitative)
2. The masters of culture (those who are praised, win awards, give talks, etc.) are the greatest imitators. Think of great filmmakers, great musicians, great poets--they almost always have encyclopedic knowledge of their field. They appear to be continually referencing and nodding to other films, musicians, poets.
3. This is why creative people are often good in multiple art forms--because the fundamental mechanism in all art is imitation. If you are good at watching others and doing what they do, you will be good at art.
4. All of us have come to art by desiring to be like a model. We grew up watching other artists and a desire overwhelms us: "I want that." We find our 'favorite poet' to mimic. We are unsatisfied with the object or model being beyond our grasp--we must own it. This is coveting and is the foundation of all artistic ambition (and DVD collections).
Originality and Self-Expression
5. Recipe for Originality: Read. Imitate. Read. Imitate. Read Imitate... The more you continue this, the more original you will become. If you imitate one poet, you are derivative, you haven't 'found your voice' yet. One way that a writer can short cut this is by reading more obscure books--you will instantly sound Original and fresh. But fundamentally you are imitative.
6. True originality is unacceptable in culture either because it would be 'bad' or invisible to our categories. A purely non-imitative act is likely impossible for anyone over one year old. I've found that the writers who truly 'follow their own lights' and write what they love, not what anyone tells them to, are those who write Star Wars fan fiction and very awkward, shallow, horribly rhymed poetry. These are about as free as free thinking goes. That is the great irony: True originality ('Monkey, paint.') --though it is not really originality if 1 is true--is the first thing that gets eliminated in any art class or poetry class: 'Watch me. Watch what I do. Now do that.'
7. If imitation is the habit at base of all culture, how can we explain the variety of forms in the world today? This question is an ecological one and we can answer it in the same way that an evolutionary biologist would. We get variety in art and culture because certain communities get isolated from other communities (by geography, by time). We also get differences by the genetic variety of the people who make it--innate qualities--though this matters less than we think. This is because the fundamental mechanism is imitation, so the 'true originals' are always mutant outsiders; they aren't allowed to play because they never play by the rules.
8. Nevertheless, we may find some exotic species that have been isolated from the larger world--outsider artists like Henry Darger, for example, or folk and primitive art. They will often be very Original (relative to our larger community) but here we will actually find the mimetic device even more intense and obvious; there is an obsessive-compulsive element to much Outsider Art. Also, any recognition they have from us is to due to their similarities to what is acceptable Originality (which may take generations and wax and wane). (See also convergent evolution.)
9. Self-expression. At this point, one might say that I've explained certain kinds of art or foundations to art but I haven't explained self-expression. Rather than eliminate self-expression, or, following my current line of argument, relegate it to the periphery of True Art, I would like to think of culture as 'self-making'--who I am is formed out of culture, who and what I imitate. Art is self-expression, and the Self is imitation.
10. Let's take the most self-expressive poetry as an example--Slam poetry. To beginners in the form, the freedom and honesty and truth are what make Slam so desirable. But if you talk to veterans they know it is a pose, that there is a certain kind of attitude and affect one learns from experts. What first felt like 'true self-expression' is actually a list of acceptable topics: suicide, President Bush, life as a lesbian, race, strange family life. (Slam poetry is particularly interesting because while all the attention is on the performer, the actual shaping force of the art is the audience. The crowd-pleasers are always praised as truly honest and so full of self-expression.)
11. Think about imitation and expression in Jazz improvisation: what beginning listeners hear (freedom, private emotion), what veteran listeners hear (a line from Coltrane, a reference to Hancock, etc.,...)
12. The thing to remember here is that self-expression is not eliminated. It is still there and for us it is still very important. But there should be no illusions that the ways we express ourselves in art (like the ways we laugh, mourn the dead, make love) are imitations (though not in the sense of 'fake'), have been learned from others.
(part two: now let us praise different men)
I think the reason why I resonated with the opera experience was that the emotion is carried through the vowels and the melody more than the actual meaning of the words. I feel that is either how poetry works or what a lot of poetry is aiming for. (And all those little strips of translated text kept me thinking about my Frost project...)
I think, however, that my love for opera will remain much like my love for jazz. Jazz has only made sense to me live--in the collaboration, in the improvisation, being in the moment. And opera--at least my one experience--needs the cheering, the audience, the giant room filling with sound. Being present when an amazing jazz player or opera singer just goes completely off into something amazing (pardon my poor description) is such a singular experience--recordings could never capture that.
Behind every painting small women are mending
The fibers, the tension, the frays that our history
Makes on its way down into the dark. And their hankies
Are moist from the sweating, the ache of the toll
The hours are taking on all of the palms
They offer in labor. The talented quick and the
Careful, the patient, have written their letters
In invisible ink, the methods of revealing are
Known only to those who are schooled in the matters
Of the keeping of things, in the math of repair
Of the world and the threads of reception are healing
Though you never will feel it, nor even will think it
But the hour is mending and we may be favored
To be knit in the blessing of a countless and fevered
Restoration of beauty that is scheduled for ending, soon.
The first thing to keep in mind while reading B is that he is ugly and all the women he talks about are ugly. His sense of his own ugliness is what makes him constantly need women and yet also what makes him drive women away from him. And when he describes the beautiful and seductive bodies of women you have to envision a kind of common grace--he loves women the rest of the world rejects. And this all follows (in my opinion) from his own self-image.
It is his very unsexiness that makes his poems about sex into poems about fundamental human longing, not masculine bravado. You might find many similarities between B and, say, Hemingway, but the difference is that Hemingway talks only about sex but covers it up by talking about everything but sex, while B talks about the full range of human experience and covers it up by talking about sex. And it goes for B's own generation, too: There is more of the Geek in Bukowski than the Beat.
I qualify all this by saying that I don't think Bukowski knew what he was writing. If you read one of his poems, or even a few, you will see the kind of rawness and flatness he is known for. (And most of his fans, I assume, see little else.) But if you read 100 of his poems--if possible, in one or two sittings--you start to see a three-dimensional person form. There's a lot more going on than he likely knew on any given day he wrote a poem. In a way, the most interesting things about Bukowski as a confessional poet are what he didn't know he was confessing--and what most of his readers never hear.
I've always been amazed at how many Biblical/religious allusions Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) can fit into his songs... many of them fairly obscure. For example, his song "Four Winds" which I believe is from Ezekiel's dry bones of persecuted Israel:
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.'" (37.9)
Now watch his music video and tell me he isn't thinking about the prophets: