Innovation in Art

So glossy!

What is innovation in art? This is something I’ve circled in my other posts, for example:

Now I’ll try addressing it a little more head-on.

All art contains both innovation (unfamiliarity) and convention (familiarity). Some artworks are so familiar as to preexist themselves. I didn’t like Andrzej Wajda’s recent film Katyn (2007), thinking it nothing more than a string of war movie clichés (this time in Polish). Its being unoriginal and predictable annoyed me; I might have walked out (or fallen asleep) had I not gone to see it with a couple of friends (who for the record both really liked it). And I felt as though its unoriginality trivialized its very serious subject matter, the Katyn Massacre.

On the other hand, some artworks are so radically different from what we know and expect that we can’t make any sense of them, let alone recognize them as artworks:

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…How do you like my new poem? Oh, you like it? You’re determined to consider it a poem? I suppose it’s visual poetry, and I suppose we could consider any writing poetry, if we tried hard enough. Or read it aloud: it’s transcribed sound poetry!

Well, then, how do you like this new poem?

…It’s from my new poetry manuscript, Photos of Celebrities I’ve Downloaded, which consists of photos of celebrities I’ve downloaded. Here’s another poem from that collection:

Oops, a bit of text snuck into this one. I guess it's too conventional.

You and I, being innovative and sophisticated artists, could probably find ways to approach these photographs as poems. But we could also keep playing this game, imagining things that are less and less poem-like. Eventually we will find something that even you, my dear innovative reader, won’t be so quick to consider poetry…

So even though an innovative artwork is unfamiliar, it must also (like all artworks) be somehow familiar. The innovative poem must still be poem-like, to some extent. If I were to ask you to describe poetry to me, you’d probably do so in some relatively agreed-upon, recognizable way: “Language that plays with itself, that often describes things but not in too straightforward a way. Sometimes it uses preexisting forms and certain prosodic conventions like meter, alliteration (but not always). Some well-known poets include Emily Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker, Sylvia Plath, and Lyn Hejinian.”

This is not a poet. (This is a musician!)

You probably wouldn’t say, “Oh, poetry, it’s a kind of gas, but not the kind you can breathe if you want to get a raise. It exists only in deepest outer space, where it’s covered with melted Swiss cheese. Some well-known poets include Neil Patrick Harris, Martina Navratilova, and that Japanese trumpet-playing robot.”

…Well, you might say that, but good luck finding others who’d agree.

Who’d really agree.

Meanwhile, the things that we find familiar and unfamiliar are ever-changing—and not in some kind of linear progression. We recognize the 2000s as having been different than the 1990s, and from the 1980s—hair styles have changed over the past few decades. Clothing styles go in and out of fashion. But I don’t think we’d argue that these changes are evolving toward something strictly better—although some of us might prefer the current styles to previous ones, or the opposite. And we recognize how certain styles from the 1970s have “returned”—albeit differently.

Innovation in the arts works similarly. Certain things—strategies, subjects, forms, devices, tropes—come into and go out of fashion. When everyone around you is doing one thing, you can’t also do it and be innovative. Some things are consistently popular; other things are rarely popular. Sometimes it’s surprising, though, what becomes popular!

(Money helps.)

Nor is innovation limited to the experimental or the avant-garde (and who ever said it was? well, some people claim it is—whence it trickles down to the middle class like wealth did under Reagan). To pick an obvious example, part of J.K. Rowling’s success stems from her having resurrected the boarding school story. These stories were common in England and France in the 19th century and early 20th century, comprising their own genre, but they faded from prominence after World War I. Rowling brought the genre back—but differently. And now such stories are common again. Look at how the X-Men franchise, for instance, became more about Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the wake of Harry Potter:

At the same time, even the avant-garde can become very familiar, to the point where it is no longer innovative. Scratching on film is not a new idea; it’s old-hat in experimental film circles. Stan Brakhage and Len Lye explored it extensively in works that are now canonical experimental films:

1955, Reflections on Black by Stan Brakhage:

Brakhage was among the first filmmakers to physically alter the filmstrip itself for metaphorical effect. The most striking example of this technique in his early films occurs in Reflections on Black (1955), which imagines the dream-vision of a blind man as he walks through a city, climbs the stairs of his apartment building and arrives home. Brakhage signals the blindness of his protagonist by physically scratching out his eyes, and splices in bits of film negative to convey the sense of experience the world as a blind man might, not as something seen, but something pictured. —Brian Frye

1966, Particles in Space by Len Lye:

1979, Free Radicals by Len Lye:

Still, some people like to think that this is a radically experimental technique, and that by using it they’re avant-garde. (To some audiences, it might be very strange.)

And to be sure, the scratching technique can still be applied in innovative ways—Stan Brakhage’s Chinese Series (2003) is a brilliant (and extremely moving) example. And see, for another example, Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996), which draws directly on Reflections on Black for particularly startling effect:

…but, overall, as far as experimental techniques go, scratching directly on film has become pretty familiar—even a cliché of experimental film.

Yawn, Metafiction

At any given time, different tropes and devices and subjects are dominant in different communities. For instance, right now, metafiction is pretty familiar. It was less familiar a generation ago. But now, like film scratching, it’s kind of a cliché. Even Austin Powers and his buddies can break the fourth wall:

AUSTIN POWERS: Wait a tick. Basil, if I travel back to 1969 and I was frozen in 1967, presumeably, I could go back and visit my frozen self. But, if I’m still frozen in 1967, how could I have been unthawed in the ’90s and traveled back to… [goes cross-eyed] Oh, no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.

BASIL EXPOSITION: I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself. [to camera] That goes for you all, too.

[from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)]

This causes no one to gasp in surprise—at best, it warrants a chuckle. But no one is seized with a Brechtian passion to rush out into the streets and overthrow the ruling class.

Metafiction preexisted postmodernism. It’s something that storytelling has always allowed; it’s inherent in the artform itself. No one invented metafiction, just as no one invented plot.

Its usage comes and goes out of fashion. Some postmodernists took the concept from Brecht; some took it from Beckett. Some took it from Duck Amuck (1953):

Some took it from Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight (1941):

I have a bit of a surprise for you. I am going to put another little novel right in this little novel! How will you like that? After all, I can’t just sit here and listen to those blasted hammers . . . I wonder if they’ll get me in the morning . . . (156)

Or Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939):

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings. (1)

Some were looking at even older works, like Tristram Shandy (1759–67). Or Don Quixote (1605–1615) Barth was looking at the One Thousand and One Nights (9th century and earlier—although the first English translation wasn’t until the early 1700s).

Some postmodernists may have even thought it up on their own! It’s not impossible…

What all of these contemporary metafictionalists saw was that metatextuality, even though it had been used elsewhere and wasn’t a new idea, could be innovative in their present place and time. Being unfamiliar, it was innovative. As Steve Katz so memorably put it:

I don’t think the ideas were ‘in the air’; rather, all of us found ourselves at the same stoplights in different cities at the same time. When the lights changed, we all crossed the streets.
—from an interview with Larry McCaffery, recorded in Anything Can Happen (page 227)

Innovative artists often resurrect old ideas because they’ve gained the value of becoming unfamiliar—no matter how well known they were in their own day.

Audiences

What’s familiar and what’s unfamiliar changes from audience member to audience member. Thus, when a lot of my friends were obsessing over Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), I was like, “Ho-hum.” Because I was just so jaded by metafiction.

But I really like B.S. Johnson’s novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973). I think it’s very clever and funny:

A total of just over twenty thousand people died of cyanide poisoning that morning. This was the first figure that came to hand as it is roughly the number of words of which the novel consists so far.

Be assured there are not many more, neither deaths nor words. (147)

But perhaps when some people read that in 1973, they’re reaction was: “Ho-hum.” Because they’d read Flann O’Brien or Kenneth Patchen. Or Laurence Sterne, etc. (I’ve read those authors and yet I still like Christie Malry. I like the Austin Powers movies, too. Maybe I like the familiarity of the metafiction? Just like how I’m fond of scratched films?)

Audiences, generally speaking, desire some amount of familiarity, some amount of innovation. Some want more of one than the other. Even the most conservative audience members want something novel—something to distinguish the second Rockwell painting from the first:

Different people prefer different sports, after all.

Miles Davis

Part of my motivation for writing this was a brief exchange I had with Michael Leong in the comments section of another post. Michael quotes Yusef Komunyakaa’s introduction to the Best American Poetry 2003:

I believe it was Miles Davis who said, ‘The reason I stopped playing ballads is because I love them so much.’ Afraid of tonal narrative, the story the music could tell? Afraid of being uncool and growing old, or duped by the sexual bluster of rock ‘n’ roll? …how could Miles have recorded Sketches of Spain and The Birth of the Cool, and then betray himself playing on fusion pieces?

As for me, I never need much of an excuse to listen to Miles Davis.

1949–50: “Move,” from Birth of the Cool:

1960: “Will O’ The Wisp,” from Sketches of Spain:

These are some of Davis’s earlier works. And Komunyakaa likes these works—he likes Davis’s cool jazz and (presumably) hard bop phases, and the smoother, Spanish folk-influenced sound of Sketches. But he’ll follow Davis only up to a certain point—the late 1960s:

1969: “In a Silent Way” / “It’s About That Time” / “In a Silent Way,” from In a Silent Way:

1970: “Bitches Brew,” from Bitches Brew:

(Very briefly put, fusion was jazz’s response to rock and funk.)

I don’t want to waste any time arguing the merits of cool jazz vs. fusion; I like both myself, and whether I listen to Birth of the Cool or Bitches Brew depends on my mood on any given day. Rather, I’m more interested in Komunyakaa’s specific objection to Davis, of why Davis stopped playing ballads: “Afraid of tonal narrative, the story the music could tell?” In other words, his objection is to the free-form nature of jazz fusion. Komunyakaa misses the conventional, song-based groundings of Davis’s earlier, cooler style.

Komunyakaa (whom I have a lot of respect for as a poet) is welcome to his opinion. What we have here is not someone who disliked innovation (Davis’s early work was itself innovative), but who favors something more middle-ground: innovation mixed with convention. This might make Komunyakaa less experimental than others, but it doesn’t make him a reactionary—he’d be totally avant-garde hanging out with Philip Larkin, who didn’t like any jazz recorded after 1950. Oh, the arguments they could have had…

I’m reminded here of something I once heard about John Cage: that his audiences were always ten years behind him. By the 1950s, people were coming to accept his prepared piano works. By the 1960s, they were beginning to accept his use of everyday sounds. By the 1970s, they were wrapping their heads around his chance operations. By the 1980s, they were able to accept his more maximalist, opera-style works. But they were always ten years behind.

Komunyakaa wasn’t the only one who didn’t like where fusion took Miles Davis; see Davis’s (amazing) autobiography for his side of his ongoing feud with Wynton Marsalis. And there are plenty of hardcore Davis fans who did not and still do not like the man’s 1980s experiments with smooth jazz, which arguably result from following fusion’s logic to a natural conclusion (why not try merging jazz with pop?):

1985: “Human Nature,” from You’re Under Arrest:

1985: “Time After Time,” also from You’re Under Arrest:

For many of Davis’s fusion fans, what bothered them was Davis’s return to popular convention. How could their patron saint betray the innovations of the 60s and 70s with such commercial pap?

Davis, ever the King of Cool, shrugged his naysayers off. The man did what he wanted to do.

James Taylor Is Not a Total Schmuck

Komunyakaa’s criticisms remind me of Frank Kermode’s criticisms of William S. Burroughs and the other Beats in The Sense of an Ending (1967):

I am not surprised that Mr. [Ihab] Hassan, a notable exponent of Burroughs, finds the [cut-up] method successful only when it is clear that so far from seeming random the collocations appear to be skillfully contrived. Hassan’s account of Burroughs is thoroughly apocalyptic, and at all times shows an awareness that this in itself presupposes a significant past. If Burroughs is a satirist, and he is, then that also presupposes a past significantly altered. (118)

Kermode’s point is that even as the avant-garde vehemently rejects and wants done with the conventions of the past (is “apocalyptic”), it can be appreciated only in regard to what has come before. The experimental artist can want to quit with all convention, but he or she still must communicate by means of convention:

Schism is simply meaningless without reference to some prior condition; the absolutely New is simply unintelligible, even as novelty. (116)

I disagree with Kermode’s characterizations of Burroughs, just as I disagree with Komunyakaa’s dismissal of Davis’s later music. That said, I have the great advantage of having been born after both of those gentlemen, by which time both Davis and Burroughs were already canonical and conventional.

This is not a poet! (This is a musician!)

Furthermore, while I might not agree with them regarding particular artworks, I’ve made similar criticisms of experimental works myself. So I can recognize myself in their arguments. Perhaps you do as well? (“Oh, that Tao Lin, he’s not really a writer! And that Jeff Koons isn’t an artist, or that wretched Matthew Barney, either! They’re just publicity hounds.”)

…Well, maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. (Why can’t an artist be both?) We will judge them here and now, and others will judge them later. There may or there may not be agreement. (Do we all agree about Duchamp now? I know lots of people who don’t like Modern Art.) And we may end up looking more like Kermode and Komunyakaa than we think. (Such a fear, however, should not prevent anyone from deciding one way or the other. If they really want to decide.)

Last night I got into a spirited discussion with a friend who insisted that James Taylor was a lame musician. (His actual words were, “James Taylor is a total schmuck.”)

Well, far be it from me to argue against that:

…although secretly I will admit to thinking that James Taylor was once a wee bit cooler:

(Well, cuter, at least.)

BUT—and this is the important point—despite his being mostly a schmuck, James Taylor still managed to stumble his way into acting in one of the greatest American films ever made, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971):

James Taylor is not a musician!

(James Taylor is an actor!)

Southern France

It’s important to recognize that Komunyakaa’s argument, just like Kermode’s argument, is not an argument against innovation. We should resist the simplistic urge to sort these two gentlemen into some mainstream camp that stands opposed to an innovative camp (across the river, rifles pointed). We might consider Frank Kermode’s taste in literature reactionary, but his literary theory remains incredibly perceptive:

[N]ovelty in the arts is either communication or noise. If it is noise then there is no more to say about it. If it is communication it is inescapably related to something older than itself. (102)

Sometimes I see a text, or another artwork, and it simply makes no sense to me. It just seems like randomness. And there’s no way for me to enter into it, or begin to make sense of it, or to appraise it.

Sometimes I end up finding a way to like such art: I learn more about it, which puts it into a more recognizable—more familiar—context. But sometimes I can’t, and if I can’t, then I can’t really do much of anything with the artwork. I pass over it in silence. (Echoes of Wittgenstein here.)

If I’m honest, I’ll admit that even as I love innovation, I also like convention. I like them both, together, and the tension that creates. I’m not really all that different from either Komunyakaa or Kermode.

Or from that great innovator Brian Eno:

I had a conversation with Cage once, and I said, ‘Well, you’re a polar explorer’, and that’s what he is really, he’s someone who’s staked out the, some very remote poles of modern music. I’m not a polar explorer actually; I would rather live in the South of France [laughs]. —from an interview with Paul Merton, qtd in Boon

Eno and Bowie—now there were two guys who knew how to balance innovation with the familiar!

…Although when Coldplay picks up the Oblique Strategy cards, the polar explorers among us might want to consider putting them down.

Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.

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40 thoughts on “Innovation in Art

  1. …love the Oblique Strategies – especially, “Discard an axiom.”

    If art is achieved by acknowledging convention while simultaneously departing from it, this particular instruction is relevant to all artists. Don’t discard ‘all’ axioms, just ‘an’ axiom.

    Or, to put it in Kermode’s terms, discard ‘all’ axioms and you get noise, discard ‘an’ axiom and you get a new form of communication.

  2. Another great post, Adam–you manage to cover so much ground without sacrificing complexity. And I’m thinking now not only about innovation-cum-convention, but also about art’s “moment”–how we receive a work depends on its context (where/how it’s situated), and our own context (where/how we align ourselves), something you mention toward the end of your post. One person’s innovation is another person’s convention, etc. Which is why I especially appreciate your brief but well-sketched history of metafiction as a significant example of an old trope that so many writers believe they’ve invented, or wielded in a “new” way.

    In the end, though, how do we define “innovation”? Newness? Doing the thing that’s never been done? It can become as formulaic and conventional as anything else, after a while. I’m someone who finds “the familiar” endlessly fascinating, though, and often more prismatic than its antitheses…

    • Nice point about art’s moment, Kristen. I was trying to make a similar point in response to something Ron Silliman said about erasure poetry. Basically, an over-focusing on innovation tends to privilege the diachronic axis over the synchronic one.

      “In discussing Janet Holmes’ recently published The ms of m y kin (2009), an erasure project that draws on the Poems of Emily Dickinson as its source text (as well as Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os, the book’s obvious precursor), Ron Silliman has opined in a March blog entry, “I’m not convinced that we need to have an ‘erased’ edition of every major work of the English language.” It’s been done, Silliman seems to be saying—which is certainly true if we look solely through the lens of poetic technique and formal innovation.

      However, reading Travis Macdonald’s The O Mission Repo, another recent erasure project, makes me want to consider not only technique but also the cultural function that such poetry is meant to serve and the complex relation between these domains…”

      http://michaelleong.wordpress.com/2009/05/12/%e2%80%9cremembering-might-also-be-hijacked%e2%80%9d-travis-macdonald%e2%80%99s-the-o-mission-repo-fact-simile-editions-2008/

    • Hi Kristen,

      I think it’s a losing battle to insist that “innovation” be “newness” or “the thing that’s never been done.” It’s hard to find such things, in any absolute sense.

      But it’s easy to find things that are new in a particular, more limited context. And it’s especially easy to find innovative work that proceeds from combining previous things, synthesizing something “new.” Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK (1987) is a vampire western. It’s built from lots of previous ideas, but it still turned out to be a pretty nifty film. (No doubt there are precedents but when I saw it, it felt innovative to me.) (And…I see it’s being remade! Release date of 2012.)

      A better example: When I first read GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, I was blown away. I felt very humbled by what Pynchon had achieved. And obviously a lot of people feel that way about that book; it’s very popular and influential. Very innovative.

      Later, when I read William Gaddis’s THE RECOGNITIONS, I was very much relieved to see how much Pynchon had stolen from it. I remember thinking, “Oh, thank God, you don’t have to invent everything from scratch. You can steal like mad and still write a brilliant, innovative novel…”

      Cheers,
      Adam

  3. great article, adam. thanks! this is certainly simplistic but if i can be allowed, i think innovation comes from singularity of mind. whatever camp you belong to, avant garde or traditional, what in my view sets you apart as innovative is your singular mind. i mean, the really keen writer can take the ho hum of metafiction and make it entirely new again, wake it up. schmalzty pop song, the great musician will wake that up too. the less singular mind will only do the same thing over again even when trying his/her hardest to be avant garde. course, we’ll argue over who gets the label of singular, and in this all your points nicely apply.

  4. I see the point you’re trying to make about Komunyakaa, Adam. Essentially, I think you’re right that I mischaracterized him as being against innovation per se, but, above all, I think he needs to be taken to task for his aesthetic narrow mindedness and the way he writes off different kinds of art.

    Again, his dismissal of Rauschenberg rubbed me the wrong way in BEST AM PO 03– and he uses the concept of “erasure” in a very weird way as a metaphor for linguistic experimentation. But, to me, the point of innovation is to expand our conception of what art can be and I get the feeling that Komunyakaa, on the other hand, wants to delimit this.

    Another anecdote that I found a bit troubling: when I saw him conduct his master class, we were discussing a poem that had an epigraph at the bottom of the page. When someone asked him about it, he said quite flippantly, “It’s in the wrong place.” Even though I don’t remember anything about the poem, I remember feeling bad for the student who had presented it. Instead of the quick assumption that something “was in the wrong place” (which is, in my mind, an over-clinging to convention), why not discuss the epigraph placement as a deliberate aesthetic choice with particular advantages and disadvantages? This is to say that I think Komunyakaa’s taste impacts his pedagogical practices in meanigful and not so productive ways.

    • Regarding that Rauschenberg comment: I had another section of the post where I started writing about conceptual art, but I took it out, though I’ll try to return to it soon. But here’s what I wanted to say in that section, in essence:

      I’m a tremendous fan of conceptual art, and I really adore Rauschenberg’s work. I think that erased de Kooning is great! And I like how conceptual art’s various gestures have opened up room in art. For one thing, it’s done a great job of bringing text into visual art. (I’m writing a very long essay about this at the moment.) And it’s given art a more direct means for commenting, politically, on the rest of society, which has been invaluable. Not to mention that a lot of conceptual art is just simply fantastic art, very clever and well-made and extremely beautiful and moving—everything we want art to be. Joseph Beuys work, for instance, is exceptional. As is Yves Klein’s. (I’m very slowly writing a novel that’s at least partially about those two. I should be working on that novel right now!)

      And I agree that innovation does give artists new places to go–it “expands our conception of what art can be,” as you put it. And I am very much for that expansion, and like you I often feel frustrated when people try to block it. Anyone who knew me at school (either program that I attended) probably remembers me as an obnoxious champion of relentless artistic innovation. I was that guy who was always going on about John Cage and video art, etc.

      But there are also ways in which innovation *closes off* artistic space, and I think it’s important to remember that. This is Kermode’s point, in a sense: that innovation is a departure from the past. In order to do something new, you often have to stop doing something old. (That new thing can of course be a return to an old thing that had fallen by the wayside.) You can’t do everything at all times! (Heidegger explains why better than anyone.)

      Technology plays a large role in this. Look at experimental film. A lot of people now make video. And so we see a lot of companies now no longer making film. It’s getting harder and harder to find Super-8. Someday it will probably be impossible. As has often been said in experimental film circles, anyone who wants to show film as film 50 years from now will need to have a machine shop in the basement, in order to maintain the projectors. And there are a lot of experimental films that can’t be transferred to video, at least not effectively–it’s medium-specific work. That work…will fall by the wayside.

      I mean, you can adapt Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973) to a video projector, but it really isn’t the same:

      But video has opened up a lot of space in art! But it has also been part of a migration from one medium to another. Change, but not necessarily progress.

      And so there is often a lot of value in critiquing innovation (which does often get mislabeled as “progress”–but that’s a political move). Innovation pushes art in different directions, but it closes off space just as well. Looking at pop culture (innovation exists there as much as anywhere), Harry Potter’s success has pushed young adult fantasy in a new direction. If you’re writing a similar style of YA fantasy, you’ll have an easier time getting your work published. But if you prefer writing an older style, something more like Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, then maybe you won’t find anyone who’s so interested. You can still write it, but you might be stuck reading it all by yourself in your basement, because the culture has moved on to be obsessed with something different than with what you like. (See that X-Men image above? Me, I prefer the X-Men comics from the 1980s, which seem very, very far away at the moment.)

      I suspect this may be part of what Komunyakaa means when he critiques Rauschenberg. How did he put it? “But as poets, as artists, we do want meaning to remain in our words, and not have the essence of our lives and visions become like that moment when Robert Rauschenberg erases the de Kooning drawing and says that the erasure is his work of art.”

      I don’t really know what Komunyakaa means here. But one reading of it, I think, is that he’s suspicious of the shift toward conceptual art as a dominant mode of working. Just as he didn’t like the direction that Miles Davis went off in, abandoning recognizable melody for electronic freeform improvisations. He wants his older Miles Davis! Just like how I want my 1980s X-Men comic books! I mean, the 1980s team was so fantastic! You had Cyclops, and Storm, and Colossus, and Nightcrawler, and Rogue, and Kitty Pryde, and Wolverine. It was probably the best X-Men team ever assembled. So why did it have to change? Why couldn’t it just stay like that forever? I’ll accept the team that came right after that, when Cyclops and Nightcrawler and Kitty Pryde left, and were replaced by Havok and Dazzler and Psylocke and Longshot, because that was still pretty cool–but after that I will go no further; it just became garbage. (And don’t get me started on the movies!)

      Like you say below, poststructuralism’s rise meant that people overlooked Kermode’s SENSE OF AN ENDING (which is really too bad). Innovation is not just increased freedom, limitless expansion. I mean, it is in *theory*, but it isn’t in *praxis*. In reality, we have fads, paradigms, dominant styles, politics. You can be denied tenure for teaching something out of line with the rest of your department. You can see your records go unsold for not being hot, not of the moment. Editors will pass on your manuscript if it doesn’t fit with what their press is currently publishing–it doesn’t matter how good the MS is! They have an “identity” they’re trying to create. (There is no such thing as a press that publishes “just good writing, no matter what kind it is.” I challenge anyone to show me such a press–one that publishes all the best sci-fi, high lit, romance/western fusions, children’s lit, experimental poetry, porn, experimental poetry porn, etc–“Just the best writing!”). So I think it’s naive to think of innovation as limitless freedom for one and all, ever onward and upward. Reality simply isn’t like that.

      And there’s a history to innovation. When Rauschenberg erased that de Kooning, one of the criticisms that was made (ad nauseum at the time, I’m sure) was that it was only art because Rauschenberg did the erasing. Otherwise, it would have been vandalism. Or stupidity. Or a stunt. Conceptual art has always had to deal with this issue, the “cult of celebrity.” Mutt’s Fountain was garbage; Duchamp’s Fountain was (and still is) art. Duchamp’s playing chess in his old age was art because he was Duchamp. When you play chess, is it art? No, it’s not. (Sorry.)

      So this is an innovation that opens up space…for some. And so it’s no surprise that artists like Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney have worked hard to become massive celebrities: they’ve learned–very cleverly I think–the lessons of Duchamp and de Kooning (and Warhol), that they couldn’t do the kinds of work that they want to do without that celebrity. And so it boggles my mind, I have to say, when people criticize Koons and Barney for that celebrity, but then praise Duchamp and Rauschenberg for their innovations. I wonder what such people would have made of Duchamp and Rauschenberg, back in those days. (The criticisms applied to Koons and Barney are not new criticisms!)

      I’m not really a fan of Jeff Koons’s work. I like Barney’s work better–his films at least–although my friends all hate them (I take a lot of ribbing for this), and can I understand why. I can understand how a visual artist might be very tired of how much press Koons and Barney command, and how there’s this very real pressure in the art world to make work more like theirs–or risk going unseen, unsold, ignored. Look at Tao Lin: he argues (by example) that the only way to sell books is to promote himself relentlessly through conceptual stunts. And a lot of people begrudge him those stunts, and his resultant success.

      As poets, as artists, they do want meaning to remain in their words, and not have the essence of their lives and visions become like that moment when Tao Lin put his stupid Britney Spears stickers everywhere and says that’s his work of art!

      • “Duchamp’s playing chess in his old age was art because he was Duchamp. When you play chess, is it art? No, it’s not. (Sorry.)”

        But the wearing of a hat? Did Beuys better conceptualize that particular act? Or was it personality? Can Beuys wear a hat as art because he is Beuys? Would you or I get away with it? [I'm prone to say the hat wearing was art but the chess playing not. I wonder what Beuys would say.]

        • Well, it’s the matching felt suit, too. That felt suit makes the hat, and vice versa.

          Not to mention locking people out of a Dresden art gallery, covering your head in honey and gold leaf, and whispering to a dead hare that you hold cradled in your arms, explaining the pictures in the gallery.

          All the while stepping occasionally over the dead fir tree in the middle of the room. And doing this for three hours, then letting people into the gallery, and then sitting on a stool with your back to everyone, still cradling the hare.

          Then you can wear a hat as well as Joseph Beuys!

          A friend of mine re-performed this piece once; it was something to see.

          She has since decided not to wear a hat, though.

          • ok, but he thought everything was art. shaving people. fixing cars. and you didn’t have to shave people at pompidou, you could shave them at your barber shop. even if it isn’t, if all shaving isn’t art, that’s the concept that lets us see his shaving, hat wearing, as art?

            and because it’s such a lovely performance:

            • Did Beuys think that everything was art? Or did he think everything could be art? That’s a crucial difference. (It’s also John Cage’s difference: real life is beautiful—once you begin to see it.)

              It’s a question of attention. Shaving people at the Pompidou is different than shaving people at a barber shop, because it’s reframed by being performance art. The odd setting lets people better see the shaving. That’s enstrangement, a la Shklovsky—the essence of all art, according to the Russian Formalists. A shovel that’s put in a museum is a sculpture. The shovel on my back porch—well, you and I walk past it on sunny days without any notice. And use it on snowy days—without notice. (Giving the shovel a clever title, In Advance of the Broken Arm, also helps us to see it.)

              Shaving people at a barber shop has its own beauty—hear how the scissors click! and see how the curls of hair collect on the floor!—but it’s harder, there, to appreciate. “I just wanted a trim, thanks—not an artwork.” We are inured to our daily lives, to the things and the servants who maintain them. (Who’s met the person who takes out the trash in their office building? And yet they’re there. They come every night, like elves. Someday you may even see one!)

              I think we agree…? Beuys and Cage reframed art as a question of attention, of expanded consciousness. Of renewed appreciation. The burden (but not the Chris Burden) becomes the viewer’s. The artist assists, become a shaman, an enabler.

              …Not to mention, hair had special powers for Beuys. He was an animist, and a shaman. He also liked honey, felt, fur, fat. Trees. Some objects had more energy than others.

              Like Klein liked blue.

      • I agree with what you’re saying, Adam–pretty much most of it–but I don’t think it absolves Komunyakaa of unnecessary finger wagging!

        He just paints too many caricatures (and Miles being “duped by the sexual bluster of rock ‘n’ roll” is also a huge caricature); take this one for example:

        “In this quest for a few brilliant ideas, with the Ego riding shotgun, to what extent can language be distorted before it loses meaning, before it erases itself?”

        Here, he’s treating what might be called an innovative writing practice (language distortion) as some kind of simple dial– the more you turn it, the more meaning escapes into the ether. In any case, he doesn’t seem to be concerned with a dialectical understanding of innovation that we’re talking about.

        I’ve been working on M. Nourbese Philip’s book ZONG! (2008) which “distorts” language to the nth degree– it chops up, rearranges, whites out, blacks out, and recombines words from an 18th century legal decision regarding the throwing overboard of about 150 African slaves. And to me, it’s one of the most “meaningful” poems about transatlantic slavery– it responds to trauma in ways that are impossible through the resources of narrative. I don’t see any “Ego” riding shotgun here. And to me, this is a profoundly innovative text. Sure, we’ve seen these “techniques” before, but innovation is a practice, not a competition to be “first,” not a teleological trap.

        I just think Komunyakaa is too “suspicious” of many forms of legitimate experimentation. Sure, you want your 1980s X-Men comic books, but Komunyakaa’s nostalgia for earlier Miles forms a kind of doctrine that begins BEST AM PO 03– I much preferred Creeley’s more catholic viewpoint in BEST AM PO 02.

        I think meaning can be made through a multiplicity of modalities: through plugging a trumpet into a wah-wah pedal, through erasure, through extreme and merciless linguistic distortion.

        But, in any case– I’d love to discuss conceptual art in another post… looking forward to it.

        • I tend to have little patience with finger wagging myself. Necessary or unnecessary.

          Wags abound.

          More on conceptual art sooner or later! Until then–cheers! (And do send me any recordings you have of trumpets plugged into wah-wah pedals.)

  5. On another note, it was nice to read something from Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967). I think Kermode is an agile thinker and has a nice sense of humor about things. Speaking of innovation, I remember reading somewhere that he likened that book to inventing a sophisticated new airplane propellor at the same moment that the jet engine appeared (Derrida published Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology, and Speech and Phenomena in ’67). Still, The Sense of an Ending is an exquisite propellor.

    • Yeah, I recall that quote! But Kermode did get knighted, so he has that–he gets to carry a sword and all that.

      I think SENSE OF AN ENDING is more relevant now than ever. It may have been overlooked at the time, in the rush to poststructuralism, but a lot of K’s thinking still applies (even if some of his actual readings are a bit fuddy). I’m a big fan of Derrida’s work, which I also think is quite useful, but I think we can also see how a lot of poststructuralism was…really not all that useful.

      Derrida’s thought is not incongruous with Kermode’s. People seem to have forgotten that deconstruction was, at least originally, a close-reading technique (before it became a word that means both everything and nothing). And that Kermode knew Roland Barthes–and that he defended Colin McCabe when McCabe was denied tenure for teaching poststructuralism. (Kermode resigned over that tenure denial–although I’m sure it was all more complicated than that; I certainly wasn’t there). …Anyway, I’ve been wanting for a while now to try synthesizing D’s APORIAS with K’s SENSE OF AN ENDING.

      I’ll probably get around to it when I retire.

      In the meantime, this is good reading:
      http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/dec/05/frank-kermode-interview-christopher-tayler

  6. Adam, yes–I was less “insisting” on a static definition of innovation, and more trying to push down on the idea of context, as in your Pynchon/Gaddis example, which is a terrific one.

    Joseph–singularity of mind, well said. I like this.

    Michael et al–I’m quite fond of Sense of an Ending too, and glad to see it get some play here. Michael, I’m reading your erasure post with interest.

  7. adam, your point about familiarity and unfamiliarity helps clarify for me the distinction between derivative and derived from. the tiresome world-weary claim that ‘nothing is original’ lumps everything under derivative, but fails to recognize that a piece can be derived from something else and yet offer an original combination, perspective or concomitant of modes. a very loose analogy can be drawn to artisanship where the materials are derived from clay, wood, plant fibers, etc. but each handmade piece is an ‘original’. the analogy doesn’t translate exactly but i think helps push the distinction in the right direction.

    • Hi Keith,

      Interesting you should mention materials… I think a lot about materials, and what it is precisely we work with.

      I intend to get back to you regarding your essay!

      Cheers,
      Adam

  8. Obsession with other art innovators may not be the only path to making innovative art, though it is inspiring. A certain kind of preparedness might do. John Cage invented the prepared piano in response to a request from Simone Forte to make her some dance music. The only thing in the auditorium was a broken down piano and she wanted something percussive.

    Cage was no slouch. He had studied traditional counterpoint and serial composition with Schoenberg and had a head full of Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, and James Joyce. What’s more interesting is that he immersed himself in Eastern philosophies, architecture, experimental social theories, and looked extremely carefully at everyday people and events, always trying to incorporate the mundane into his work and removing as much of himself from the work as he could, leaving his name. The other thing that’s interesting about Cage is that from what I can tell, a lot of people who idolize him are unfamiliar with much of his actual music, have listened to an extremely small amount of it, and can’t stomach most of the post-1960 compositions for very long when they do listen. The majority of his music after this time was made to encourage the listener to hear the world around him and to hear each sound as a separate entity with its own center, to hear all sounds as having equal value.

    And in that spirit, I am enjoying your poem Adam:

    efwuhfieurbcriucnbicuiu
    fuifhiuhf34iu
    fh13u4hfiu4hf4iuhf

    Do you know the writing of Alan Sondheim, Adam? He has been using computer code in various ways in his work for quite some time.

    The most innovative use of Conceptual Art and Performance Art concepts I’ve come across in a long time was in Shanghai. I was there in the Fall and went to art openings for nine days in a row during two Art Festivals. Warehouses and unfinished office buildings were crammed full of art. Some of these artists had studied in the US or Europe and had come back to China bringing an arsenal of Western Art ideas with them. What’s fascinating is how they “misused” the original concepts to fabricate pieces that dealt with Chinese culture. This kind of bad translation or partial misunderstanding resulted in some very unfamiliar hybrids and not only for my Western eyes and ears, but for the locals there. The Chinese artists I talked to spoke about innovation in technology, but not so much in relation to their own work. It didn’t seem to concern them in the way it does American artists. This is of course generalization, but there may be something to this.

    I’m suggesting here that elevating INNOVATION as the primary goal of art may be less important than we think it is for actually being innovative. Perhaps, expanding laterally into life around us, other cultural mindsets, and non-art subject matters may be one way to move towards synthesizing a combination of diverse elements into something, well– very unfamiliar.

    Thanks, Adam, for a very thought provoking post and for the time you took to put it together.

    • Thanks, Rob. I’ll actually be writing more about Cage soon, and I’ll be curious to hear what you think of my (admittedly) silly ideas regarding the man. I think there’s a great deal to be said about his work, and his influence.

      I’m not sure I agree that he tried “removing as much of himself from the work as he could,” though. Cage was well-known to exert a lot of control over his works…. One of the many fascinating contradictions in his art. (As he himself said: “You won’t find me consistent.”)

      “The other thing that’s interesting about Cage is that from what I can tell, a lot of people who idolize him are unfamiliar with much of his actual music, have listened to an extremely small amount of it, and can’t stomach most of the post-1960 compositions for very long when they do listen.”

      This is true in my experience. I find that a lot of people approach him more conceptually than anything. (Which is, to be fair, the risk his more conceptual work takes.) Personally, I find my fondness for it comes and goes, as with anything else. On some days I adore it; other days I want to listen to anything but. But 4’33” is astonishing and a revelation and I perform it as often as I can…and still not often enough…

      And I’m glad you like my poem. (I hate it!)

      As for Alan Sondheim’s work, I’ve heard of it, and him, but haven’t experienced any of it. I have to confess that I have a personal bias against heavily computer-based work. This is my own failing and COMPLETELY unfair of me, of course!

      Many decades ago, in the late 1990s, when I worked as a technical writer at Lucent, I was more interested in those kinds of things, and even dabbled in them myself. But ever since then, I’ve let my hair grow long, and become a shepherd (a cat-herd, actually), and now I mostly sit under trees strumming a lute and reciting Odes.

      Again, it’s totally unfair of me, but my brain chemistry has changed such that now when I hear the words “hypertext” and “code” and “computer-generated,” I reach for my running shoes. But I have nothing whatsoever against anyone working in those areas, and who knows—perhaps someday I’ll regain my interest for them.

      (I swore I would never get involved in blogs and yet I seem to be doing that.)

      I envy you your trip to Shanghai! Translation is often so revealing… I was supposed to go to China once but I couldn’t find a boat slow enough…

      Many cheers,
      Adam

  9. Morton Feldman never hesitated to say that Cage was unsuccessful at removing himself from his work (and he would know). But Cage did try to remove aspects of personal taste in much of his music and had varying degrees of success.

    I find that inconsistency is one of the most refreshing qualities of an artist and of human beings in general, but, of course, I can be completely infuriated by this very thing at times. HOW one is inconsistent is definitely worth consideration. Cage’s inconsistency certainly seems to have a very consistent underlying focus. One could say that he used extreme rigor (chance operations) to create situations where what is usually ignored is emphasized. I think Sondheim does something similar using the computer. Often the writing feels uninhabited, but then, when you least expect it…

    Like you, my interests change over time, but I do return to things and re-contextualize them. In fact, when are we ever as artists NOT doing just that? (Can’t step in the same river twice?)

    So I look forward to your silliness, Adam. Cage did say he preferred laughter to tears.

    I’m suddenly getting a hankering to watch “Female Trouble.”

  10. Adam:

    This is very bracing stuff.

    I can’t write much now, but I wanted to echo your thoughts about finding an point of entry into art, whether that art is music or film or literature. It’s something I think about all the time as I make films. As I learn just how films get made (so much of it is just about taking care of people so they’re comfortable enough to apply a very specific set of skills), I see more clearly why so many screenplays hew to the “formula,” and why so many of my favorite films use genre as a point of departure (starting with one set of expectations and negotiating a new set).

    Anyway, I’ll write more soon. Again, this is excellent: your page is now officially required reading, right there with Ebert’s journal.

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