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Living Art Backwards

Johannes’s comment here reminded me of something I was mulling over this morning. Often one comes to a work of art backwards, tracing out lineages in reverse chronological order. In particular, one often approaches older works through the more contemporary, popular artworks they inspired.

For example, when I was in high school, I saw certain music videos that Adam Jones made for Tool:

That led me to the Brothers Quay:

(I think I saw an interview with Jones where he mentioned really liking the Quays.)

That led me to Jan Svankmajer:

(I think I saw an interview with the Quays where they mentioned really liking Svankmajer.)

Of course, the way it really happened was that Svankmajer influenced the Quays, who in turn influenced Jones. (And of course it’s more complicated than that, and of course each artist brought in other influences as well. For instance, I doubt Bruno Schulz is as important to Svankmajer and Jones as he is to the Quays.)

Similarly, I heard John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Revolution No. 9” (in late grade school):

…long before I heard Stockhausen’s Hymnen (in college):

…as I think has been the case for most people.

Well, one could think of one hundred such examples. The basic point is that we teach art history one way (chronologically), but we experience most art a-chronologically. (The exception is the art we watch being made in the here and now, which might explain why fans often get so upset at the notion of future artists ripping off beloved contemporary artists, when they have little concern with how the beloved artists of today have ripped off—I mean, have been influenced by—older artists.)

N.B.: I don’t really want to repeat the false notion that all innovation proceeds from the high, fine arts to the low, popular arts; nor do I even want to claim a clear distinction between the fine and popular arts. Nor do I think the fine arts necessarily high, the popular arts necessarily low. There are many hybrids, and transferences in all different directions. (See here for an example of how an idea passed from Victor Hugo to Mark Twain, German Expressionism, the Batman franchise, J.D. Salinger, Donald Barthelme, William Castle, and Ghost in the Shell.)

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

5 thoughts on “Living Art Backwards

  1. Fascinating cross-cultural read, Adam, & right on — in particular the outlaw strain, always a contributor when some vitalizing perception breaks across boundaries.

    (Also, why couldn’t I “like” this post?)

    1. Thanks, John. And I think I know what you mean by “outlaw strain,” although I’m not 100%.

      Last night I saw/heard Vanessa Place read, and I was reminded that many folk today know about and understand conceptual writing through her work, and Kenneth Goldsmith’s, Craig Dworkin’s, etc. Indeed, they might even think that Place, Goldsmith, Dworkin have invented “Conceptual Poetry.” But of course conceptual poetry, and conceptual literature in general, is a pretty old idea by now—I’d say it’s been around (and in vogue) since at least the 1960s, and one can find numerous clear precedents dating back to the late 1800s, if not even earlier.

      …But since a lot of those works aren’t commonly considered literature (e.g., “artist’s books” like Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, or Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, or lesser known underground books like Ann Quin’s Tripticks and B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates), the conceptual lit tradition largely isn’t understood today as something long and coherent, and as such seems a brand new thing to a lot of people. To put it in your terms, what Place/Goldsmith/Dworkin have today is “a vitalizing perception” (especially Goldsmith, who’s done so much to redefine and popularize concept-based writing).

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