Thursday, 14 February 2013

Lack of originality

“Lack of originality, everywhere, all over the world, from time immemorial, has always been considered the foremost quality and the recommendation of the active, efficient and practical man.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

A mark of modernity often referred to is the craving for constant novelty. There has been a clear increase in the sheer availability of new experiences that have opened up to the average person over the past 50 years. Technology, from radio through television and into the internet age has opened up a rapidly expanding flood of content for people to consume. Cheap travel has enabled people to get to many places once considered inaccessible, and the free flow of goods and information has provided an inexhaustible supply from which to draw novel things and ideas.

An even more recent development is the appearance of devices and software such as smartphones, tablets and browsers aimed at streamlining entertainment, shopping and knowledge content and making it even easier to get hold of. This is a superficially enthralling world, we are like children let loose in sweet shops with a never-ending supply of goodies to get our hands on. And we all know that too many sweets are bad for you. "Distracted from distraction by distraction" wrote T S Eliot nearly 100 years ago, words that were prophetic for an increasingly pick and mix culture enabled by high-speed internet access and handheld devices.

There is nothing particularly original in these observations. They have been made many times in recent years, especially in books like The Shallows and others. I want to focus on the pre-eminence of novelty that seems to come with modernity, where progress and the new are the only criteria of value. I believe they are the concomitants of a focus on knowledge as power, of a narrow definition of truth as that which you can use to predict behaviour or events. Almost the only response you hear to any challenge to the predominant naturalism inherent in the modern west is that the model must be true as with it you can make accurate predictions.

With such a ratiocination of truth you begin to accept a more quantitative approach - what matters in the question of a theory's truth is the amount of predictions it makes and how much power it gives us over the natural world. The aim is absolute mastery of the sheer otherness of things by making them into copies of ourselves. First we empty them of their otherness by calling them matter - and meaning by it a blank colourless formlessness - mere extension in Cartesian terms, and then we fill this with our own desires, making the world into our plaything. In such a world of phantoms, we quickly tire of each new game, as they are merely the flickering of shadows on the cave wall, and we yearn for the new experience to come along and replace the emptiness at the heart of things, which we know is our eternal boredom with staring at our own reflections. This disenchantment is central to the modern experience of the world.

It is manifest in the deadliness and addictive power of technology, which draws us further into the world, offering greater and greater control. It is the promise of the serpent in the book of Genesis: "You will not die - you will become as gods", and it is the lure of magic, which is merely the art of causing changes in accordance with the will, according to the Great Beast himself, Crowley.

How do we free the world from our deadly grasp? We have been given a Midas-like gift and mired ourselves deeper in the illusion of what Buddhists call maya, the play of appearances. We have hoarded the world, so that we don't have to see it anymore.

One thing we can do is to champion the tried and tested, the old, unoriginal and traditional. Doing things how they've always been done is not always such a bad idea. There's usually a reason why they're done that way. If the tradition you are brought up in recommends prayer and sacramental worship, then give it a try. If it recommends meditation, try that. Don't immediately scorn the familiar just because it is familiar.

In art this will lead to an appreciation of the value of many things which seem old-fashioned. In education the same. Something of this is actually in the air in the these spheres anyway. For example in the world of art the old-fashioned atelier is making a reappearance, with its painstaking emphasis on verisimilitude and realism, and the old-fashioned virtues of grace and beauty high on its list. In the sixties many art schools rejected such practices as deadly and barren, with the result that a generation of artists only had a minimal acquaintance with drawing, which I think explains the work of Damien Hirst (and perhaps someone can explain to me why Tracey Emin has been made an RA prof. of drawing? See here for an entertaining piece of self-delusion re Emin - the comments are the best bit! ).

If this was the twenties and I was a Futurist, or it was the 1890s and I was a symbolist, I would put out a manifesto. As it's now I will be content with this blog post. It can function as a kind of manifesto for my vision of art. Here is my vision for my art:

1. It will not seek originality as a virtue.
2. It will have instead as a virtue the creation of the beautiful
3. This will not be for its own sake, but rather for the sake of truth and goodness
4. Its practitioners will continue serenely with their work when people mock them for seeking to express such things as the good, the beautiful and the true in their work.
5. It will be a humble art, inasmuch as it recognises that the work of creation of an artist is a simple re-working of a prior greater creation
6. It will seek to free things from the tyranny of our perception
7. It will thus make use of fantasy
8. However it will not seek the fantastic for its own sake, but will be grounded in the real
9. Through this method the fruits of recovery, consolation, and clarity will be established in the soul of the practitioner

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