Cultural Constraints – warning, this post gets a bit rambly.

Is it possible to be too creative? To think too far outside of the box? To overstep the giant leap for mankind?

My reaction is to balk at the idea, but apparently, it is so. Avant-garde can be as much a condemnation as a compliment. A friend who is taking the Creative Writing MA at the University of Gloucestershire (lucky sod), presented me with the idea – something his class had been discussing –  and  asked what I thought. As I have said, I balked.

The idea that it is only possible to be as successfully creative as the culture around us will allow instinctively feels limiting to me. Yes, of course the culture we have now is built on the foundations of the culture preceding; ergo the perception of what is culturally acceptable as meaningfully creative, as opposed to nonsense, must be defined by the common understanding of how/what society judges our culture to be. This fallacy gives us the trope of the misunderstood artist, the visionary ahead of their time; Van Gogh, Blake, Nick Drake…

This disheartens me – not because I claim to be a visionary, I don’t – but because I naively believed that our culture at large was self-aware enough to be able to look further beyond what is known, what has been done, and tried, and tested. And yet… and yet… I ought to know better. I work in book selling, I see how it works. I see what gets published, I see what gets pushed (or marketed, if you prefer), I see what sells. Sells. That is the key word. Culture in this context is about consumerism.

Money makes the art world go round. The enfants terribles who were the avant-garde have become establishment figures by virtue of the willingness of collectors to lay out absurdly huge sums of money on their work. We don’t get to decide that Tracey Emin’s My Bed is culturally acceptable; Charles Saatchi decided that when he bought it. We can have a range of opinions about it, but in the rarified world of modern art the person on the street is denied a stake in the cultural consensus; it’s beyond our price range. So someone with money gets to decide that artist X is a visionary, courting controversy in trying to push the viewer out of complacency, ahead of the consensual collusion on what we supposedly allow culture to be, while Artist Y is meaningless, nonsensical, pointless. Evelyn Waugh loathed Picasso – he would have spat venom at him if he could. It enraged him that Picasso should be so successful. ‘Culture’ then is a playground where the old is continually butting heads with the new. Inch by inch, the new becomes the old, and therefore more acceptable. Consider the Pre-Raphaelites; they looked backwards in order to move forwards. But did they really move forwards? Their work helped to reinforce the Victorian appropriation of a perceived Golden Age, King Arthur’s court of Camelot. I’m beginning to confuse myself now. The Impressionists – they alarmed some and enchanted others. Now they are ubiquitous.

Where does this leave – or lead – writing? Fads, trends, bandwagons… the book buying public can only read what the editors decide  – on the readers’ behalf – is culturally acceptable. Where would science fiction be as a genre now, if these classics had continued to be rejected? Arbiters of taste, of opinion, it’s all highly subjective. Frankly, if I see yet another variant on the sexy-vampire-tortured-by-loving-a- nubile-mortal meme, I’m going to do something I’ll probably regret. Nothing drastic, or illegal; most likely it will cause me a moment of social embarrassment. But frankly, dear editors, isn’t it time to move on? When does the bottom line finally get trashed on the glutted market? What is the next step going to be allowed to be?

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold. We might not like it.


4 thoughts on “Cultural Constraints – warning, this post gets a bit rambly.”

  1. I think, unfortunately, you’re right – our culture does constrain how ‘creative’ it is acceptable to be. However, that doesn’t constrain our creativity per se. To be creative we don’t NEED critical approval or commercial potential – we can make/do/write our stuff anyway. Nonetheless, at some point, the art wants an audience, and if what we are doing is so out of the cultural box, I guess we don’t get any audience at all, just blank faces turning away. And if its so far out of the box that the box can’t even be seen then I guess we probably end up being locked up somewhere…

  2. Oh, this is so very true. There seems to be no room now for all those whose work takes steps into areas that later become the mainstream. Without this work reaching a wide enough audience through magazines and publishers, literature stagnates. Just where are all the radical writers? Not in print, most of them; and those that are have done little more than take a look over the thorny hedge that surrounds their field. The bulk of publishing is now in a dangerous situation whereby the arbiters of taste (agents, editors, and TV book clubs) are driven by a need to make money or are forced to choose from what is already available – an ever diminishing pool of ambition and achievement. I grew up at a time when experiment (the avant garde, if you will) sat comfortably alongside the mainstream. A time when the BBCs flagship pop music programme on TV happily broadcast Hendrix alongside the most mainstream of pop; when the art world was fed by a system of art colleges that revelled in experimentation (and because they became hotbeds of radical politics were firmly brought into the control of universities whereupon experimentation died under the need to follow a degree course – writers take note); when publishing had room for work from the whole spectrum – where the big publishers quite happily took on writers on the expectation that they would eventually develop (and had the editors to spot such potential). Now an author lives and dies on one book. There were magazines as well willing to court controversy and producing a vibrant culture of experiemntation. It didn’t all work. It wasn’t meant to. But without all this experimentation there is no chance of finding new ways of expression, new avenues to explore, new talent to nurture. I fear some of this has to do with the rise of CW degree courses. These are safe bets for publishers. Students must not stray too far if they are to get their degrees and make their investment in expesensive courses worthwhile. It’s that bottom line again. And it is going to get a whole lot worse.

  3. Safe versus exploration…we have to push the boundaries -write from our souls. I always think of metal music when am confronted with the idea that popular culture rules -it does on the surface. But metal is a huge underground and overground movement (not one I am a fan of) with little populist recognition, or indeed is something to be feared as much as the dark beast.
    But metalists don’t care what populists think -they just do it. Editors. like agents, critics can be bypassed, and there are editors out there who will begin to see that pushing the boundaries pays.

  4. Interesting comments on CW degrees. Yes, one would expect them to nurture creativity, but have they succumbed to the prevailing model of a university as a place that simply delivers competence? Understandable but sad. So much for the getting of wisdom in a broad sense, not to mention experimentation, critical thinking and creativity.

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