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.