The Originality of the Species

Atoms-artwork-008Ian McEwan in The Guardian (via Mark Trodden):

[T]he modern artefact bears the stamp of personality. The work is the signature. The individual truly possesses his or her own work, has rights in it, defines himself by it. It is private property that cannot be trespassed on. A great body of law has grown up around this possessiveness. Countries that do not sign up to the Berne Convention and other international agreements relating to intellectual property rights find themselves excluded from the mainstream of a globalised culture. The artist owns his work, and sits glowering over it, like a broody hen on her eggs. We see the intensity of this fusion of originality and individuality whenever a plagiarism scandal erupts. (I’ve had some experience of it myself.)

The dust-jacket photograph, though barely relevant to an appreciation of a novel, seals the ownership. This is me, it says, and what you have in your hands is mine. Or is me. We see it too in the cult of personality that surrounds the artist – individuality and personality are driven to inspire near-religious devotion. The coach parties at Grasmere, the cult of Hemingway, or Picasso, or Neruda. These are big figures – their lives fascinate us sometimes even more than their art.

This fascination is relatively new. In their day, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, even Beethoven were not worshipped, they did not gleam in the social rankings the way their patrons did, or in the way that Byron or Chopin would do, or in the way a Nobel Prize-winner does today. How the humble artist was promoted to the role of secular priest is a large and contentious subject, a sub-chapter in the long discussion about individuality and modernity. The possible causes make a familiar list – capitalism, a growing leisured class, the Protestant faith, the Romantic movement, new technologies of communication, the elaboration of patent law following the Industrial Revolution. Some or all of these have brought us to the point at which the identification of the individual and her creativity is now complete and automatic and unquestionable. The novelist today who signs her name in her book for a reader, and the reader who stands in line waiting for his book to be signed collude in this marriage of selfhood and art.

There is an antithetical notion of artistic creation, and though it has been expressed in different forms by artists, critics and theoreticians, it has never taken hold outside the academies. This view holds that, of course, no one escapes history. Something cannot come out of nothing, and even a genius is bound by the constraints and opportunities of circumstance. The artist is merely the instrument on which history and culture play. Whether an artist works within his tradition or against it, he remains its helpless product. The title of Auden’s essay, “The Dyer’s Hand”, is just a mild expression of the drift. Techniques and conventions developed by predecessors – perspective, say, or free indirect style (the third person narrative coloured by a character’s subjective state) are available as ready-made tools and have a profound effect. Above all, art is a conversation conducted down through the generations. Meaningful echoes, parody, quotation, rebellion, tribute and pastiche all have their place. Culture, not the individual talent, is the predominant force; in creative writing classes, young writers are told that if they do not read widely, they are more likely to be helplessly influenced by those whose work they do not know.

Such a view of cultural inheritance is naturally friendly to science.