Thursday 28 August 2008

Chaotic creativity; critical chaos

Stefan Collini and Peter Conrad, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Friday 15 August 2008

Creativity today is an uncontested concept, with the same ‘creativity’ supported by business and arts institutions alike. Britain’s DCMS has been advocating creative industries in a bid to create the New Creative Economy since 2004: ‘creativity’ is in vogue, expected to solve problems from slowing economic growth to social fragmentation. But far from simply being an ideological polyfilla for policy wonks, the hyping of creativity more generally coincides with a crisis of judgement in the arts, amidst doubts about the value of ‘elite’ arts, and an increasingly instrumental approach to the arts in general. Bereft of clear critical standards for judging the products of creative endeavours, it seems the political class – and many arts practitioners themselves – have fallen on the back foot and begun to focus on the more innocuous ‘creative process’ instead.

In their session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Peter Conrad and Stefan Collini revealed a longstanding ambiguity about creativity, and explored the meaning of critical culture. After all, attitudes to creativity can be schizophrenic; on the one hand buttering it up for its benefits whilst on the other getting the willies about its tendency to destroy limits and upend the status quo. This idea that creation can be destructive has its aesthetic roots in Ancient Greek thought, and how creativity has been presented historically through the culture is the subject of Peter Conrad’s ambitious Artists, Gods and Origins. Conrad explores the psychological origins of art, and talked about Mary Shelley’s answer when asked for the source of Frankenstein’s monster: he emerged from chaos; the same chaos Milton called God’s ‘dark materials’, the stuff put to one side to use later once the world was made. This chaos inside an artist’s head celebrated by the mythology of antiquity and poets of yore is where real vision is born, and its sense of mystery and excitement must be recaptured and reinvigorated today.

But despite treading a fine line between championing human imagination and deferring to what sometimes sounds like eerie subconscious forces, Conrad’s final conclusion verges on the nihilistic: following 9/11, ‘what passes for creativity [today] is a positive orgy of destructiveness’, and ‘we have lost the limits now’. In this, he affords far too much ‘imagination’ to international terrorists and far too little to the rest of us, keying into a popular misanthropism about what might happen if creativite thinking were really wielded by anybody. In fact, the situation has a lot more to do with a lack of confidence when it comes to dealing with ideas more generally. And in this, Conrad is right to diagnose a general ‘failure of the critical intellect’ and point out that the lack of a strong, positive response from artists, writers and their critics only frustrates the situation further. In the absence of a satisfying critique – politically and also more broadly throughout the culture – of the supposed threat of terrorism and its associated ‘anti-Western’ sentiment, no wonder the present is confusing, the future bleak.

Stefan Collini, author of the challenging Common Reading, explored this problem further by focusing on the question of critics and their publics, and the putative demise of both. Collini was inspiring in challenging the nostalgic literary pessimism that often pervades discussions about critic’s death. But to explain away today’s absence of clear and confident authorities by claiming things simply ‘change with the times’, is to take a swings-and-roundabouts approach that fails to acknowledge encroaching social and political trends that have been gathering force since at least the end of the Cold War.

For instance, one question from the floor asked if there was any relationship between times of political tumult and the success of journals. The New Left Review, for instance, was founded in 1960, at a time of far greater political possibilities than seem apparent today. Collini suggested instead that the venture worked mainly due to the dedication of staff and a slice of private capital. Whilst this shows the playing field is far from fair, and not a simple matter of the triumph of ‘the ideas’, surely an analysis should say something about the journal’s announced political purpose and social context?

In thinking about the relationship between various media and the public, Collini noted how the rise of radio and television dramatically changed the way we communicated and tried to persuade each other, and suggested the internet is just another instance of a change in medium. However, any view that holds the ‘democratisation’ of criticism and generation of Web 2.0 solely responsible for the current state of critical thinking, puts far too much emphasis on the technology itself; and at the expense of recognising the superficiality and sometime coerciveness of the supposed democratisation.

Understanding today’s situation is difficult, and the discussion ended by talking about the rise and effects of digital publishing on critical culture. Chair and literary editor of the Scotsman David Robinson made the too-little heard point that the ease with which things can be published today is a cause for celebration; and the tendency to trip up on golden age thinking about the past is the poorest party pooper of all. Literary criticism has (nearly) always been for the elite and has had a limited sphere of influence: the expansion of the blogsphere means more people can proffer and argue their opinions, and new forms of authority can emerge. This doesn’t necessitate a demise in strong critical forces, however, and when it comes to considering the modest oportunities offered by Web 2.0, it seems possible to stand up for criticism itself without needing to do so by taking the old model of 1 critic + adoring public = critical culture.

The real power of divisive criticism comes from its ideas and ability to creatively understand - and shape - contemporary times. A more properly creative culture would work wonders, but not without strong critical voices unfazed by loosing the limits.


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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for this year’s Battle of Ideas festival.

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