Letter from America
In 2001 I was invited to make the keynote speech for a creative media conference at RMIT, Melbourne, entitled “Image & Text: Make It New”. Presentations would explore new work in a range of mediums that spanned creative writing, photography, animation, multimedia and interactive design. The conference ran 27 and 28 September, shortly after I was to have returned from a round-the-world research trip. But global events were to intervene and I was unable to make it back to Australia in time. This speech, delivered in my absence, was prepared in a series of emails keyed in at an all-night supermarket …
At 8.45am on Tuesday 11th September I was standing in a bathroom in Upper Manhattan, shaving. My host, a photographer for the New York Times, called me through to the living room – there was an ‘incident’ at the World Trade Centre. This could be big news…
…An hour later we had witnessed a second passenger plane plough into the other World Trade Tower, a third into the Pentagon and a fourth come down in a field outside Pittsburgh. An hour after that both towers of the World Trade Centre were gone – disintegrating like magnificent, deadly fireworks into the financial district of the world’s most powerful city. The American death toll in those two hours was as much as 25% of the total losses in the whole of the Vietnam War. The sun shone. It was a beautiful late summer’s day. We sat their slack-jawed. I still had shaving cream on my face.
The imperative Make it New has both an urgency and inherent danger. The urgency is to ensure that our written and visual languages, our imaginative building blocks, keep up with a rapidly evolving world and do not retreat into the cosy backrooms of nostalgia and pastiche. The danger is that newness for its own sake can be taken as a license to indulge in novelty at the cost of usefulness. The arts of communication through words and pictures are at the core of our cultural paradigm – a cultural paradigm that is at least as important as those of science, politics or philosophy. It plays an essential role in our development as individuals and as a society in a world which, though largely of our own collective making, accelerates beyond the comprehensive reach of the individual. Science may help understand the world and technology to change it; philosophy may help us create intellectual structures that give sense to the chaos, and politics give us the pragmatic methodologies to manage a relatively democratic social order; but it is our cultural practices that help us feel and experience the world in which we live.
Tuesday 11th September changed our understanding of the machinery and theatre of War. Now a passenger airliner is not simply a convenient means of transport, but a potential missile of destruction. Now a nation, which has intervened in the political affairs of nations around the world with almost total impunity, feels vulnerable in its homeland. Now, a high-rise building, housing enough people to populate a small town, must also be seen as a potential mass grave.
Tuesday 11th September is but one, albeit profound, moment of transformation in the arena of human activity we call War. But there are many other arenas and each is in constant flux under the impulse of ‘progress’. Mass communication, multiculturalism, increased longevity, the internet, multinational business and globalisation. These are some of the currents and streams that form the confluence of our daily lives. All is change. There is a constant need to adapt. And, if we are to maintain our balance and command of life, we must adapt holistically – not just in terms of what we know or what we can achieve, but how we relate those vicissitudes to ourselves collectively and as individuals. How we feel.
One question which I find I am asking myself increasingly often these days is “What is the Use of Art?” I don’t mean that as pejorative rhetoric. It is a question to which I believe surely there is an affirmative answer. But it is a question – a fundamental question – which I also think is not asked frequently enough – especially by cultural workers in my position. We cannot take the use of art for granted. Nor can we assume that the uses found true in the past will hold in the future (or even the present).
According to Edward Wilson, metaphors, the imaginative building blocks of written language and the siblings of visual pictorialism, are the result of spreading activation of the brain – the laying down of new neural pathways as our minds conceptualise fresh ideas. As such he sees them as the basic construction materials of creative thought at the halfway house between perception and understanding. Metaphor, an essentially cultural tool, is in the vanguard of cognition as it advances on new experience. Seen in this light, how could one not feel the imperative to make it new? To be a part of that fundamental human growth at the leading edge of individual and collective experience.
This is not the shock of the new – novelty for its own sake. This is the fresh growth at the living edge of an organic process that is rooted in the experience of the past. The philosopher Roger Scruton has observed the importance of the relation of the new to the traditions of the past:
“Originality is not an attempt to capture attention come what may, or shock or disturb in order to shut out competition from the world. The most original works of art may be genial applications of a well-known vocabulary … What makes them original is not their defiance of the past or their rude assault on settled expectations, but the element of surprise with which they invest the forms and repertoire of a tradition. Without tradition, originality cannot exist – for it is only against tradition that it becomes perceivable.”
The New does not spontaneously generate – arising like primitive life from the primordial ooze. It is very often the product of a process of synthesis.
Increasingly in our postmodern, multicultural world of global communication, this synthesis is born of the marriage of apparently disparate antecedents. This does not mark some inevitable decline into the ‘mid-grey’ homogeneity of uniformity. Synthesis takes existing forms and articulations, and makes from them something new and specific. Think of the arena of popular music where hybrid forms such as Bhangra Rap or Celtic Salsa maintain a distinct ethnic ‘voice’ whilst reflecting the locus (in time and geography) of two or more diasporic flows.
The New arises from the process of use – it is born of necessity – of the need to fashion a meaningful cultural identity in a world where geography, ethnicity and nationality no longer maintain fixed and familiar relations.
Tuesday 11th September marked, in the words of George W Bush, “The start of the first war of the 21st Century”. But it is a war that is directed neither at a nation state nor an ethnic group … nor even a geographic region. It is a conflict that will inevitably spawn a new vocabulary and stock of images through which to express whatever meaning such a campaign may have. It is up to us to create a cultural vocabulary with which to truly feel and evaluate our individual responses.
Art (be it text or picture) is not simply the expressive outpouring of an imaginative individual for the aesthetic gratification of other individuals; it is a carrier wave along which we communicate our perception of a changing world and it is the process by which we shape and extend our understanding of it.
By all means Make It New. But also Make It Useful. Make It Articulate. Make It Relevant to the lives we are about to live.
Make it Matter.