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Sunday, 5 May 2013

On formal innovation in the arts, morality and death

In this blobby age when every style is acceptable and noone cares what you read, or listen to, or what paintings you look at, the aspirations of people who once sought to find the New seem a little outre and dated. Does anyone care that on the margins formal innovation continues? Isn't that a bit like a tech startup except you don't make any money?

As we pass from the era of regular capitalism into the age of the plutocrats, an age of inconceivable private wealth that is facilitated and, in fact, enabled by global trade, we contemplate a completely new set of cognates, within the orbits of which K-pop and the Chinese cultural elites are as important as whatever regulation party music is being produced by whatever California record empire. Savvy Queensland consumers might take their kids to see the Surrealist exhibition at the gallery on Southbank (see pic) but local fiction writer Nick Earls is focusing on the wine trade with Taiwan, drone strikes controlled from the Nevada desert, and an ethnically south Asian Scottish couple touring the Spanish hinterland.

To extend the international reach of this blogpost, in Japan politeness is a moral imperative. By the same token, it used to be that artistic form had a moral function; it was and still is about the how rather than the what. The what is, and always has been, the content of the production. But the formal aspect of the production has usually been even more important. It's on the same level as the definition of a species. A species is a collection of living organisms that can beget a new generation. The formal qualities of a work of art are of the same nature. If you're not receptive to them, the message they carry does not even get through. You cannot even see it. It is as if the work were invisible. It might be written in English, but the reader cannot understand it, as though it were written in another language. It is offensive. It is wrong. It is morally abhorrent. Don't bring that filth into this house.

But fortunately for fathers and mothers of wayward children formal innovation has been very rare across the reach of recorded time. The Greeks and the Romans created formal styles to carry culture from person to person, and from city to city. But after the Romans there was very little formal innovation until the 14th century in Italy and southern France. Two hundred years before Shakespeare, Italian poets reconstructed culture using the vernacular, instead of Latin, and brought forth forms that would endure until the end of the 18th century.

This stuff was well-known 150 years ago even in Australia. One of the founders of the University of Sydney, and a fabulous Australian democrat, William Wentworth, named the part of Sydney where his house was located 'Vaucluse', after the part of France where Petrarch lived when he was writing his groundbreaking sonnets, and it even has a Petrarch Avenue. It is perhaps fitting that my mother's gift shop was located on the corner of Petrarch Avenue. For a man like Wentworth, it was axiomatic that Shakespeare, though wildly creative and endlessly rewarding to read, was formally not innovative. He stood, as it were, on the shoulders of giants. And perhaps Wentworth's message is that we need to understand the late Middle Ages better; it was, after all, the age in which the university came into being. And if any institution - apart from the Catholic Church - continues to possess relevance, it is the university.

Poor old Shakespeare only had a basic education. In the next generation Ben Jonson was instrumental in some formal innovation by looking back to the Romans, and his legacy endured for the next 200 years until the Sons of Revolution - Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey; haggard, itinerant university dropouts - started plotting their own aesthetic revolution, which broke out in 1797 with the publication of Lyrical Ballads. But again they looked back, this time to Shakespeare, and going forward inspired a generation of young people to renovate the entire social order along lines established by the highest aspirations of the Enlightenment. The 19th century was a great age of refinement; even the terms Renaissance and Middle Ages were establish in those years. It was an age of knowledge, of progress, of industrial development.

The American Revolutionary War - only possible due to the taking of Montreal, by the British, in 1759, a move that anaesthetised a potential threat from the north that had long plagued the colonists along the Atlantic coast - fostered the early Romantics by inspiring them with radical ideas about self government. And the nexus of geopolitics and culture has never been tighter than it was for the early Romantics, in the final years of the 18th century, and hardly an age has been more fecund; it is also to this age that we owe the innovations, in the novel, of Jane Austen.

Austen looked back, of course, to Samuel Richardson, who made popular the epistolary novel, the ultimate vehicle for the communication of intimate feelings (I can feel that the women reading this blogpost are finally paying attention). If the early Romantics were our link to Shakespeare, Richardson is the feminist analogue, linking Austen to Cervantes; the novel was always a female distraction, hardly worth considering, low culture, dreck, rubbish. In his 1833 masterwork, Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin, who basically invented Russian literature, has Onegin's love-interest Tatyana sitting reading Richardson in a French translation. Like Tatyana's, the capacious brain of Austen hoovered up the entire poetic and novelistic production of the 18th century. Austen's then vomited up a small collection of perfect works that have fertilised the imaginations of every living writer since, from Dickens to Bolano. Meanwhile, Coleridge infected Rimbaud (pace Baudelaire) who in turn infected Poe leading to the emergence of a whole set of genre fiction from crime novels to sci-fi to thrillers.

They're like entirely new species. Austen was a new species. Coleridge was a new species. Petrarch was a new species. And in our age, in 2013, they all swim around in the cultural soup along with Daniel Silva and Dashiel Hammet. How rich is our dole. How fortunate we are. How blessed by a surfeit of cultural productions we are. But still there is innovation. Still the irritant that plagues the rich man who wants for nothing but whose mind is possessed by a thousand fears. Still the need to tell your unique story. Still the need to parent an entirely new generation of artists and writers. Like the comedian in front of her audience or the hunter in the swamp with his eyes keenly open looking for the prey: still the need to kill.

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