When you want to create at the cutting edge, what use do you have for the dusty plaster casts, stodgy poems and clouded images of the past? On the other hand, if you decline to stand on the shoulders of giants, how will you see above the clouds to the clarity beyond? Ironically, the more individual my work has become, both in content and in style, the more clearly it fits within the lineage of practitioners that have influenced and shaped my way of seeing and responding to the world. Initially, I was trying everything on for size, like a child assembling outfits from a parent’s wardrobe, aping first this style, or that mannerism, playing at being a grown-up photographer. You could identify individual images as being derivative of a particular picture or photographer, but my approach was too scattershot for its roots to be divined clearly. Lacking roots, it lacked direction. As I paid equal attention to my practice and to the work of the photographers, artists, writers and filmmakers I admired, I assembled a constellation of mentors, alive and dead — stars I could navigate by.
I’m not nostalgic — the past is not the sky that I’m striving towards, but instead it’s the soil that I grow out of. It’s a store of nourishment from which to draw energy for artistic or personal evolution. The soil of a garden feeds the fruits and flowers and makes the beauty on display possible; but to crawl through the garden venerating the dirt, rather than admiring the blooms is to miss the point. The past is rich, and can be nourishing, but it’s dead. It cannot be reanimated, only reinterpreted. Therefore, the choice is ours — what do we want to make a part of us, and what do we want to leave buried in the mulch?
Artistic lineage has one major advantage over genealogy — you get to pick your parents. Rather than parachute into an existing family, you get to choose your ancestors, both those that nourish you and those who fuck you up. It can feel like I have little choice in the work that resonates with me on a visceral level — the latticework of artists, writers and filmmakers I appreciate emerges from the sea of information that I swim in. However, there is an active and fruitful role I can play, and that is to do what Alan Jacobs calls “swimming upstream.” While I continue to explore generally, I also begin to paddle backwards through the winding rivers, streams and tributaries of influence that flowed into my heroes. When I swim towards the source, and I study my heroes’s heroes, and their heroes’s heroes in turn, it’s possible to better understand the (otherwise inscrutable) process that lead to the work that I admire. As I trace these divergent lineages and recombine influences from further back, I find it easier to make work that shares a sensibility or mood with the work I love, but stands alone. I don’t want to be a covers band, rehashing Trent Parke, William Eggleston or Rinko Kawauchi’s greatest hits. Instead I can drink in their influences like Koudelka, Cartier Bresson, or Takashi Homma and use them as a departure point for my own work. Equally, I am free to tend or prune the various branches to shape a creative environment in alignment with my artistic ambition.
Lineage doesn’t have to run in one direction from past to present to future. Instead, at its best it can be a living web. Influence runs back and forth between the nodes as peers share in a zeitgeist and their new creations converse with the canon, to illuminate new facets and interpretations of work both old and new. Lineage runs horizontally as well as vertically. I view this process through the prism of Brain Eno’s distinction between the ‘scenius’ and the ‘genius’ models of creativity. The idea of the genius striving in isolation, a mercurial conduit for the muse, free from worldly concerns is the dominant conception of creativity. I think that it’s both mistaken and disabling to aspiring makers and creators. This vision of creativity births the guy (it’s always a guy) at the writing workshop who declares that he doesn’t read other writers in order to protect the purity of his vision. Or to the art student who refuses to learn to draw representationally because ‘that’s just bourgeois bullshit’. An ideal of creativity that’s so fragile it must be locked away for its own safety seems impoverished at best and damaging at worst. How can you create the unique work that you fetishise, when you are ignorant of what’s come before? How can you create work that inspires, when you aren’t willing to learn your craft to a level where your skills do justice to your ideas?
Scenius is an alternative vision: art as conversation, art as collaboration, art as contribution. Scenius says that art arises in community, from movements; during vigorous critiques, Friday afternoon studio visits, long walks, and drinks after the show. It’s an evolutionary process, not a zero sum battle. Ideas percolate and diffuse throughout an ecosystem, and groups arise, splinter and die in a continual cycle of expansion, inspiration and collapse. Scenius recognises the artists themselves, but also the essential role played by the partners and facilitators, the people looking after the kids, the comforter during the breakdown or the partner with the real job, without whom nothing would be possible. No one creates in isolation. The lone writer in a studio flat or the artist in their garret remains tethered to the outside world — from the electricity that powers the laptop, to the cedar that encases the pencil or the farmer that grows their lunch. Everything is interconnected.
Your relationship with the past doesn’t have to be positive to be fruitful. Many successful art and political movements arose in reaction to a hated predecessor — they used the opponent’s shape to define their own boundaries and drew energy from the conflict. Romanticism framed itself as an alternative to Neo-Classicism and The Impressionists challenged the dominance of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In the political domain, the US civil rights movement fought for nearly a century to attain equality, spurred on by the injustices of the Jim Crow laws. This process applies to families as much as it applies to movements. Sometimes the sins of the father can be a better model for personal growth, than the story of a saint.
In apophatic theology understanding God’s positive qualities was seen as impossible for the limited human mind; so they tried to approach the problem by negation, describing what God is not, rather than what God is. This method of defining something in opposition to what it’s not is called via negativa, ‘the negative way’; and we can use it for more mundane ends. I find it easier to identify behaviour I don’t like in myself or others and do the opposite, than to reason about the best way to act from first principles. Don’t underestimate the power of a negative role model — I’ve learnt a lot about how not to live through contact with shitty people. You must take care, as righteous anger is a fuel that doesn’t burn clean and can be dangerous to run on for extended periods. You run the risk of choking on the fumes of bitterness and envy, two potent creative pollutants.
Bad art can be an effective teacher too. Often, I find it hard to identify which elements make a masterpiece special — the final work often appears so inevitable and unified that the window into its creation is opaque to me. However, when I read a lazy article or watch a terrible film, its problems are so legible that it’s easier to pull creative commandments from the wreckage:
- Thou shalt not choose the fancy word when a simple one will do
- Thou shalt not signal the sad part with violins
- Thou shalt not use ‘wears glasses’ as a synonym for intelligence
You can go too far — I need to make sure that I am looking at enough good work to maintain my sensitivity to the failings of crap media. My rule is that I view good work to improve my taste and use bad work as a microscope to identify my own failings.
At a fundamental level, shaping this edifice of influence is itself a creative act. The evolution of a lineage is informed by the existing structure, but accepts a guiding hand to steer its development. Your ability to control the process is more like a gardener tending to their garden, than an architect dictating plans. How will you select and nurture the ancestors of your aspirations?
I delayed this newsletter, as I wanted to switch to a Thursday release to preserve my weekends and my sanity. I tried multiple times to write a speedy essay after a Sunday release, but I seem to be be incapable of doing anything creative quickly. Instead I have held this issue back, and like a failing school child forced to repeat a year, it has swollen in size to dwarf its younger and punier classmates.
Also, huge shout out to Austin Kleon whose writings have informed both the core of my thinking about creative process in general and the ideas in this newsletter more specifically.
Daily-ish by Oliver Burkeman
A pragmatic meditation on moderation in discipline. An argument against the cult of the daily routine.
Emoji Under the Hood by Nikiti
I really enjoyed this nerdy and enthusiastic breakdown of how emojis are encoded. It’s mildly technical, but you can skip the coding stuff and still enjoy the look under the hood. Did you know that country flags are encoded in special two letter ligatures, so if you reverse the letters 🇺🇦 becomes 🇦🇺?
Ski parachuting speed run into a deserted mountain town
Very silly but beautifully executed film of a discipline of ski lunacy that I was unaware of until now.
Dodo Jin Ming
Austere and minimal images of nature and in particular the power of the sea
Sounds of Art + Attention
Thanks to Adam’s excellent suggestion, I’ve made a rolling playlist of all the music I’ve recommended in previous issues. If you subscribe to it, you will receive all the new music every week without needing to click through the links. I was clever enough to set it up last week, but sadly not clever enough to remember to include the link in the last newsletter…
Parallel by Four Tet
Warm, squelchy and bleepy — it’s Four Tet through and through and it’s lovely
Soul Music by Special Request
Deep and dark — dance, future bass, DnB, techno
Claustro / State Forest by Burial
The second track on this EP came on in my Spotify ‘Made For You’ playlist and from the moment I heard the crackle of the static in the intro I knew it was Burial and that I was in for a treat. Burial is one of my favourite artists and one of the biggest non-visual influences on my work, particularly my night pictures