I was re-reading Daniel Smith’s article about Lewis Hyde in the NYT Magazine recently, and got to thinking about this notion of a creative or cultural commons. In the article, Smith writes about distinguishing between
"rivalrous” resources, like drinking water, in which one person’s use by definition competes with another’s, and “nonrivalrous” resources, like the English language, which cannot be depleted no matter how many people make use of them.
What are the nonrivalrous resources of art? I guess there is a distinction to be drawn here between the world of art, and the art-world. (What is this so-called Art-World, anyway? Why is it always spoken of as though it was an alien planet, separate from the quotidian one we inhabit in our ordinary lives? Don’t we all have our own idiosyncratic art-worlds, which we reinvent daily, as the process of making and thinking about our work meshes and clashes with our lives? And is the cultural commons of art a kind of virtual park in which we can take the dog for a walk, when we need a break?) I think some kind of distinction is necessary, because there is clearly a commonly held feeling that the art world, per se, is a zero sum game. If one artist gets a grant, a residency, a show, a good review, well then, that means there is one less opportunity for you to get ahead. Thus your peers are your rivals, your colleagues your competitors. I suppose that in every field, fellow practitioners are also rivals, but I can’t help imagining that other fields, better compensated to begin with, have more clearly defined and less subjective standards of what good work is, and with simply more resources to go round, that the competition must have less of a desperate, bitter sting to it.
But enough of the art-world.
A painter friend with whom I recently shared my blog commended me for opening up my studio in this way. He observed the secrecy with which many artists cover their studio practices, to protect both whatever they may have managed to discover for themselves, and also their insecurity about things they may fear they are doing “wrong.” It isn’t that I don’t experience this impulse to protect myself, very strongly. But I’ve come to the point in my life where I’m tired of being ruled by fear and insecurity, and I don’t want to hide in my studio trying to protect my own little ideas, because there’s no faster way to watch them diminish and gutter out. And I don’t ultimately believe in the artist’s equivalent of a secret ingredient, one that cannot be divulged or else others will make works that taste the same as yours. There is no secret ingredient. We all have the same raw materials: the nonrivalrous resources of art: the deep well of art history, the endlessly recombinant elements of visual language. And we all have something unique: our own character, a stew whose flavors that can never be exactly replicated by someone else, and which will always impart its own distinct savor to our work. Ideally, of course, sharing our work would help us make it stronger, by further refining & distinguishing our ideas from others’. At any rate, even if we don’t share our work, to pretend to ourselves that we don’t need to, or that we work better in isolation, is to delude ourselves, and perhaps even harm our practice, or at least limit its potential development. Smith writes that Hyde takes pains to debunk this idea of the solitary genius, asking
. . . what might the creative self look like? Do we imagine that self as “solitary and self-made”? Or as “collective, common and interdependent?
Hyde plumps decisively for the latter, as the Smith describes his views on Benjamin Franklin’s inventions:
“Hyde shoves aside each of Franklin’s “discoveries” to uncover thick foundations of pre-existing knowledge and scientific collaboration. The point of all this is not to prove that Franklin wasn’t a genius but to show that his genius didn’t burst out of thin air. “It takes a capacious mind to play host to . . . others and to find new ways to combine what they have to offer,” Hyde writes, “but not a mind for whom there are no masters, not a ‘unique.’ Quite the opposite – this is a mind willing to be taught, willing to be inhabited, willing to labor in the cultural commons.”
It’s something to aspire to, this notion of capaciousness. To be bigger than our own small selves, to be open to discourse with people who disagree with us, to risk a conversation about the things we all hold so important. To share our ideas without being afraid of being ripped off, or exposed as fraudulent, unoriginal, pretentious, stupid. To see things in a new light, to be enriched by others’ understanding of ideas we have grappled with, to feel solidarity with others engaged in the same work we do, each of us alone.
I guess this blog is my small own attempt at accessing this mythic creative commons. To take the risk, as private, hermetic as I am, that sharing my ideas, process, journey will not harm me, but might in fact, enrich me. To see how capacious I can become.