There was a prompt on the copperage facebook group (have you joined yet?) to discuss the relationship between culture and creativity. Particularly with an eye to the banality of the digital age. I’ve been pondering this for some days now. Online access means we can all get to a lot more content, sharing is rife, and anyone who can manage a computer can put out art, music, words, in a way that was not possible before. Well, historically you could pay to have anything you wanted produced, but you needed money for that, so not everyone could participate. One of the consequences is that the internet is full of badly crafted, low brow, derivative, plagiarised, unoriginal pap. But this isn’t new. Back before the internet people were making all the same things, they just didn’t have quite so much scope for putting it in front of anyone else.
Online, your name and reputation are the only things you have to sell your work, or even attract a non-paying audience to it, unless you’re going to pay for adverts. Some people cheat, crafting many alternative identities who go forth and write them wonderful reviews, but that uses up one hell of a lot of time. For the greater part, things, people, creativity gets known more widely by dint of being good, or appealing to its audience in some way. We aren’t all going to agree on the ‘good’ bit mind, and I think some popular things are unutterable rubbish, but so be it.
On to the relationship between creativity and culture. Obviously culture will inform what we produce – the levels of technology and training available to us, the things we have seen or read, the dominant themes and aspirations of our time, the influences and references we draw on. We are all to some degree products of our environment. At a most basic level, the language available to us informs what we might be able to think about and discuss. In English we have no word for taking pleasure in the beautiful transience of fleeting things, so it’s not a big part of our aesthetic. I gather in Japanese culture, it’s significant. We don’t have a word for the elegance of unshiny glamour – wabi sabi – very hard to explain in English, much less to hold up for other people to enjoy.
Culture as the Anglo/Japanese bit above should demonstrate, is not one homogenous thing. Even in a place as small as the UK, there are many different cultures, shaped by class, education, geography, religion, ethnicity and personal choice. The last bit is critical, because we can resist the dominant culture. Countercultures tend to define themselves in reference to the dominant culture, but inevitably go somewhere else, spawning forms of creativity that do not reflect the dominant trends. Counter cultures, I think, are often more vibrant when the dominant culture is bland and/ or repressive. There’s something exciting and transgressive about counter cultural movements that can beget revolutions. When the dominant culture makes it hard to speak literally, we turn to metaphor, to symbolism.
There are a lot of creative movements currently defying the digitally facilitated banality. Plenty of them use the interwebs to further what they do. Technology does not have to define creativity. I look at the wild stuff steampunks are doing, and all the pagan craftspeople who stick with natural materials and make real things. Despite the rise of ebooks, people are still making beautiful real books, on paper. Sometimes the challenge of the bland dominant culture pushes us towards new expression. Think about the bland music scene against which punk emerged, the wildness of Japanese counter culture, the poetry of those whose love dared not speak its name.
We can all choose. We are all capable of thinking and looking around us, and we are all capable of spontaneously rejecting the crap and responding to it by going in a new, more inspired direction.