AGENTS PROVOCATEUR

Some radical expressions look innocuous and obvious in hindsight, like Dylan plugging in his guitar in 1965. 

Some radical expressions look innocuous and obvious in hindsight, like Dylan plugging in his guitar in 1965. 

You can’t even say some of the following names without cultural baggage falling off the train and crashing into your shins.

Robert Mapplethorpe
Sally Mann
Damien Hirst
Ai Weiwei
Judy Chicago
John Cage
Vaslav Nijinsky
…and so many more. 

The list spins out as long as the history of human creativity itself. There are always creators among us who make immediate sense, who make stuff that fits into preconceptions of what we imagine new creative work to be. This is true of every discipline. In this context the term creators refers to people who conceive, build, or otherwise devise solutions to problems of one form or another, and those problems do not need to fit into the traditional “arts”.  The inventor of the first collateralised debt obligation would be a creator by this definition. Even though most of us don’t trade in mortgage backed securities and therefore wouldn’t have thought of how to devise one ourselves, we immediately understand the concept of these things with just a little explanation. 

What destabilizes the cultural universe are creative ideas that people don’t fit into neat categories, that don’t behave like things that have come before. That can be stylistic or that can be substantive, and the dividing line between new and radically new can shift like the edge of the tide. When it happens, however, culture seizes, sometimes in shock, sometimes in fascinated rapture. I’m looking at you Nicolaus Copernicus, and you too, Tim Berners-Lee.

When the cubists began repositioning objects in space according to their own visual rules, the art world reacted in baffled  shock and even dismay. (Think: Picasso.) When mainstream fiction writers began to place adolescent characters in more grown-up circumstances than the establishment had previously accepted, people recoiled and protested. (Think: J.D. Salinger) When Bob Dylan plugged in to his amplifier at Newport, it was more than aural feedback that rocked the house. 

Plenty of new, even radical ideas from a wide range of intellectual disciplines have come and gone in the history of humanity, and most didn’t survive for the same reasons that countless species have succumbed to Darwinian pressures. Rarely do ideas survive for long if they’re not worthy. But just because some expressions have been perceived as shocking does not automatically make them irrelevant or useless. In fact, provocations in creative thought are not only natural but necessary.

The challenge is to meet new ideas with critical eyes without dismissing the work before it’s had a chance to evolve sufficiently. Not all new expressions are worth keeping around and time is usually the best test bed to figure out which ones should stay. Sometimes it’s possible to make a good choice right away, to notice the surprise and realize that a new, surprising star has flared to life in the void. That decisive process is a function of critical reasoning, or aesthetic judgement, and it’s a skill that can be cultivated. But critical analysis does not automatically confer correct judgement. I would hate to have vocal congressional leaders deciding the artistic merits of contemporary creative work. Being critical, even for cause, does not confer authority to quash. 

Science and art share traits in many ways even as they diverge in many others. The destabilizing moment that stemmed from the emergent Copernican view of the cosmos survived because it ultimately stood to reason. The destabilizing moment following Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon transformed into an aesthetic revolution because the work introduced major new ideas into a range of subjects, not least of which was the very nature of how an artist my refract the concept of reality. 

And yet, cultural free-for-alls are not good solutions either. Everything is not equivalent. Everything is not worthy of equal time. The challenge continues, always. Some provocations are simply garrulous and grotesque and hardly worth a second glance. Some provocations are like forest fires clearing out scraggly dead brush, enabling bold new groves to sprout and grow, big and strong. We could argue what the boundary conditions are between the simply provocative and the genuinely profound. The point here is that creative people often make things that do not conform because that is the process of being creative. The rest of the world is not obligated to love the result, but it is obligated to realize that without the agitations of daring ideas, the world remains in an eternal ebb tide, predictable but prone to stagnation. 

@michaelstarobin

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