Saturday, June 15, 2013

Creativity and Individuality

In “Navigating Nairobi: Artists in a Workshop System,” another of the chapters of African Art and Agency in the Workshop, Jessica Gerschultz describes the entire Nairobi art scene as, in effect, a permanent floating workshop. In this system, she writes, “[a]n artist builds his or her career through contacts with other artists—who provide leads within the system and share materials, expertise, and space…. It is the reliance on this social network, and the skills gained therein, that outweighs dependency on any one institution or individual.” (221)

At first blush, all this is surprising. Aren’t artists thought to be engaged in deeply solitary exploration of their own creative resources? If that picture of creativity is accurate, then the artist’s skillful maneuvering through the many levels of the Nairobi workshop seems more likely to interfere with his or her art than to enhance it.

But I’m realizing that the idea of the artist as deeply solitary is at best misleading. The artist may indeed be drawing on deep interior sources, but that’s not all he or she draws on. If it were, we wouldn’t all recognize, indeed take for granted, the existence of artistic schools and eras. Those shared esthetics don’t arise by accident; they’re the result of artists’ encountering each other’s work, and each other. As Till Förster, another contributor (and co-editor) of this volume says, a workshop “is often the place where artists become familiar with the aesthetic perceptions and normative expectations of others—be they fellow artists, teachers, or critics.” (“Work and Workshop: The Iteration of Style and Genre in Two Workshop Settings, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon,” at 326). In the world of twentieth-century English literature, my father, Richard Ellmann, once wrote a book, Eminent Domain: Yeats among Wilde, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Auden (1967), about the ways great writers engage with each other, which begins (at 3): "'Influence' is a term which conceals and mitigates the guilty acquisitiveness of talent." 

But there can be too much of a good thing, or rather too much social communication for the fostering of creative variation. As a general proposition, it seems safe to say that the more all-encompassing one’s social environment, the more one will conform to it. So in an Egba Yoruba family workshop, described by the anthropologist Norma H. Wolff in another chapter of this volume, “the imagination that fueled creativity imposed boundaries on innovation so that iteration of the family style was predictable.” (“‘A Matter of Must’: Continuities and Change in the Adugbologe Woodcarving Workshop in Abeokuta, Nigeria,” at 310). Förster also reports, by the way, that among the Senufo of northern Côte d’Ivoire, the carvers’ community is so significantly culturally differentiated from the larger group as to reasonably be described as a “tiny ethnic group living among the farming majority.” (Förster at 330.)

In that light, the Nairobi floating workshop begins to look like a very good way to foster fresh invention. Artists there, as everywhere, exist in a social situation – but in Nairobi there may be so many groupings and subgroupings, and so much freedom to move among them, that the artist is free, in fact obliged, to find the subgrouping of his or her choice. And even then the Brownian motion of the many component parts of this scene may guarantee that change is constant.

In today’s world, “what fosters change” is almost equivalent to “what is good.” It is worth remembering, though, that the striking works of African traditional art often seem to have been the product of cultures where much of what was to be admired was the faithful reproduction of the models handed down from the past. In the world in which that art was made, creativity was not absent; perhaps it flowed more slowly from generation to generation and yet very deeply.

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