Mosaic by Sandra Millott, 1991, in Rebar Restaurant
An original artist is unable to
copy. So he has only to copy in order to be original.
— Jean Cocteau
Cocteau’s clever paradox began to gnaw at me the first time I read it. The text seems contradictory and like a lot of quotes I come across on the internet, it would be easy to dismiss and forget. But when I took a moment to unravel this little knot and I found something worthwhile (...I think...).
A French modernist, Jean Cocteau was at the center of the Parisian avant garde in the early twentieth century. As a proponent of surrealism he was eager to expand our sense of reality, to discover our boundaries and fields of gravity.
This “frisson” is evident in Cocteau’s paradox. His first sentence, an original artist is unable to copy, provides our center of gravity: his premise, which we can accept, or debate. I’m inclined to allow it as something close to self-evident. The leading clause in the second sentence, he has only to copy, acts as a hinge to open the boundaries of our understanding. Because it’s impossible for an original artist to copy, when she attempts to imitate or copy others, she simply CANNOT. Therefore whatever efforts she makes to copy all result in something new and original.
Consider an example. Pablo Picasso was well known for his obsession with primitive art forms. He collected them, studied them, tried to incorporate them into his own sphere. But it was impossible for him to copy them. Every effort he made generated something unique.
I’m not surprised that Picasso and Cocteau were well acquainted. The painter and poet shared a certain approach to their work and audience. They both amuse and perplex us. Both artists open our eyes to new perspectives on the world. Fifty years later, their influence still resonates and their work rings true.
As far as I’m aware, William S. Burroughs is the first contemporary writer to openly acknowledge the bond between a writer and his readers as the process of imaginative collaboration is about to begin.**
His story, “Twilight’s Last Gleamings,” was supposedly written in 1938, when he was twenty-four, then re-drafted in 1949. Regardless of the genesis, the story presents a remarkable about-face from the standard notion of the story as a “delivered object” which the reader “receives” as a kind of second-class citizen in our hyper-narrative culture. Burroughs runs the traditional equation backwards. First, the reader’s imagination—not the author’s—is required to bring the story alive.
Burroughs provides the same sort of jolt to readers that René Magritte offered to viewers of his painting “This is not a pipe.” Burroughs and Magritte are having a bit of a joke, of course, but they both force their audiences to pause and consider three interdependent elements: the work of art, its creator, and those who experience the work—be it fiction, painting, music, or whatever form is on offer.
Ultimately all three keys are required to unlock the experience. Furthermore, two elements of this trinity—the audience and object—can be separated by any span of time, a fact demonstrated by the awe-inspiring re-discovery of the 17,000-year-old cave art in Lascaux, France. I imagine we in the 21st century would enjoy similar delights if an unknown play by Sophocles was screened on YouTube or a lost score by Mozart went viral in MP3 format.
The point is that art connects us to one another, one by one, in an instant (or across the millennia) as soon as the third link—the audience—attends to the work of art. No matter how long the work has been lost or found, no matter if the artist is renowned or obscured in the dust of time, the audience ensures the work can live and breathe.
The unique trinity of art is as durable—and as fragile—as humanity itself, and accessible to anyone who seeks to know the inner life it reveals. Art is a gift we offer to one another with generosity and affection. Embrace it and take comfort.
** There may be others; perhaps as an invocation at the opening of Elizabethan or Greek plays. Please email me if you know of earlier precedents.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the original Mr. “K.” For a writer who published very little during his lifetime, Franz Kafka knew a lot about how to do it well. An original stylist, a social visionary who extrapolated the dynamics of his working life (in insurance) into a portrait of a world gone mad—Kafka is one of the few artists who anticipated the pervasive and perverse horrors of Nazi and Soviet bureaucracies.
Q: What can today’s
writers learn from Kafka?
A: Commitment to an inner vision. Disregard of fashion. Abandonment of a logical framework to support metaphors, ideas, narratives.
So many young writers are desperate to make it, to break through, to land a triple book contract and be celebrated by Oprah. Kafka is the paragon of the artist who forsakes all aspirations for fame, glory, money. He is the opposite of Hemingway: sickly, insular, unmarried. He turned to writing for salvation. There he found the universe sprawling before him. He took dictation from his imagination, unfettered by pop fashion and contemporary flare.
The importance of Kafka to me? The imperative of embracing writing for its own sake. The experience is self-sustaining and complete—a feeling, I think, akin to levitation.
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