Monday, 24 February 2014

The good strife…

The modern artist must live by craft and violence. His gods are violent gods. Those artists, so called, whose work does not show this strife, are uninteresting.
– Ezra Pound

I was talking to a good friend of mine, recently – Duke Senior to my Jaques; or Corin to my Touchstone…? – about the conflict or strife that we both believe is at the heart of artistry. Having written, drawn, composed, and designed things for most of my life, I have always been interested in what motivates or fuels the process of creating. [Interestingly, ‘motivated art’ is defined as that “produced under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs” – but I think imagination, or whatever spurs one to produce something (hopefully, original and interesting), is medication (and motivation) enough: often pushing you in directions you would never have dreamed of, if not under its influence. (Although I am still convinced that I play the piano much, much better after two pints of Guinness, of course.)]

A lot of creative people I know, or have met, talk about “striving” for their art – but modern-day usage seems to have disunited the word ‘strive’ and its sister ‘strife’ (implying that one is good, one bad): even though both appear to have joint thirteenth-century origins in the Old French ‘estriver’. Strife itself, as a noun, is usually defined as “angry or violent struggle; conflict”; whilst striving, the verb, is about making “a great and tenacious effort”. Yin and yang?

Going back even further, Hesiod – who lived towards the end of the eighth century BC; and who I suppose you could call a ‘farmer-philosopher’ (whose natural successor, therefore, is Tysoe’s legendary character, Tew…) – discusses these two types of strife in his seminal Works and Days: classifying them as good competition and bad conflict.

So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife [Eris] alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due.

But the other is the elder daughter of dark Night [Nyx], and the son of Cronos who sits above and dwells in the aether, set her in the roots of the earth: and she is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel.
– translated by Hugh G Evelyn-White


This isn’t to say that great works of art haven’t been inspired (if that’s the right word…) by great conflict – such as Pablo Picasso’s overwhelming Guernica; Benjamin Britten’s intense and moving War Requiem; and most of Wilfred Owen’s published œuvre (never to be surpassed…) – plus, of course, there have been official ‘war artists’: such as John Nash, Stanley Spencer, and Eric Ravilious. It could also be posited that this blog would not have existed were it not for the local war against unsuitable and unsustainable development….

I did write, though, in an earlier post, that my work “stems from antithesis, from conflict: whether flippancy and earnestness; art and science; good and bad; happiness and sadness”; and it is this inner friction, I suppose (combined with a wish always to improve, to learn) – rather than the external competition Hesiod describes – that often initiates inspiration, and then translates it into prolonged perspiration (usually interspersed with huge chunks of doubt…). As Blake put it: “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.”

If I lost this urge, I would – having experienced it all my life – feel its loss as keenly as the removal of one of my senses. (And being hard of hearing – and currently completely anosmic: due to the ravages of some awful virus… – this isn’t just mere whimsy.) But do those who never (or infrequently) have such an impulse miss it too? I often hear people wish that they could play a musical instrument: but this is usually in comparison with someone who already does; and usually is mere whimsy.


The prompt for my discussion with ‘Duke Senior’ was the (apparent) lack of creativity of modern Denmark: apparently the happiest nation on earth – followed closely by Norway and Switzerland – and thus lacking “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. [I must admit that – as with the old challenge to list famous Belgians – I struggle to name any creative Dane since Carl Nielsen (whose Det Uudslukkelige symphony echoes the First World War…): apart from Arne Jacobsen – and he died in 1971!]

As Harry Lime says in The Third Man (an impromptu line, added during filming, by Orson Welles himself…):

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Although historically inaccurate, it does have a convenient ring of truth to it!


Does creativity really, therefore, require strife or conflict – internal or external – to exist; or even to succeed?

I believe it at least matters. And I believe it is visible; made manifest. It seems that in many of the arts – if not all – the artist has grown to be more important than the actual art, though; the idea more important than its implementation. There is no strife (and it could be said that the only god is Mammon); and I believe its absence in many glib, calculated, knowing – mostly modern – supposed works of art is also, therefore, visible: which is why I believe it “will undoubtedly be seen as crass and talentless; and will fall into the Room 101 of already-discarded, faded-from-memory, trash.”

It may be crafty; but it lacks craftsmanship. It may be artful; but it ain’t art.

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