Creativity and Romanticism

Cross-posted here.

In light of all the discussion over at Reading Gaddis about originality and creativity,  I was struck by the passage (on p. 89 in the Penguin) where Wyatt quotes Herr Koppel, his art instructor in Munich:

That romantic disease, originality, all around us we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original … Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way.  When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates … you do not invent shapes, you know them, auswendig wissen Sie, by heart…

Up to this point, I’d been thinking about originality and creativity in religious terms because of Aunt May’s diatribe about how being creative is usurping God’s role.  But Wyatt didn’t just get this lesson from Aunt May — he got it from Herr Koppel as well, who has entirely different reasons for critiquing creativity.  Herr Koppel, it seems, is an anti-Romantic; he looks back to the pre-Romantic era where artists didn’t value originality (at least not in the same way) and instead focused on honing their craft, which was best done by copying the masters.  You tried to internalize the best techniques that others had already mastered; you believed that there IS a set of techniques out there that constitutes the best techniques possible.

What Wyatt thinks of Herr Koppel’s view isn’t entirely clear; shortly before he quotes the passage I gave above, he says, “I felt like him, just for that instant, as though I were old Herr Koppel,” which leaves some room for distance or disagreement between the two.  But it does make clear that Wyatt has heard the message that originality and creativity are dangerous and undesirable from two different people in entirely different contexts, and it offers another reason why Wyatt’s relationship to creativity is so vexed.

It also opens the possibility that Gaddis is critiquing or responding to Romanticism in some way, a thought that became clearer to me when I came across this passage (p. 95, Wyatt is speaking):

Listen, this guilt, this secrecy, he burst out, — it has nothing to do with this … this passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour … what is it?  What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?  What do they expect?  What is there left of him when he’s done his work?  What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work?  the human shambles that follows it around?  What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.

The artist doesn’t matter; only the work does — in saying this, he’s critiquing the Romantic cult of the artist as genius.  The artist is really little but a conduit for the art itself — once the art exists, the artist doesn’t matter anymore.  Just two paragraphs later, he says, “There’s only one thing, somehow, he commenced, faltering — that … one dilemma, proving one’s own existence ….”  Not only does the artist not matter much, but apparently everyone has only a tenuous hold on their own existence.

This might help explain why so many things are unfinished in this novel, including sentences and conversations — there is very little that’s certain, very little to hold on to, no real reason to try to complete something and make it whole.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Creativity and Romanticism

  1. Wow- great post! I want to think more about this, then I’ll comment in greater detail on the site.

  2. Your comments raise a lot of questions for me, as applied to today’s culture…the copies of copies in music, design, literature/film as opposed to new, original works and ideas. What does it say about our culture when copies of songs from the 1960s, etc, are re-hashed by artists, who don’t attempt the “perfection” of the artists you mention above, copying the masters? They seem to make a copy for their own sake — it’s special only because THEY have made it, not because there’s any perfection of a previous artist’s work. Nor have they attempted the originality of the Romantics. Lots to digest here.

  3. Litlove — I’m looking forward to your thoughts!

    Debby — interesting points! You are right that SO many artists are riffing off of what other people have done — remakes, remixes, etc. There is creativity involved in doing that kind of work, but it’s different than setting out to do something nobody has done before. Perhaps we’re living in a very anti-Romantic age and have lost the idea of the Romantic genius?

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