THE TWO CREATION CARTOONS: introduce your promethean genius to the benefits of cultural windsocking

I’ve said this so many times and in so many ways now, and this book says it very exuberantly, that influence is understated or concealed when it needn’t be, or that I’m the sum of my cultural responsiveness…

There’s this cartoon figure of the creator that I’ve been sort of tilting against, and that’s the cartoon figure of this Promethean genius alone in a cave or in the vacuum of space who just makes something and it’s—what is it?—it’s urgent and they bring it to the culture and it came from nowhere except their genius; I think that that’s overstated and exaggerated and whether it comes from artists in a relationship to a really quite recent romantic… I mean in literary history, in the history of arts criticism, that romantic notion is located in time, it’s invented; it wasn’t always like that.

Or, whether it is also supplied—and I think it is sometimes supplied or exaggerated or heightened by the commercial imperative—to put a boundary around something so you can sell it. You know, you can’t sell a piece of land unless you put a fence around it and say it’s yours; if it’s just the land that everyone walks on you can’t collect money for it. So there’s this really powerful need in commercial/capitalist culture to have art objects be transferable and valuable and protectable… So that marriage to this myth of the romantic artist.

So I’ve been trying to pick it apart a little bit in various ways. But of course that puts me, finally, I end up realizing, oh my god, I’m creating this other myth or cartoon that is probably equally ridiculous, which is the sort of: I look like I’m a solitary person, but I’m really crowd-sourced. I’m really like a windsock just blowing with cultural stuff. And that also tells a lie; to me it’s, in a way, it’s the more attractive cartoon of what the artist is, just because it’s the unsung one.

But I grew up—well, I grew up with a painter dad who was making paintings, and the myth of the artist is a beautiful one and an attractive one to me. You know, I have an ego, I wanted to be congratulated for being able to make stuff. So it’s not that I’m not susceptible to the other one, I just want the two cartoons to talk to each other a lot, basically. I want them both up and running.

Jonathan Lethem discussing The Ecstasy of Influence at Book Passage. This video is part of a longer discussion that took place on Mon Nov 21 11.