Part of what got me going yesterday was some rather provocative discussion of innovation and art that has recently taken place on two blogs: Ron Silliman’s and Big Other. (I learned of the latter from the former.) I’m unfamiliar with A D Jameson, the author of the Big Other post, but I have read Silliman’s blog irregularly for the last couple of years. I sincerely appreciate the efforts of both men to get a handle on what is indeed an incredibly dynamic and complex issue.
I suppose that I’m interested in renovation in part because it seems to me to represent an historically significant midpoint between the extremes of Absolute Innovation and Absolute Convention, which Jameson sensibly ties to the unfamiliar and the familiar respectively. (These surely represent the more moderate ends of a lengthy continuum between outright plagiarism and utter incomprehensibility, per Frank Kermode.) Silliman, however, dismisses the ‘renovative’ initiative that I view as so central to the course of Western literature: "That which forwards the evolution of poetry, something that occurs raggedly & in fits & starts, is really the heart of writing practice, the pump that breathes life into verse & makes it relevant to our lives. This is why Charles Olson was a major poet and Robert Lowell a wasted minor talent at best.... Hybridism wants to be new & it wants to be the well-wrought urn. For the most part, it accomplishes neither. Above all else, it is a failure of courage." Let's leave aside the issue of courage (I can't be persuaded that a text as audacious as Paradise Lost, which is an overt effort at hybridization or renovation, is anything but an act of incredible daring).
I regard myself as a champion of both experimentation and innovation--certainly, per Eliot, artistic novelty is more interesting than verbatim repetition. Even so, I’m uncomfortable with the view that an innovative work is necessarily ‘better’ or more valuable than its less innovative counterparts. (Of course, Silliman doesn’t make that express claim; he merely asserts that Olson is major to Lowell’s minor.) I can’t, for example, be convinced that Christopher Smart is a greater talent than Alexander Pope, although I readily acknowledge that Jubilate Agno is the most innovative work produced by either of the two. In discussions of innovation in art, it seems to me that we often conflate the commercial value of innovation with its aesthetic value. In the context of commerce, the value of an innovation is established on a utilitarian basis; its worth is directly correlated to the degree to which it simplifies or enables a functional end or series of ends, and, in this regard, its value is empirically demonstrable. Unless one accepts the idea that value inheres in novelty even when it is divorced from utility (which would lead to a set of confused and essentially incoherent evaluative criteria in an otherwise empirically-driven system), a new mousetrap has no definite value beyond that which we may attribute to it on the basis of its newness alone (or on an aesthetic basis); it’s simply new. A better mousetrap, however, is something else entirely: it supersedes (and may even render obsolete) preexisting models precisely because it is more functional than its predecessors. And it is within the relatively linear trajectory of enhancements in functionality, of ever better mousetraps, that ‘progress’ lies. (The innovation of the iPad is valuable not because it will simply “change the way we do things every day,” but because it will measurably improve or simplify the means by which we do those things.)
Art, however, is not a comparably utilitarian enterprise (if it may said to be a utilitarian enterprise at all). It may or may not be true, as Silliman writes, that “any history of poetry is a history of change in poetry,” but in any event that history is not one of improvements in efficiency and literary functionality. Moreover, unless we accept a painfully reductive view of the arts (wherein an art object’s value is correlated strictly to one of its measurable dimensions, as, for example, its informational content), it’s virtually impossible to make any empirical demonstration of artistic value, let alone ‘progress.’ Eliot’s work is certainly different from Wordsworth’s, but it cannot be meaningfully characterized as an ‘improvement’ over Wordsworth, nor does it render Wordsworth’s poetry obsolete. (The same is true with regard to Olson and Lowell.) On the contrary, to borrow from “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” it seems to me that the “whole of literature… has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” This is true in large part, I think, because we are the technology that produces literature, and until there are significant advances in the human machine, we are left to feel and, in many cases, think as our ancestors did. It seems to me that, despite almost inconceivable changes in the world around us, the fundamentals of the human condition have changed little, if at all, since the advent of our species roughly 200,000 years ago; and this is why Odysseus compels us still.