Creative Magic

By David Trend

“The central question upon which all creative living hinges is: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures hidden within you?” With this entreaty, author Elizabeth Gilbert introduced her recent bestseller Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which offered an artistic cure for an anxious American culture.[i] Speaking directly to widespread feelings of disaffection and powerlessness, Big Magic romanticized artistry in Gilbert’s signature blend of sentiment and cliché––packaging familiar views (human creativity, divine creativity, etc.) with a self-help twist about creating one’s “self” in new and better ways.  While one easily can write off Big Magic as yet another feel-good advice book (which it surely is), I think it’s time to take Gilbert’s approach to creativity seriously and ponder why such ideas now get so much traction.

Publicity doesn’t hurt. Reviewers effused over Big Magic as a “book-length meditation on inspiration” (Newsday) to “unlock your inner artist” (Woman’s Day) and “dream a life without limits” (Publishers’ Weekly).[ii] This message resonated well with the rising chorus promoting creativity as an innovation engine and economic tonic.  While no one would dispute the positive benefits of a little artistic dabbling, at what point does such wishful thinking begin to border on delusion? Or put another way, when does fantasy paper over reality? Might it be that America’s fondness for make-believe is party behind the nation’s political confusion and disaffection? Do fairy-tale versions of life infantilize a citizenry that should know that answers don’t always come easily?  Certainly the fantasy-version of reality offered by certain politicians would fail any thoughtful analysis. But instead, many leaders continue treating their constituents like children, with entire governments encouraging populations to set worries aside and simply “Be Creative.”

In Magical Thinking and the Decline of America, historian Richard L. Rapson took a long look at the nation’s romantic idealism. “Probably in no other society of the world can one write the script for one’s life as completely as United States. This fact has made the nation the ‘promised land’ for much of the world over the past two centuries,” Rapson wrote. “The flight into endless self-improvement and innocent optimism has a long lineage in our past.”[iii] Perhaps anticipating Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, Rapson pointed to the disconnection between America’s self-image as an “exceptional” driver of human history, and the growing evidence of the nation’s falling fortunes. This has led to what Rapson described as a growing “flight from knowledge and reality into faith and fantasy,” resulting in large part from “an American public increasingly in thrall to the fairytales told by the mass media.”[iv]  It also promotes a “cultural fixation on the individual, the personal, the biographical, the confessional, and, all too often, the narcissistic,” and hence the rise of new “magic words” like “self-awareness,” “personal growth” and other aphorisms promoting everyone to “be all that you can be.”[v]

Individualism lies at the heart of American idealism, dating to the country’s Enlightenment Era origins, when the autonomous subject was invented as a counterpoint to deific and royal authority. Necessary as individualism was (and remains), no one could have predicted how its value could be magnified and distorted in neoliberal times.  The initial affirmation of personal identity, which encouraged people to vote and participate in society, soon morphed into “striving to get ahead” and “winning at any cost.” Eventually the “self” would become an American obsession of theological proportions. “The purpose of nearly all the current gospels is to put believers ‘in touch’ with themselves,” Rapson further explained.[vi] This new brand of secular “faith” also comports well with the religiosity many Americans still profess, especially evangelical strains that promise economic gain to dutiful worshippers. Continue reading “Creative Magic”

Appropriation versus fair use


To many photographers, a federal appeals court ruling last spring that permitted Richard Prince to use someone else’s photographs in his art was akin to slapping a “Steal This” label on their work.

As the New York times reports, “The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reasoned that as long as Mr. Prince’s work transformed the images into original art, he was not violating anyone’s copyright.

But photographers are pushing back against that interpretation. Several membership and trade organizations have banded together recently to press their cause in Congress and the courts.

“More than half a dozen groups, including the National Press Photographers Association, Professional Photographers of America and the Picture Archive Council of America, have joined together to submit a friend of the court brief to support the photographer Patrick Cariou, after part of his case against Mr. Prince was sent back to a judge for reconsideration. That informal coalition is considering hiring a Washington lobbyist, said Victor Perlman, general counsel for the American Society of Media Photographers, and, last month, several of the groups sent representatives to meet with legislators, including members of a House of Representativessubcommittee.

“One photographer has also decided to pursue a similar court fight, despite last spring’s ruling. In December, Lois Greenfield, a dance photographer, filed a lawsuit in federal courtin Manhattan, arguing that paintings of dancers a Texas artist made violated her copyright. Continue reading “Appropriation versus fair use”

Art and Queer Culture

Recently released with book launches in Los Angeles and New, Art and Queer Culture by Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer is now available. As the authors write:

“Spanning 125 years, Art and Queer Culture is the first major historical survey to consider the ways in which the codes and cultures of homosexuality have provided a creative resource for visual artists. Attempts to trouble the conventions of gender and sexuality, to highlight the performative aspects of identity and to oppose the tyranny of the normal are all woven into the historical fabric of homosexuality and its representation. images-1“From Oscar Wilde to Ryan Trecartin, from the molly houses of eighteenth-century London to the Harlem drag balls of the 1920s, the flamboyant refusal of social and sexual norms has fuelled the creation of queer art and life throughout the modern period.

“Although the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, it does not propose a progressive narrative in which homosexuals become increasingly adept at negotiating the circumstances of censorship and overcoming the terms of stigma and invisibility. The dialogue between art and queer culture does not move towards ever more affirmative images of equality and dignity. Rather than countering homophobia with ‘positive’ images of assimilation, many of the artists and photographers featured in this book draw upon, and even draw out, the deviant force of homosexuality.  Continue reading “Art and Queer Culture”