I can’t think about how creativity is born, where my own creativity comes from, or how I can inspire myself without thinking about a highly ambiguous term: culture.
Culture can mean high culture. That is, enduring culture – great works of art taken into a pantheon; Paintings in museums; Books and compositions that have become canonical. This type of culture is meant to be cherished, and it plays a huge role in education like the New Mexico mountain tops.
In another sense, culture is at eye level. For example, a description of a local culture is generally understood to mean the objects, habits, utensils and maps that make up everyday life. This broader definition shows everything you see and do that involves social and ecological life, and when I think of these double meanings – one aesthetic, the other anthropological – I think of the tortuous paths we go around ourselves to navigate who we are and my own way of cultivating creativity.
Most people will encounter the so-called high culture for the first time in school, which is referred to under powerful headings such as “The Classics”. Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare and Milton were the fiction heavyweights at my Georgia high school; I preferred Milton. I also read chapters by major nineteenth-century novelists, whose works ranged from compelling to boring, and I became interested in Faulkner – probably because he wrote about racial relations in the south; In college I loved the existentialists.
But my college didn’t have a black studies program, and after I left school I felt a strong need to make up for that absence. Faulkner’s vision of racial relations was a poor substitute, I learned, and instead devoured books by Wright, Baldwin, and Morrison. I spent the next 10 years reading the Afrocentric canon.
Of course, it’s superficial to think that reading is the whole story about how I (or someone else) was cultivated. Culture does not grow from the books we read or the museums we visit, any more than from the languages, dialects, fashions, family and regional institutions or social relationships that surround us. Culture is the influence of the everyday, and by using more than one definition, we are on our way.
As artists, we often begin to deal particularly intensively with cultural resources. I think it’s fair to say that most artists first go through a phase in which they question the tricks and disguises that are called culture. We feel – or not – an affinity with the culture into which we were born. We criticize that we are black, white, gender-specific, rural or urban and ask whether we cannot imagine without labels or wish we could. We look for answers in cultural products like books and films; We study high culture, impressed by their findings or dismayed by their lack of understanding of our specific experiences.
Then I think something cathartic happens for artists. No one can creatively thrive while stuck in the mindset that culture is always pointing to the past. According to this logic, no living person has the right to create it, and even I couldn’t write until I realized that culture was not necessarily the providence of alien people, created in distant times. I approached this revelation by reading 20th century classics written by Black Southerners like me. I identified with them, but most of all, I learned to appreciate how the dual definitions of culture, whether we write them with a capital C or a lowercase c, were interdependent.
Artists transform everyday culture at any time into the material with which they make their own contributions to a lasting culture. Likewise, the past and the present remain interdependent: culture is in equal parts the past that we inherit and the present that we can shape. And yet the dynamic is even more complicated for artists, like the layers of an onion that keep dissolving.
Afro-American literature is still my foundation today. I know it better than any other subject, and its authors have been instrumental in shaping my reality. I am not going to say, however, that it is my sole influence or that different types of books have not been burned into my imagination. The abundance of tomes stacked under my bed is spanning many historical eras, with Morrisons Beloved sitting over Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. This scattered collection represents nothing less than my individuality, my personal canon, and that happens whenever books intersect with individuals; the culture that we inevitably shape with our personal taste if our relationship with its offerings is not passive. My process, thankfully, is ongoing and engaging.
Does it matter less when books were written than when we came across them? Or why did we remember her? Or what happened in our life when we cracked their pages? Possibly in this dimension, where historical chronology – or so-called canons – are less important than individual answers. We are talking about an area of near-complete subjectivity that could be the least useful from an academic standpoint. Our own relationships with culture sometimes shake traditional or more comfortable categorizations, and yet from a design perspective, this sense of privately cultivated culture is the most important. It is the energy that creates new sources, new life and new metaphors.
That is precisely why we need more than one definition – because they inform one another, they have to be toned down from one another. I couldn’t think of a better way to start the New Year than to boast of her virtues, but let’s be careful. Let’s respect the inherited classics, of course, and let’s honor the community artifact. But let’s appreciate the tremendous energy that gives us the strength and courage to shape the future anew.
Santa Fe Poet Laureate Darryl Lorenzo Wellington: Mayor’s Inauguration Reading: 9:30 am Thursday December 30th. For free. Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W Marcy St., (505) 955-6200