There are so many different aspects to creativity, so many avenues an artist can follow, so many individual styles and tastes, it is almost impossible to say whether one person is more creative than another, whether one work of art deserves a higher position in the public eye than another. We look at some of the creations appearing on the market today, achieving astronomical prices at auction, knowing that their creator probably died in poverty, and wonder how such a state of affairs could ever have been allowed to come about. What is art to one, is cheap wrapping paper to another, and that is especially so today where our modern society, with all of its technological advances, allows every Tom, Dick or Henrietta the chance to create, call themselves an independent artist, and market their wares on the internet. Whether they can make a living at it or not is another matter entirely, very few have been successful down the centuries; long may it remain so. Where there is a chance that only the best will survive we can be sure of the future of art, and of the future of quality art at that.
One of the things that amazes me about this idea of creativity is how easily people are led astray by mass marketing: we see it every single day, the chance to become a master / mistress at photography, graphics, composition, collage and marketing providing we – the gullible – just purchase this new gadget which, fortunately since we have no talent ourselves, will do all the work for us. We see people wandering along the streets of any major city snapping photographs with their expensive cell phones, pausing the write a quick caption, and publishing the results to a hungry audience across the entire world, if they are lucky. Self-portraiture has become a mass-market phenomenon, whereby those taking these so-called ‘selfies’ do not have to possess the smallest hint of talent, they merely need to be able to hold a visual recording instrument in the air and press a button. The days of a van Gogh or Velázquez standing for hours before a dabbled mirror to capture their own image in oils has been banished to the history books, along with the necessary talent to produce such a work of art. These new artists d not even need to stand in a darkroom to produce their images, it is all done for them, automatically, and can be altered with a mass of filters to create the right effect, and then published whether it is worth the effort or not. Sadly we do not often get to see the bumps and bruises, broken arms and legs of those who are so distracted from real life whilst creating their immortal images that they walk into lamp posts or even traffic, assuming that they are not driving themselves.
Self-portraits are hardly a new art form, I’ve already mentioned the likes of van Gogh and there are many others besides, but the art has been made new through the passage of time and the advance of technology. I have seen wonderful photographs of a man and his wife, standing in their garden, he poking his camera with a stick to take the photograph. The hand written caption claims that this was 1926 and I have no reason to doubt it. Then, another that I have seen shows a group of men holding up a massive box camera, smaller than the studio versions, but considerably larger than anything you would normally carry about unless very serious about the art of photography. Were they taking a self-portrait? There is no evidence, but the manner in which they stood and laughed suggested it. And how about the self-portraits of Fritz Möller, a photographer from Halle in Germany?
Möller had his own studio and was a very highly acclaimed commercial photographer in this German city. There is a record of him moving from his first studio to a new, main street address in the later years of the nineteenth century. He would have had to move his entire life – furniture, family, glass negative plates, cameras and chemicals – over a mile across the city, with cobblestoned streets, by horse and cart. The glass negatives used then were not exactly the most stable things in the world, and a slight slip, a jolt across the street or a panicked horse could have cost hundreds in one go.
Möller settled down at the end of the nineteenth century, in his professional studio in the middle of the city, and took his own portrait. Not once, but hundreds of times. He assumed different facial expressions, dressed up as a businessman, as a woman, as a madman. He shaved his beard off, ruffled his hair, wore glasses, make-up. He changed his character and appearance with each new image. In fact, he did much the same as many younger people do today, when shooting their immortal images for Instagram and Facebook, except for the fact that each and every one of these images had to be set up perfectly, light, shadows, setting. Each had to be individual developed and printed, dried, assessed, accepted or done again.
The resulting several hundred photographs were sorted, and the best gathered into an album of physiognomic studies for presentation to the public at the world exhibition in Paris, 1900. For this work, and I have a wonderful copy of these photographs, Möller received a gold medal in photography. I wonder, with all of our creative skills today, caught inside these small, hand-held gadgets, how many of us would have the patience for such a project, let alone the skill to carry it through to a successful conclusion.
But some of these people call themselves artists – although I will accept that they can be creative – and some even make a living at it. You might remember a project, many years ago, where Polaroid gave their cameras to well-known photographers and artists free of charge, with film, as long as they received the results back for their own collection. A masterful piece of marketing, at the time, but the results were similar to what we see today. And then there are those artists who are truly creative, in that they sit themselves down and produce what is in their mind as much as what they can see; they allow their imagination free rein, and create from basic materials, from blanks if you like, a work of fantasy or reality. Such a major difference, it is hard to believe some people, having seen works lovingly and meticulously created over many hours, still dare to call themselves artists at all.
Obviously I’m no genius
and, in some ways, I would be inclined to agree with you. But then, I would also agree that those people who are marked as such at the beginning of their career, or earn such a name through their work are not worthy of the title in other fields. A person who is a genius on the piano, who can turn otherwise meaningless dots on a sheet of music into an evening of entrancing, beguiling harmony, can still be an absolute nothing when it comes to adding up numbers. We all have our own area, our own specialities, our own gifts. Perhaps, for some, it is the gift of being able to turn a pose when shooting another ‘selfie’ for their virtual public. For others it would be the creation of a book such as War and Peace. When it comes to thinking, to looking at the possible consequences of our actions, then none of us can really be called a genius: I can’t remember the number of times I’ve done something which has gone drastically wrong, which has literally smacked me in the face for being so stupid, and which, with hindsight, was clearly not something I should have attempted in the first place. The outcome, in my case, has been different, but the basics are the same. We do, and when we’ve not thought things through clearly, sometimes we pay the penalty. How we then live with that is another matter entirely. There are those who accept and make the best of what they have, striving to better themselves and to get back onto their feet, and there are those who refuse to accept it and either fight hopelessly until there is nothing left, or give up.
So, letter writing is my thing, it is what I enjoy the most – but not exclusively, as we shall see – and one of the few things it is possible to share with others. Not only that, by sharing, as I have discovered, you can advance your own interests by learning from those other people, by entering what they wish to share of their lives, their experiences, their opinions. No two people are the same, no two people have the same life experiences, and that’s what makes the whole thing more interesting; sharing, debating, learning; providing, of course, that both sides have an open mind and are prepared not just to talk, but also to listen without judgement. Sadly, this is something missing in our modern society. Everyone has their own ‘selfie’ image, and this is what is important to them: they have their idea of what life is like, naturally with themselves as the middle point, and nothing can sway them; they have their own interests, and these must be talked about; they have their own political or religious opinion, and nothing else can possible be right. Society has become so embroiled with the Me personality, it has become considerably less social.
I could name social media as one of the major causes for these changes, since everyone is now so concerned about their status updates being Liked and marked as a Favourite and the number of followers they have a lot of the joy of social life has disappeared. If we see life as nothing but a competition, what do we have? How many, to paraphrase a cartoon I saw a while back, of our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram friends will be there at our funerals? Although, I must admit, I do enjoy my Twitter account, even though it will never be the centre of my life. Letter writing is a far more social activity, confined to one person and not exclusively about one person. Well, if it was, the letters, the interesting subject matter would dry up fairly quickly, I imagine.
I listened to a university lecture yesterday night, rather than going to bed which could have been the better choice on a Sunday night, and learned that letter writing officially died in about 1920. It’s all an educational thing, the art of letter writing as a social medium between well educated individuals died out and has been replaced by letter writing through the less well educated, if that makes any sense at all. In fact, I wouldn’t have said that the art has died, merely that it has changed, and we have moved away from the classical style of writing letters, with Latin quotations – although I do still quote from books and letters all the time – to a more shallow version of writing. The lecturer, Wesley Cecil, was very clear that the advance of modern technology has not killed off paper and pen, he believes they were already gone, but I tend to disagree with him. Of course, I am neither a university lecturer nor an historian, but a real lover of letter writing, of letters themselves, and can see that the art is still there, that it still exists, merely in a new form. Everything changes, and if nothing did, well, the world would be a very boring place indeed.
Nowadays we seem to have less patience, believe that writing a letter takes up too much time and, aside from that, we have nothing to say. People who live thousands of miles apart, living in different cultures and with different traditions have nothing to say to one another. You can see immediately how ridiculous that idea is. Even people living in the United States, in different States, can talk to one another and discover that life in New York, for example, is completely different to Chicago, Detroit or Wichita. And I am fairly certain that your life in California is different to mine here in northern Germany. Wesley Cecil is right, though, in his claim that letter writing is not the same as it was: we do not have the same level of education anymore; rhetoric, grammar, oration are all missing from the school curriculum. We have become very specialised, training for a life of work, but not training our minds to remain curious, to continue learning for ourselves. We have become a society of people who believe that, once we leave school, that’s it, we never need to open another book ever again, and the Discovery Channel is the only source of worldly information, of natural knowledge we need let in our homes. And as far as politics is concerned, we all know which direction that branch of society is heading: closed ranks, no changes, vote according to party lines. Best left out of the conversation, unless you want to lose friends, or be injured.
Regardless of all that, I am a letter writer and I thought that today I would write to you and see how it goes. Perhaps you’ll want to take up the challenge and write back, I have many interests and a strong desire to broaden my scope as much as possible. Perhaps we can bring benefit to each other by these means.