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To Be (Un)Real
I recently gave a lecture recently to a group of poetry MFAs on uncreative writing, appropriation, information management and unoriginality. During the Q&A, a student declaimed, “C’mon, man, be real. Drop all that stuff and be real, you know, artist to artist.” To which I responded, “If you can give me a definition of what real is then I can be real with you.” I thought to myself, wow, writing is so far behind other art forms in this regard. Could you imagine after a lecture someone say to Jeff Koons, “Hey, Jeff, drop all that stuff and be real.” Never. No one expects Jeff Koons to “be real.” Jeff Koons has made a career out of being “unreal.” Likewise, during a pop concert — say, a Madonna concert — it’s hard to imagine someone shouting out to Madonna to be real. No one expects Madonna to really sing, rather they revel in the image of her while listening to a pre-recorded vocal track. Would the “real” Madonna please stand up? For the past two decades, “realness” has ceased to be an issue in music, art and fashion. But in writing we’re still expected to “be real.” Twenty five years after Baudrillard, these poetry students were still prioritizing Romantic notions of authenticity — “truth”, “individuality” and “honesty” — over any other form of expression. My god! Is it a case of naivety, amnesia or just plain ignorance?
These students’ arrows should be pointed in many directions instead of one, with fear rather than smarts, leading the way. They should know better: they came of age in a digital world and fully inhabit it today. Their reactionary attitudes could be interesting if they weren’t so obsessed with ‘being real” and instead, like Messrs. McDermott & McGough, took on the complexities of another time by actually embodying that time:
“Messrs. (David) McDermott & (Peter) McGough are a pair of artists who, like Dugdale, favor the 19th century. Living in New York and Dublin, they attempt to divorce themselves from this century through their dress, mode of travel, furnishings and manners. As dandies, they have created an elegant and engaging style of life and art, merging the two almost seamlessly.” (http://www.gregkucera.com/mcdmcg.htm)
Now is the time of possibility we can be everyone and no one at all. With digital fragmentation any notions of authenticity and coherence have long been wiped. When we’re everywhere and nowhere at once — pulling RSS feeds from one server, server-side includes from another, downloading distributed byte-size torrents from hundreds of other shifting identities — such naïve sentiments are even further from what it means to be a contemporary writer. Identity politics no longer have to do with the definition of a coherent self, rather it has to do with the reconstructed distributed, fragmented, multiple and often anonymous selves that we are today. We’re infinitely adaptable and changeable minute-to-minute. Shouldn’t our notions of art expand once again to include these as well?