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Artistic Improvisation and Personal Identity

June 9, 2013

Watching the French Open this morning I saw a corny bank commercial that demonstrated an interesting cultural assumption. It was one of those cloying ads that make a kitschy emotional appeal in an attempt to lend a personal touch to an impersonal industry. You know the variety– where a sharp-but-approachable looking professional gazes deeply into the camera and waxes philosophical about the company’s somber appreciation of people. The angle of this particular ad was to package investment banking for the modern self-obsessed consumer; your personal investment banking strategy can be an expression of who you are i-banking, in short.

But this isn’t a piece on advertising… What was interesting was the visual metaphor employed by the ad and the cultural assumption it represents. To strengthen it’s emphasis on individual self-expression the ad invoked the classic jazz combo; a drummer, upright bassist and pianist–each shown passionately engaged in the creative improvisation of which the jazz combo is an iconic symbol. The connection between creative improvisation and self-expression here represented by the jazz combo may seem common sense. We’re used to talking about creativity–especially improvisation– in terms of self-expression. But this is exactly the assumption I’d like to challenge. I think the relationship is exactly backward, and not psychologically basic but culturally imbued. Let’s take a closer look.

Improvisation is about spontaneity– unplanned, unreflective and unpredictable creative expression. The very concept hinges on a detachment from set, rigid or fixed determinants and exalts unfettered whimsey and caprice. If that sounds right to you then ask yourself a question: what on earth does that have to do with self-expression? Whatever our personal identity is, by definition it does not change. What could be more rigid?

I don’t mean to imply that there is a consensus on the precise definition of personal identity– in fact there is none. Modern science tells us it’s electrochemical regularities in our brains. Modern consumerism tells us it’s something to do with our taste in automobiles or the contents of our ipods. Philosophers have spilled oceans of ink trying to nail down the concept. But I don’t need a precise definition of the term– again, my point requires only one uncontroversial claim: whatever individual identity is, its most basic condition is it’s fixed, static and persistent character. Self-expression, therefore, is the articulation of this static character, a goal that is the precise antithesis of improvisation.

I can imagine folks protesting with something like the following: “”fixed systems are perfectly capable of creative improvisation. Computer algorithms have been designed to spit out original art, music and poetry [even some bad philosophy]. Cognitive scientists have even likened the human brain to an algorithmic process.”  This is perfectly true but has no baring on my claim. Remember that spontaneity is not defined by some specific result or product. It is an ideal/a value; a distant horizon point that is infinitely approached and perhaps never reached.  It’s easy, for example,  to program an algorithm to spit out a piano solo with all the stylistic hallmarks of hot swing jazz. Much harder (and I would claim impossible) to program an algorithm which intends to create piano solos that defy the rules of its own programming. This is impossible, as you might have guessed, because of the paradox at the root of this goal: any don’t-follow-rules principle that can be represented in an algorithm, is still a rule! In the case of humans, however– even if the neurological processes that yield human improvisation ARE  algorithms– there can still be genuine creative spontaneity because the system that employs them (a human mind) has the unique access to values and ideals which defy precise definition. Ironically, what algorithms ARE capable of is actually much closer to self-expression than creative improvisation; self-expression requires only the articulation of some native motivation, namely in this case, the algorithm itself. Computers, therefore, are perhaps better suited for self-expression than we are. True spontaneity–as produced by an indefinable ideal– is the uniquely human quality. If the bank commercial really wanted to invoke self-expression it seems they should have stuck with the impersonal and mechanistic imagery we already associate with investment banking.

So why does this matter? I think this false conception of improvisation relates more generally to an artistic fashion that has outstripped its usefulness: the notion of the artist hero. A relic of the romantic period, this idea originally served the noble purpose of lifting gifted creative minds into a respected, even revered status. The artistic genius was gradually romanticized into a kind of Nietzschian superman– a rogue visionary, boldly rendering the secrets of his (as it was unfortunately an androcentric archetype) heart and often suffering for it; art became not what the artist does, but who he is. Figures like Beethoven and Van Gogh were mythologized accordingly.

Above all, the artistic hero was directly responsible for his art– as an expression of himself it reflected on him alone. Today this ideal is being outmoded. The web has allowed for an unprecedented creative collectivism; its difficult to assign credit or blame for massively collaborative efforts like open-source software, Wikipedia pages with thousands of editors, or any other example of the innumerable memes and web trends we’ve all become accustomed to. This doesn’t mean, of course, that art can no longer be personal; much of the best still is. All it means is that it is no longer limited to self-expression alone. Yet the institutions of art criticism still cling stubbornly to the artist hero ideal. The most credible taste-makers still like their artists bold and heroic, baring their souls to sink or swim on the strength of their vision. Art criticism doesn’t just seek to rate and quantify artistic value, its stuck in a simplistic dualism quick to cast heroes and wannabes.

Art can be–but is not necessarily– an expression of the artist’s identity. When big media adjusts to this it will open up the space for a new kind of art criticism, one that’s more concerned with the experience of the work than the status of its maker. The sooner the better.

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