T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” over the course of seven dense pages, attempts to come to some “practical conclusions” for the “responsible person” about creativity, emotion, criticism, and art-making. Artists, he argues, acknowledging the inherent contradiction, must simultaneously experience the world both passively and actively. We exist as “receptacles for seizing and storing” our surroundings, so “impressions and experiences” can “combine in…unexpected ways.” At the same time, we must be “conscious and deliberate” in channeling those into art, or we risk fake or nonresonant art. Much of my most resonant art, similarly, came…somewhat obviously. Words that, once I arrived at the right opening, just had to be put down. Assembling my recent essay “One Day This Kid Will Talk,” featuring David Wojnarowicz, I at one point described some common experiences living as a queer and nonbinary person. Perhaps it is only a retelling of the old adage “write what you know,” but however much the particular technical choices of my writing were “conscious and deliberate,” many decisions in the writing process, personally, had obvious answers. The “impressions” from my being a “receptacle” of my surroundings streamed out.
Eliot secondly, also contradictorily, believes the creation of new art dictates a slight reshuffling of all the art to come before: “the existing monuments form an ideal order…modified by the introduction of the new…” Great new work slots into the lineup, simultaneously fitting in and standing out. Debbie Grossman, a contemporary artist, complicates this narrative, through works such as her series of photographs “My Pie Town.” Interested in imagining a world more inclusive of lesbians, she Photoshopped fifteen photographs from the United States Farm Security Administration, taken in 1940, and replaced all male characters with women living in harmony. While inarguably shuffling the “existing monuments,” work like this, reimagining the past, creates interesting exceptions to the narrative of a linear lineup of art over time, only interacting with “the main current” of the artist’s time.