The transitioning of years tends to be a time of reflection, to take stock of our trajectories, both collective and individual. We all agree to blink hard and punctuate the ceaseless orbit of the earth with a tip of our hat to time itself. What sort of year did we just pass through and where are we headed in the next? The summation of a year is a strange flavor to relate. We attempt such an appraisal with best-of lists and reviews of the landmark events in our news cycle. We try with these opportunities to glimpse the cultural center and estimate our relevance to it.
For the artist the idea of relevance can be haunting. We worry that the strange creative voices that guide us might have led us astray. Obsession, introspection and the conscription to certain ideals can take our eye off the ball and then suddenly we realize we are not with the herd. This is the Rip Van Winkle effect where one wakes from a seemingly short nap to find the world has aged dramatically and the surroundings are unrecognizable. So what does it mean to be an artist of his or her time and stay awake and relevant to the age?
To be of one’s time suggests a keen awareness of the social and political climate— and these days of the climate itself. In addition to being topical, the paragon must tap into the mood, reasoning and style of the group. This is a person of distinction yet someone who echoes their tribe and through which the tribe can resonate. They are the mushrooms of history, popping up here and there to reveal the face of a hidden mycelial network.
For the person who is, or aims to be of their time, a sense of responsibility is muddled with vanity. On one hand they try to be accountable for the world in which they live and on the other hand they are pleading to be accepted by that world. In either case though, they are trying to hear and speak the native tongue more than develop their own voice.
Representing a culture as hurried as our own means existing on the cutting edge such that being “with it” means also being several steps ahead. It’s precarious to use the zeitgeist like a lighthouse in this way. Living in an increasingly polarized nation has that benefit of exposing the range of possible attitudes existing concurrently. But if there are multiple zeitgeists, than there really is no zeitgeist at all. How does one maintain relevance to multiple intermingled and nullifying realities?
Apart from being so complex, the culture may be far from handsome. Addressing one’s societal context can mean holding a mirror that only perpetuates ugliness. What is sometimes needed is an oblique reflection that smears the image from what is to what is possible, and sometimes it’s best to turn away all together. To be relevant in this regard is to be the antidote, an opposing or alternate force. Rip Van Winkle can represent anxiety for squandering the currency of time, but he can also be a model of resistance—a time traveler who has been detached from the pettiness of politics. Irrelevance can have the allure of complete freedom to explore one’s art without consequence. But the need for connection to other people and obligations to society tug on the leash sooner or later and raise the issue of relevance anew.
To me it seems most desirable as an artist to aim for a balance between awareness of the current condition with its developing woes and wonders, and a distinct aloofness if not outright ignorance to it. I think it best to be in the hut at the edge of town and wander into the square now and then to catch a whiff of reality. It’s good to be available on the fringe when those in the slipstream need an alternative. Ursula Leguin, the fantasy author, bravely touched on this role in a recent acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. She said, “hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”
Is it possible to be a person of the time while also being its alternative? Perhaps it is even necessary to have contradiction to inform the collective reasoning with the idiosyncratic and vise versa. And further still, perhaps in this world of continuous change and multiple spirits, the contrarian who is both of the times and not represents us best.