Behind every artist is a rich collection, a “library”, compiled of works by other creators, writes Claire Coleman.
Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” is a favourite reference for literary types looking for ways to articulate, and perhaps justify, their intimate relationships with their books. In the essay, Benjamin captures the affection many collectors have for the texts, tracts and tomes that come to fill their shelves, describing the “thrill” of adding a book to his personal library and the aesthetic enjoyment of books as beautiful objects separate from their reading-use value. Benjamin describes the personal library as an adaptable organism that captures and represents a series of moments in the collector’s life, a kind of physical record of the way interests and pursuits change over time. As Benjamin aptly puts it, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”
Although few avid readers might think of ourselves as “collectors”, the stacks of books that populate our homes are, in reality, a collection. Regardless of how much thought goes into our book acquisitions, our libraries are curated and catalogued according to whatever ordered or disordered system suits us at any particular time. No two collections are alike; each bookshelf’s contents are particular, unique and precious. Some accounts of Benjamin’s exile in Paris even suggest he was so attached to his own library that he delayed his flight from the advancing Nazi forces, not wishing to leave his books behind. Regardless of whether this romanticised version of Benjamin’s grim biography is fact or fiction, after reading “Unpacking My Library” it feels like it could be true. Each sentence of Benjamin’s essay conveys the image of a man deeply enamoured of his book collection.
Some accounts of Benjamin’s exile in Paris even suggest he was so attached to his own library that he delayed his flight from the advancing Nazi forces, not wishing to leave his books behind.
Benjamin gives a further explanation for the strength of the book-human connection, touching on the influential role books play on artists, in this case writers, and the works they make. Benjamin makes the somewhat extreme suggestion that authors might be partly motivated to write by a desire to improve the world’s available reading resources, “because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.” Although the process of creative inspiration is certainly more complex than a simple wish to populate bookshelves of the world with texts more suited to the author’s personal tastes, books certainly stimulate the ideas glands of many artists.
The 57th International Art Biennale, held in Venice this year, acknowledged this reality through a project based on Benjamin’s essay. The “Unpacking My Library” project, in which the favourite books of the Biennale’s exhibiting artists have been compiled and gathered in a small library located among the national pavilions in the Giardini, is one of a series of measures taken by curator Christine Marcel to focus this year’s Biennale on “the role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist.” The Biennale’s complementary projects include a weekly “Open Table” discussion between artists and audiences, and a series of videos called the “Artists’ Practices Project” in which artists talk about “themselves and their ways of working.” These dialogues, exegeses and examples treat creative practice and inspiration as interactive and interdisciplinary processes.
If books can inspire fine art, can the reverse also occur?
Several titles influenced by paintings and painters spring easily to mind; Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring inspired by Vermeer’s painting of the same name; The Goldfinch, a novel by Donna Tartt and an oil painting by Carel Fabritius. Even Dan Brown’s fanciful homage to religious symbolism in paintings, The Da Vinci Code, demonstrates the power of visual images to act as a kick-off for a story.
Nick Hornby’s collaboration with Ben Folds on the album Lonely Avenue, in which Hornby wrote words which Folds set to music, is a modern take on a longstanding model of creative exchange between musicians and writers.
In fact, creative work in almost any mode can serve as a source of inspiration and, on occasion, collaboration. Much of writer Nick Hornby’s oeuvre shows the influence of popular music, and his work as a music critic, on his fiction writing. It manifests in novels like High Fidelity and its hapless record shop owner Rob, or Juliet, Naked’s protagonist Duncan and his overwhelming obsession with a little known singer-songwriter. Hornby’s collaboration with Ben Folds on the album Lonely Avenue, in which Hornby wrote words which Folds set to music, is a modern take on a longstanding model of creative exchange between musicians and writers.
Various well-known musical theatre partnerships have operated in collaborative models, such as that of librettist W.S. Gilbert with composer Arthur Sullivan, or lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein with composer Richard Rogers. Operas, too, often involve a composer and a librettist, and may derive their plots from works of fiction, folk tale or myth, such as Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with its libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on a stage play by Pierre Beaumarchais, or Mozart’s Don Giovanni and its libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, based on a figure from folklore.
Like Benjamin’s book collection, an artist’s “library” of influences serves as a memorial of her developing interests and passions.
Similarly, it is commonplace for choreographers and composers to draw inspiration from one another, and to work collaboratively – think Petipa and Tchaikovsky, Cunningham and Cage. In the early twentieth century Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was based on the understanding that every element of a production – the choreography, the composition, the design – was of equal importance and should stand alone, in its own right, as a work of art. Thus Diaghilev commissioned musical works that can be enjoyed independently of the ballets they were composed to accompany, from composers including Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss. Working in partnership, artists from discrete disciplines can create multimodal works in which various elements of sound, image, word and performance act cooperatively.
What is clear from this brief gloss is that artists are often influenced, in practice and in product, by the work and works of other creative people. The metaphoric “library” which may underpin any work could draw upon novels, poems, plays, films, TV shows, music of various styles and genres, sculptures, paintings, installations, dances, or some combination of sources. Like Benjamin’s book collection, an artist’s “library” of influences serves as a memorial of her developing interests and passions. What is often unclear is how this individual process unfolds in different artists’ creative lives. “Unpacking” the library of an artist’s influences involves more than perusing a list of her favourite books; it requires deep reflection on the role of various texts in the act of creation. Regardless of the state of artists’ bookshelves, their libraries are far from unpacked.
Over the coming months Seesaw will run a series of interviews with WA artists, inviting them to “unpack” their “libraries” and describe the impact on their practice of a few influential texts or works. Stay tuned!
Photo: Michelle Astrid Francis
Claire Coleman is an Australian musician and researcher currently based in Berlin. In addition to working towards finishing her PhD, which examines nostalgia in indie folk music, she teaches piano and works as a choral director and arranger for groups such as Menagerie Choir (Perth), the Dienstag Choir (Berlin) and Berlin Pop Ensemble (Berlin). Some of her academic writing is available here: http://uws.academia.edu/ClaireColeman