March 17, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Decca Harper
Who or what influenced you?
It’s a common enough question to pose to creatives, and its answers infiltrate innumerable interviews, Wikipedia articles, and book reviews. It’s not really a question specifically for artists – at least not within a definition of artist that precludes electrical engineers and bakers.
Who is to say which conversation would be more interesting – asking your local surf-rock-jazz-bluegrass fusion band, one quiet night in a coffee shop, after their performance, which music influenced them… or posing the equivalent question to a bricklayer? Either one could be perfectly mundane.
The band may simply rattle off the 10 most famous surf-rock albums, except for the drummer, who, although silent for most of the discussion, suddenly blurts out the name of one of the bassists from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The bricklayer may simply shrug and say “Michael.” Still, regardless of whether answers are satisfactory, it’s a question you can ask almost anyone – chefs, writers, politicians, hairdressers, or perhaps career criminals.
Literary criticism is the other literature. We talk about “death of the author,” but that is really just a polite way of claiming authorship of a new “literature” that runs adjacent to the first. The discussion of influences was always one of my favorite genres of meta-literature. My guilty pleasure is tracing the influences of artists (mainly musicians and authors) regardless of whether I knew who the artist was.
As a young lad who wanted to become an author, I generally found reading about writers equally as interesting as reading their writing. I thought tracing webs of influence unlocked a kind of lineage and revealed interconnected stories about how people related to their craft and their own life experience.
But this approach to influence is a bit misleading. A particular book may be the pinnacle of its craft, but a particular reader may not have the requisite knowledge to appreciate it as such. Maybe they do appreciate it, but in plain English, don’t like it and don’t care. Maybe this reader is a rebel with no interest in that interpretation of ‘the craft’. While we can talk about art in some (sort of) objective sense, influence on the individual scale is the product of an actual, temporary interaction with art and the flitting imagination of specific people.
American guitarist Michael Hedges described being “mesmerized” by Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Prelude IV” as a young man. I know the prelude well enough to know the diversity of interpretation, and I know Hedges well enough to know the importance of musicality in his work, so unless it was recorded, the performance he was remembering is inaccessible and unanalyzable – so, too, are the influences of the bricklayer. Whatever Hedges knew about that performance is gone. Whatever the bricklayer knows about laying bricks will be gone when he lays his last brick and is laid to rest.
For this reason – recognizing the intangible nature of influence – I feel some ambivalence in reflecting on how some of my own strongest influences are now gone, forever. I grew up as a creative on the internet, in a time when almost any one of any age could publish whatever they created. Some of this obscure art was far more influential on my sense of aesthetics and narrative and even, to some extent, morality than the “real art” or “cultural mythology” (i.e., television shows, books, family stories, music) of my childhood.
Alas, with self-publishing comes self-unpublishing. Many who publish their creative works on the internet do so as a hobby. All creators have the potential to hate their once cherished creations, some out of perfectionism, others out of embarrassment. I’ve got good news if Aristotle’s haircut influenced you as a barber: Ancient Greece ain’t going away. But it is an exception – most art is always decomposing in prevalence and prominence.
People say nothing ever goes away online – but it does.
I sort of miss that art. I don’t have the stories, only the influence, only the literature I wrote about the literature. The weakness of nostalgia tends to be that what you’re nostalgic for rarely holds up to scrutiny. Art that you can’t “check in on” sits in a type of authoritarian perfect nostalgia.
I don’t have the primary source to cross-examine myself. Maybe if I took up stalking in my free time, I could politely request an original copy! And the works I’m thinking of were so obscure (maybe one hundred other people saw them?) no one can exactly challenge me about it.
The main example of this lost art that has stuck with me was a story about loss. Out of respect for the creator, I’ve changed some of the details without compromising the impressions I have of it. We’ll call it “Rain.”
Although its author seemed old to me at the time, (I must have been around 10) he was probably younger than I am now. “Rain” was a somewhat surreal, haunting memoir. Its claustrophobia emerged from its disjunct setting – a series of memories connected by impersonal spaces such as washed-out hallways and generic forests.
What stuck with me most about the story is the feelings of sadness and horror as the protagonist navigated tragedies in which he lost people who were close to him. I don’t know if the story was true, but when I was a kid, I thought that it was a fictionalized memoir written with the heartbreaking sincerity of someone struggling to give voice to what was going on in their life. Sitting here now, just writing about it, it’s hard for me to see what specifically I found so special about this story. Still, its influence is visible, albeit indirectly, in most of the fiction I’ve written.
Given that, I regard influence as being more about the way the art changed you at the time, more akin to the bricklayer’s memory than a reading list – and given the fact that I expect reviewing these stories again would be mostly disappointing – I can’t say I completely grieve the loss of this art.
But ignorance ain’t bliss. I feel the absence of the art because I want a new impression – I want to know. You can hardly stay beholden to the first stories you read forever, yet when the art ain’t there, there is nothing to overturn.