The Fate of the Imagination in a Narcissistic Age

“Art is an arranged marriage between chance and humanity.”—George Murray, Glimpse (2010)

It’s probably good that Christopher Lasch died in 1994. Because he was already getting sick of us in the 1970s when he wrote The Culture of Narcissism (1979). Of course he lived to see—and be horrified by—the rise of talk radio, reality TV, and talk shows like Oprah. But imagine how much more horrified he would have been by the brave new world of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: a world filled with people who can’t seem to get enough of themselves.

Narcissism is always to some extent a failure of the imagination. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find imagination languishing in a narcissistic age such as ours. If most of our art sucks, and most of our artists seem pathologically self-involved, it’s good to remember that most of us can’t stop talking about ourselves. If our novelists too often resemble their main characters, it’s good to remember that most of us are obsessed with the politics of identity. If everything on the radio sounds the same, and our artists seem to lack imagination, it’s good to remember that “we the people” usually get the artists and politicians we deserve.

But not always. Sometimes we get an artist like Grimes, who seems to transcend many of her culture’s limitations. Her last album Art Angels (2015) is a case in point. Grimes’s prodigious imagination floats across the face of God’s Green Earth like a shapeshifter: in one song, she imagines what it might be like to be a butterfly, in another, she’s a male vampire. Her approach to the world brings to mind the most beautiful passage in The Upanishads: “Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear. . . . When a sage sees this great Unity and his Self has become all beings, what delusion and what sorrow can ever be near him?”

This is easily your best work yet, Claire. The sweetest damn thing to pop out of that crazy creative head of yours thus far. But I regret to inform you that the track you like the least is the one I like the most. “Easily” has a simple beauty, a sweetness, and a razor-sharp delivery that’s entirely new for you, and thoroughly enchanting. Hearing it for the first time brought to mind the breathtaking intensity of Kanye West’s acapella version of “Love Lock Down”. Much has been made of all the dis-songs on this album. So far as I can tell, this whole story is based on one seemingly offhand comment you made to some random reporter. Regardless, I don’t buy it.

The inspiration of an artist like“ you—an artist who seems capable of tapping into deep underground oceans of creativity, more or less at will—cannot be reduced to a messy break-up, a run-in with a douche-y music exec, a clueless critic, or a misguided fan; nor can it be reduced to the ennui of a twenty-something who’s wondering what the fuck to do next. Whatever it is that you’re tapping into transcends the delights and disappointments of your day-to-day existence. It’s bigger than Grimes. And it can’t be found in the biographical details of your life, nor can it be captured in a gossipy article or a scandalous YouTube clip. It can, however, be glimpsed in your mesmerizing music videos.

Watching the video for “Genesis” is like renting a room with a view of the collective unconscious, getting front-row tickets to the inside of your head, and downloading a daydream. Same is true, indeed, doubly true, of your new video, “Flesh without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream”. I have but one major criticism of your new album: the version of “REALiTi” that’s been on YouTube since March is considerably stronger than the one that made it onto Art Angels (2015). At first I suspected that I might be disliking it merely because I had grown accustomed to the YouTube version, but I’ve since listened to Art Angels dozens of times, and I’m still not feeling the new version of “REALiTi”. Regardless, I’m sure you had your reasons: you always do, Claire. After all, you were born in The Year of the Dragon: trusting in your own judgment, safeguarding your independence, refusing to be a product, and having faith in your own aesthetic—these things have served you well thus far. So you might as well own them.

There’s something about the artistic process that always seems to elude us, something that’s forever shrouded in mystery, something that resists the tidy Sunday School stories found in art history textbooks. But I’m nevertheless willing to play the part of the fool who rushes in where art angels fear to tread. I’m willing, that is, to venture a guess, and it’s this: you’re a stubborn shapeshifter, Grimes, who has consistently refused to be captured and confined by claustrophobic conceptions of Claire. And this has, I’ll wager, been as key to your preternatural creativity as Samson’s long locks were to his preternatural strength. Hang on to this. And beware of Delilahs!

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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