I just read a remarkable lecture that was given in 1954 by the man who would later become the presenter of the BBC series Civilisation. His name was Kenneth Clark, and he's largely considered to have been one of Britain's greatest art historians.
While I am woefully under-read when it comes to poetry, and even less adept in talking painting, I found Clark's take on inspiration, well, inspiring. After defining a moment of vision -- that precise instant when the ordinary, the unimpressive, the common thing we witness every day, suddenly jumps out and demands attention -- he observes,
"The visual experiences of original artists control, to a large extent, not only our imaginations but also our direct perceptions... Even those least responsive to art have at the backs of their minds a large untidy store of pictorial images, and three-quarters of what they call beautiful in nature appeals to them because it is the reflection of some forgotten painting."
I've always thought it interesting that we can hike for days, fording rivers and climbing mountains, and the only way to describe the visual mastery of nature when we return consists of words like picturesque. Pictures are supposed to document reality; call a photograph 'natural', however, and it's hardly a compliment that will make the owner blush. Straddle Black Tusk, and all you can say is, "Well that's as pretty as a postcard." Witness Aphrodite herself walk down Granville Street and you'd swear she was the most 'statuesque' woman you've seen in your life.
Clark continues, hitting on something that surely explains our ridiculous obsession with popular culture: "We hunger for the visible definition of our conceepts, and turn avidly (and rather shamefacedly) to the illustrations of a book. Yet we know that the more convincing they are -- Alice in Wonderland or Sherlock Holmes -- the more closely they confine us."
Okay, Clark was talking about fine art, himself riffing academically on the classic quote that 'every poet is a thief'. But is the current infatuation with faux couture any different? We're trapped in an endless cycle of in-jokes and referential material. How is it possible to keep up with the connections? Once you start, there's no stopping.
In one aside from a second-season episode, Family Guy, a brilliant but frenetic animated comedy built atop the before-its-time sitcom All in the Family, spoofs Seinfeld, which paid homage to Woody Allen, who borrowed from Charlie Chaplin, who owed a great deal to vaudeville, which was borne out of pantomime, which often parodies William Shakespeare, who stole from everyone. The viewer is supposed to get all that from a measly seven seconds of a Seinfeld characature that mysteriously appears behind a closet door.
The references on that show fly at the audience, fast and furiously, sometimes subtly but mostly not. Within a ten-second span, you'll need to access the neurons associated with Star Trek, roller derby, Bill Clinton, Andy Kaufman, Michaelangelo, Creutzfeld-Jacobs (mad cow) disease, and the Old Testament. The speed with which a viewer has to switch gears is astounding. Couch potato, my ass. The pop culture connoisseur must be mentally dextrous in ways that past visionaries never dreamed.
It all begs the question: would Leonardo da Vinci have been that brilliant if he had the theme song to Diff'rent Strokes lodged in his head?