• Jen Webb and Paul Hetherington


The trope of the lone creator or individual ‘genius’ is a dominant one in current conceptions of artistic practice and creativity. However, in this paper we suggest that writing and art, and creative practice more generally, might be reimagined in terms of a collaborative sociability; and that this is a way of recognising art’s almost endless, protean permeability. The idea of collaborative sociability might also be a way of understanding how artists ‘labour together’ even when they may not be aware that they are doing so. Just as some forms of influence and intertextuality constitute a form of collaboration, so all texts may in a broad sense be intertextual and collaborative when understood in the context of the zeitgeist in which they are produced—even works by authors and artists who are largely understood to work outside of explicit collaborative frameworks. But if collaboration may be what many writers and artists are doing much of the time, collaboration remains potentially fraught and, to a significant extent, mysterious in its various expressions and outcomes. It demands flexibility and a willing embrace of its inherent unpredictability.



Keywords: collaboration—individual—intertextuality—poetry—slipperiness—sociability


1. Introduction

The trope of the lone creator weaves through the history of art, characterised by stories of the genius in the garret and rare individuals burning away their lives in the creation of their solitary art. These artists, almost always depicted as men, are said to have a certain spark that sets them outside of the norm. Pierre Bourdieu describes the ways in which the field of practice applies a sort of ‘theological logic of “first beginnings”’ in the ‘search for the origin of “creative” power’: the power—or charisma—associated with the lone, original genius (1995: 169). The logic of this trope is also seen in François Truffaut’s preference for the auteur over Hollywood’s industrial machine (Truffaut 2008 [1954]) and in Milan Kundera’s (2007) characterisation of the development of the novel as the result of the innovative genius of individual men. It is also evident in the fascination seen in the broader culture for the solitary genius.

Such accounts overlook the extent to which creative endeavours are based on what Vera John-Steiner, drawing on Vygotsky, describes as ‘an intellectually interdependent working community surrounding a leading voice’. If we focus only on that leading voice, she warns, ‘we habitually lose an understanding of the interdependent nature of this basic human endeavor’ (John-Steiner 2015: 42). She points to a linguistic element too, arguing that we ‘lack the language for capturing the dynamic between socially embedded and individually executed new constructions’ (John-Steiner 2015: 42). We add to these insights the suggestion that the insistence on individual achievement is an outcome first of the penetration of neoliberal economic principles—predicated as they are on individualism and competition—into concepts of creativity and artistry (see, for example, Larner 2000), and next of the denial, in the current period, both of art’s almost endless, protean permeability, and also of the protean quality of its makers. Between Jean Giraudoux’s ‘There are no works, only authors’, and Ronald Barthes’ death of the author—an almost-reversal of Giraudoux, in his privileging of works over authors (Barthes 1977)—there is a space where the lived experience of authorship can be more closely considered.[1]

In this paper we turn our attention to the range of possibilities opened up by creative practice, and the complexity of the contexts of its making. This demands a re-imagining of the idea of the solitary artist, and literary analyst Jack Stillinger provides some relevant lines of thought. In his 1991 investigation of authorship, he identified the existence of multiple authors for literary works and, he writes, they may have ‘divided and even conflicting intentions among them’ (1991: vi), or indeed may be ‘banished from a text’ (1991: 3). The question of individual authorship is further explored by Jen Webb and Andrew Melrose, who observe that:

creative writing is invariably treated as a private, even a secret act, though one that (ideally) ends up in the public domain … [Many people] have bought into what Alex Pheby (2010) calls ‘myth of isolation,’ which holds that writers must preserve not just their independence but also their solitude if they are to be able to produce genuinely original works. Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A theory of poetry (1997) treats this concern—that to be too closely associated with other writers is to risk one’s writerly integrity. (2015: 102–03)

Webb and Melrose comment on how relatively recently formulated is the notion of the solitary author, observing that ‘historically a community of writers was a collaborative norm, embedded in a community of practice, and connected to others in their social world’ (106). ‘Writers’ in this context is a term that encompasses more than poets and novelists. It includes all those involved in the use of language to convey something about the world: knowledge-makers, learners, thinkers and dreamers. All, writes Vera John-Steiner, are interdependent; all those activities comprise ‘social processes’ (2000: 3). All rely on collaboration, because we cannot make anything together if we do not possess the capacity to labour togethercol-laborate: to perform acts of making as part of a relationship with an other, or others.

There is a substantial body of research and commentary on this issue. Indeed, it can seem that contemporary institutional discourse is replete with the notion of collaboration and its supposed efficacies. In the field of business we see a stress on the advantages of collaboration to improve supply chain efficiency (e.g. Sohal 2013), enhance innovation (e.g. Faems, Van Looy and Debackere 2005), and build healthier workplaces (e.g. Lim and Bernstein 2014). University-business collaborations are identified as both keys to the knowledge economy, and career pathways for graduates (e.g. Wilson 2012). At the community level, there is evidence that collaborative spaces and activities are good for individuals and for groups, improving health and security across a community (e.g. Lacey 2001). Collaboration has a long and respectable history in the creative domain, with the generative potential of the workshop or atelier (e.g. Gardner 1982), and of intimate creative relationships (John-Steiner 2000), well established in the literature. And in the field of education, it is practically a holy grail, with educational practitioners urged to apply collaborative learning techniques in order to build cooperative learning environments (e.g. Woodin 2015), in an echo of John Henry Newman’s (1854) encouragement to academics to cooperate for the greater good of all.

The logic is that collaboration leads to efficient and effective achievement of outcomes: there is a matching up of complementary knowledges and skills, along with a willingness to play by the same rules, and to have autonomy only within the framework of a prior agreement. The literature that moots collaboration describes the establishment of teams in terms that could equally apply to a matchmaker: your skills and interests, plus my skills and interest, equals perfect partnership. The ideal is a partnership where all the parties treat the others decently; where the work is done according to acceptable standards; where everyone gets on, and each person contributes generously and professionally to the outputs and outcome of the project. Working together is, manifestly, good for the community, the university, the economy, and for artists, even when they are not necessarily in accord. Jon Ippolito, discussing the collaboration relationship he has with Janet Cohen and Keith Frank, observed, ‘Isn’t our entire dynamic based on disagreement?’ (Cohen et al 1999). Collaboration is good for us; collaboration is also difficult, messy and risky. And it is largely unavoidable in the 21st century university, which holds with Keith Sawyer that, ‘The lone genius is a myth’ (2007: 7).

However, we do not intend to suggest that all artists would benefit from purposefully collaborating with others—many will no doubt remain solitary. Instead, we start with and develop the idea that collaborating—‘labouring together’—is at the heart of much of our practice. Importantly, this includes notions of intertextuality because all creative work, and every artist, depends in fundamental ways on what has been created by others before them—the creative work that surrounds and inculturates them even if they try to make a solitary way. Stephen P Witte, Neil Nakadate and Roger D Cherry write of the field of literature that:

if the concept of intertextuality is valid, then it follows that all writing (and all reading) are in some sense collaborative … Witte … has labeled such cooperation vis-à-vis texts ‘covert collaboration’ because writers and readers … are frequently not aware of either the nature of their collaboration or the extent to which they collaborate with other readers and writers (1992: 38).

The idea of intertextuality suggests that in a broad sense every artist is inextricably implicated in the work of numerous other artists and that, in this sense at least, art and literature are the products of cultures rather than individuals. Or, if art and literature are the output of individuals’ creative practices, these practices are enmeshed within broader artistic webs that inflect every word and brushstroke in any given zeitgeist, even if an artist believes that she looks solipsistically only at her own experiences.

Some theorists, in recognising that such understandings of intertextuality can make every creative act look like a form of collaboration regardless of more specific collaborative contexts, exclude intertextuality from their definition of collaboration. Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson adopt such a position, but even they acknowledge that ‘airtight distinctions between collaboration and intertextual dialogue are difficult to sustain in practice, much as Barthes’s attempt to distinguish between identifiable “influences” and anonymous networks of “intertextuality” is difficult to sustain’ (2006: 23). In this paper we are particularly interested in how intertextuality often becomes a form of explicit collaboration—what is often referred to as ‘influence’—sometimes in unexpected ways.

We are also interested in more overt forms of collaboration that typically involve two or more people explicitly agreeing to work together to produce something new and original. This is partly because we are ourselves serial collaborators, entering each new collaborative relationship starry-eyed and full of anticipation. It is a familiar dream to many artists: the dream that I will meet just the right person, a kindred spirit, someone as close to me as my own skin. That we will work together in harmony, making things of beauty. That we will need explain nothing to each other, because we will be one mind in two bodies.

Put like that, it sounds ridiculously naïve; as, of course, it is. Little surprise, then, that for professional relationships, as for many marriages, a version of the prenuptial agreement should be negotiated and signed before the collaboration begins. A pause before commencement provides an opportunity to reflect, and then to be precise about the possibilities; it determines who does what in which circumstances; and it provides a get out of jail free card if it turns out that our judgment was less than perfect. There can be few documents less conducive to creative passion than a research contract. However, failure to take seriously the logic at the heart of the relationship is likely to result not only in heartbreak, frustration and a less-than-satisfactory project, but also, potentially, in legal and financial difficulties.

2. Influence and intertextuality

It is important to take the issues of intertextuality and influence seriously, because many artists are collaborating, much of the time, whether they know it or not. It need not be a formal engagement with a colleague; as Stillinger has observed, ‘it is not farfetched—indeed, with the term "intertextuality" it is becoming theoretically commonplace—to see major influence as a type of collaboration … and examples of such influence are … abundant’ (1991: 69). Artists may be understood as frequently ‘labouring together’ if the idea of what constitutes creative labour is broadened beyond the current usual understanding of the term to incorporate influence.

The idea that artists influence one another is, of course, not new. Kevin Brophy argues that ‘influence emerges as the basis of literary work at least as important as any individual writer’s genius’ (2009: 76); and TS Eliot famously remarks that ‘the historical sense … we may call nearly indispensible to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year’ (1972: 71-72). He asserts that:

no poet, nor artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of the relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. (72)

For Eliot, all serious art was, to a greater or lesser extent, intertextual. The poet Geraldine Monk points to something very similar when she writes that poets:

try every subterfuge we can muster to undermine or overstep our given social, temporal, geographic and individual entrenchments by experimenting with form and content … But no matter what subterfuge we employ if we work alone we always have the last word. Such an effective self-policing of the mind can only be truly disrupted by the invasive undermining or enhancement of an other. This other is ‘collaboration’. (2007: 178–79)

Monk is not writing about face-to-face collaborations but, as the title of her chapter makes clear, about ‘collaborations with the dead’. These are the sorts of collaborations in which poets and other literary writers engage rather more frequently than other researchers.

Writers often use the word ‘collaborate’ to reference relationships of influence—the transmission of sparks of image or idea, the opportunity to respond and expand—rather than to relationships of actual co-creation. To some extent, this is an easier model of collaboration, because the dead cannot speak back, ideas cannot insist on their own desires, and so we cannot be let down. These sorts of ‘collaborations’ are, however, imperative in the making of a more creative self, because they propel us out of what we have already read, already written and already known, into the unanticipated. Various of TS Eliot’s works demonstrate this point, perhaps most notably The Waste Land, dependent as it is on an explicit intertextuality that constitutes a kind of collaboration with dead writers. And his work is also characterised by collaborative labour—in his case, most notably with Vivienne Eliot and Ezra Pound. Richard Badenhausen, indeed, refers to The Waste Land as ‘a co-authored text … that labours at times to accept fully the presence of [its] multitudinous voices’ (2004: 20).

A way of framing the idea of collaborative labour more generally is to suggest that different works of art, and different art forms, are not only surprisingly contiguous but, a little like the continental plates, many are continually rubbing and sliding against each other. Indeed, it may even be the case that individual artists never create art as individuals. Significant creative works tend to slide in and out of their culture, sometimes stubbornly; sometimes like a slippery, viscous liquid. The science of plate tectonics tells us that under stress rocks may behave like liquids, flowing and merging. Or, not yet like liquid, they may shear, bend, warp and break. Perhaps this is how processes around the creation of art work, too. The forces are powerful and they are with us all of the time. As we create, we may ceaselessly be slipping and sliding in different directions under pressures that bear down on our creative acts.

3. Some meanings of collaboration

We noted above that is now fashionable to write and talk about collaboration; and the word itself has come to signify a great deal of what is often assumed to be right and good among those engaged in creating, making, researching and producing. This is all very well but, as Puccio observes, the word ‘collaboration’ is now often little more than a shorthand way of extolling the virtues of teamwork, and for insisting that teams may be just as (or more) creative than individuals. This may blur significant distinctions, partly because even in teams individual leadership frequently ‘plays a critical role in either facilitating or inhibiting creativity’ (Puccio 1999: 649). In other words, while ‘teams’ may undoubtedly be ‘creative’, there is a deeper question about the extent to which teams, as a collective activity, actually originate creative works of art or literature.

Nevertheless, Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman argue that collaboration in the creative arts, and other productive labour, is highly beneficial. They contend that 20th-century America was ‘a golden age of collaborative achievement’ (1998: 4) and that ‘in a true creative collaboration, almost everyone emerges with a sense of ownership’ (28). To help contextualise their study, they mention a variety of artists who not only collaborated, but for whom such collaboration involved the production of important work—for example, ‘[t]he synergistic circle of French artists, including Monet, Manet, Degas, and Renoir’ (5); Braque and Picasso who ‘had an intense creative collaboration, which gave birth to Cubism’ (6); and Michelangelo, who worked with ‘thirteen people … on the Sistine Chapel’ (36).

In the sphere of literary and academic writing Donna Lee Brien and Tess Brady state that ‘collaboration is a complex form of writing which has been under-examined’. They list a wide variety of what they term categories of collaboration among writers, including conceptual collaboration, contribution collaboration, collected collaboration, hidden collaboration, and subject collaboration (2007: n.pag.). Such categories emphasise how social and interactive a great deal of literary creative labour may be and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that ‘traditional models of creativity, which involve stages and which focus on psychological processes, inadequately represent … [the] social, interactive aspect of the process of creative insight’ (2014: 75).

Csikszentmihalyi’s assertion runs counter to the common notion that creative works are largely the product of individuals of genius, working alone. So does Jay A Seitz’s analysis of ‘the genius view’. He contends that this consists of ‘the belief that (a) creative persons have unusual or phenomenal thought processes and (b) these thought processes are largely unconscious and operate through flashes of insight’. He comments that ‘scientific studies … support just the opposite interpretation: that creative solutions are slow and incremental’ and ‘are worked out through direct or indirect contact with others, including the influence of previous historical developments’ (1999: 418). This is certainly the position taken by Théodule-Augustin Ribot, who writes:

We talk so much of the free flight of imagination, of the all-comprehensive power of the creator, that we forget the sociological conditions—not to mention others—on which they are at every moment dependent. No matter how individual every creation is, it always contains a social coefficient. In this respect, no invention is personal in the strict sense; there always remains in it a little of that anonymous collaboration. (Ribot 1906: 154–55)

Such discussions emphasise that ideas about creative collaboration are frequently more complex than they would appear. Whether or not creative artists work by themselves, or engage explicitly with others in the production of art, many influences are at play upon them and their work. As a result, collaboration between artists, defined broadly, is everywhere apparent. It is often able to bring new bodies of knowledge to creative endeavours, and may assist in breaking down ossified or siloed approaches to creative research and thinking. It has pragmatic benefits, such as halving the workload associated with some projects, and alleviating isolation. Further, many artists are stimulated to work by the close example of others; many find others’ ideas creatively enriching.

4. Art’s un-individuality

If demonstrating the social, multiple nature of much creative practice is not easy in a society where creative individuality is accepted as the norm—and where many creative artists would argue that solitariness is essential to the pursuit of their work—a few examples may help to make the case. One kind of force or influence that has hold of us, running like a liquid or floating like atmosphere through our creative acts, is that exerted by a few particular artistic works. These, at least for a time, grow in our collective consciousnesses until they inform whole societies, and their understanding and reception in the cultural sphere becomes an act of collaborative imagining. Picasso’s Guernica is an example. It is such a potent presence in 20th- and 21st-century consciousness that many people who have never seen the work itself admire it. They are to a significant degree soaked in its imagery—sometimes to the extent that their own thoughts are partly made up of what Picasso artistically construed.

The Basque poet, Mikel Zarate, produced a poem, ‘26 April 1937’, that makes use of the painting’s imagery to talk of the attack on Guernica’s civilians—remembering that Guernica before its destruction had been a town central to Basque culture:

An insane destruction, a demonstration of strength.
The dance of the winged bull’s bellowing.
Hell comes to our skies,
with the speed of a thunderbolt,
intense in its anger, towards Gernika …
The town’s annihilation begun, already begun,
and affliction already cries.
The mother, the son, scream their heads off
by the father’s headless body;
the bird screams, the cock screams, steel screams.
Stone, flesh, and boiling fire,
the people’s eternal shame screams
the eternal cry of freedom. (Patterson 2007: 34)

The poem excerpt, as Ian Patterson notes, draws more on the imagery of Picasso’s painting than on details of the Nazis’ destruction of Guernica itself. This is a poem adapting to and speaking through a painting’s language and it is partly about significant, original art being a collaborative enterprise: a labouring-together. The situation that attends to the exhibition of Picasso’s great work heightens this notion of collaboration, because in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, Guernica is surrounded by smaller works by Picasso himself, and also by Goya and others, in a manner reminiscent of an elaborate, and collective, memorial and shrine that continues to inhabit our consciousness like a cry. Collectively, the exhibition spaces that house and surround Guernica represent a kind of active and fluid intertextuality—related images slide back and forth in the apprehension of the alert viewer; artistic traditions and individual works combine, shift and slide. The tectonic plates of the engaged viewer’s imagination are bent, warped, and realigned.

Another example of the way collaboration is implicated even in the production of ‘individual’ works is the famous story in Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, which recounts how the painter, Raphael, was brought covertly to the Sistine Chapel by Bramante in 1512:

What happened was that Michelangelo at that time made his terrifying outburst against the Pope in the Sistine Chapel … and was forced to run away to Florence. So then Bramante, who had the keys of the chapel, being a friend of Raphael brought him to see Michelangelo’s work and study his technique. And this was the reason why, though it was already finished, Raphael immediately re-painted the prophet Isaiah which is to be seen in Sant’ Agostino in Rome … and what he had seen of Michelangelo’s paintings enabled him to give his own style more majesty and grandeur, so that he improved the picture out of all recognition. (1987: 297)

Raphael’s use of Michelangelo’s works is not unlike Zarate speaking through Picasso’s painterly language in his poem, and it is particularly potent because its central figures are two romanticised artist-heroes of the Italian Renaissance—Michelangelo and Raphael: competitors and peers. If Vasari’s account may not be a description of a collaborative act as we would now understand it—one partner is, after all, an unwilling participant—it nevertheless highlights how connections between artists are frequently vital to their work. Indeed, painters of the Italian Renaissance emulated one another so often that galleries throughout the world show similar subjects painted in similar ways with similar interpretive gestures by numerous different artists of the period.

A further demonstration of art’s fluid permeability may be found in the way the famously solitary 19th-century American poet, Emily Dickinson, made use of key correspondents as collaborators—most notably Susan Huntingdon Gilbert Dickinson, herself a writer, to whom she sent more than 250 poems by letter even though the women lived only a few hundred metres from each other. The words shared by these women galvanised their literary output and their lives, and Dickinson’s correspondence with Susan Dickinson has been collected in the volume Open Me Carefully. In a famous letter, Emily Dickinson writes:

Dear Sue –
             With the
Exception of
Shakespeare, you
have told me of
more knowledge
than any one living –
To say that sincerely
is strange praise – (1998: 238)

In another letter, Dickinson writes that ‘To be Susan is Imagination’ (1998: 242); and many of her letters to Susan Dickinson largely consist of, or include, poems that she sent Sue to admire, or advise on—or because such poem-letters were presumably Dickinson’s preferred way of speaking intimately to Sue. Overall, it may be observed of this correspondence that many letters that were not poems were to a considerable extent ‘poetic’, and that many poems that are clearly literary works were, on another level, written as a form of correspondence. It is not simply that Susan and Emily Dickinson influenced one another; rather, they lived imaginatively in each other’s linguistic tropes and emotional currents. Susan received the Dickinson name by marrying Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, but the far more potent relationship, at least in literary terms, was between the women writers in this family.

It is also worth mentioning the copious research conducted to demonstrate that William Shakespeare did not write his plays and poems. This has conclusively demonstrated that on the basis of textual evidence—that is, on finding ‘like’, closely parallel, or similarly-phrased poetic lines—significant parts of Shakespeare may well have been ‘written’ by numerous Elizabethan poets of note. While it is theoretically possible, if highly unlikely, that either of the main ‘authorship’ candidates—Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere—wrote Shakespeare’s works, even devotees of the Shakespeare authorship debate do not usually attempt to assert that both were simultaneously the ‘real’ Bard. Yet both wrote in phrases that frequently sound like those Shakespeare used, and the web alone provides so many examples that one sometimes wonders whether Elizabethan poets, at the height of the great period of renaissance in English, at various times did little more than pinch each other’s best lines and poetic ideas. Here, for example, is Joseph Sobran on just a few of the verbal parallels between Shakespeare and Edward de Vere:

[Edward de Vere] and Shakespeare have many pet images in common: fertility and harvest, the lazy drone that robs the laboring bees of their honey, the sad scene that moves pity even in rocks, weeping lovers (whose tears, however, may be ‘feigned’) … the lark as herald of morning, the morning sun melting the dew, the game of tennis (with rackets, courts, and chases), pale and rosy cheeks, salve for sores, worms feeding on the dead, eyes ‘feeding’ on beauty, desire borne by wings, echoing caves, women as haggard hawks … (1996: n.pag.)

Interesting as this might be to students of the Elizabethan zeitgeist, the parallel passages between Christopher Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s works are even more striking—in fact, the authors fairly often use the same expressions. Cynthia Morgan, drawing on the work of other scholars, begins a long list with ‘a few of the parallelisms to Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris, Edward II, and Tamburlaine that Tucker Brooke discovered within The Contention (King Henry VI Part 2) and The True Tragedy (King Henry VI Part 3)’:

Oh fatall was this marriage to us all (Massacre)
 Ah Lords, fatall is this marriage . . . (Contention)

For this I wake, when others think I sleepe (Massacre) 
Watch thous, and wake when others be asleepe (Contention)

As though your highness were a schoole boy still, 
And must be awde and gouernd like a child. (Edward II)
 But still must be protected like a childe,
 And gourned by that ambitious Duke. (Contention)

This is only a tiny sample of many ‘parallel’ passages, and it demonstrates that even the most original and ‘individual’ writers are frequently in silent collaboration with other writers.

While contemporary writers may not be consciously taking lines and phrases from their peers with the rather carefree abandon of the Elizabethans—after all, we have copyright laws and plagiarism sleuths to take account of—even the multivalency of modern English tends to produce poets who, in valuing their originality, cannot always help sounding like one other—or like the well educated person next door. Paul Hetherington conducted a Google search on the first three lines of a poem that a friend sent him in an email on 30 August 2013, the day the Irish poet Seamus Heaney died. The poem is ‘Republic of Conscience’—and its first lines are:

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway. (1998: 300)

This is subtle and telling writing. Hetherington isolated the six key phrases from these lines and typed into the search box the command ‘find the phrase’ and added, in six separate searches, each individual phrase in inverted commas.

We won’t dwell in detail on what he found except to note that the phrase ‘the republic of conscience’ immediately brought up references to Heaney and his poem, along with references to Plato’s Republic and the French revolution. The other phrases also brought Heaney’s poem to light—but they brought many other references as well. They were mostly phrases in relatively common usage. This is not so surprising because although Heaney was a highly original poet, making complex new meanings out of the English language, his poetry is mostly written in phrases he has found already in use—primarily in our contemporary, educated English, employed by people from the Great Australian Bight to the Isle of Man.

5. Collaboration and sociability between contemporary poets and visual artists

The separation of poetry and the visual arts has, to some extent, ebbed and flowed throughout history. For instance, in about 19 BCE Horace stated in his Ars Poetica that ‘Poetry’s like painting’ (2005: n.pag.), whereas in the 18th century Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wanted to separate the two, asserting that ‘Succession of time is the province of the poet just as space is that of the painter’ (1962: 91). If such separation of artforms was possible in the 18th century, at least in conceptual terms, these two tectonic plates—poetry and the visual arts—collided in the 19th century and changed artistic practice thereafter.

This collision resulted in part from what Simon Morley calls the 19th-century's ‘visual cacophony of word and image’ (2003: 19) as artefacts we now call post-industrial or post-technological—symptomatic of the advent of modernity—began to take hold and proliferate in cities. Words and images ceased to be reliably distinct or separable. For example, many of the Impressionists, even as they gave their viewers images of what they had apparently seen just yesterday, or the week before, emphasised techniques used to apply paint—even individual brushstrokes—acknowledging that their works were complex signs that in some respects resembled language. Poets and visual artists began to directly reference, and collaborate more actively with each other than ever before.

Morley suggests that Impressionist painting may be viewed as a form of ‘calligraphic “handwriting”’ (2003: 20) and certainly one of the results of the collision of writing and image has been that in the 20th and 21st centuries many works of visual art and poetry have drawn on one another for inspiration, and to create particular artistic effects. William Berg contends that ‘the intrusion of the visual into the verbal medium creates shocks, gaps, frozen moments in the reading process that highlight essential themes, properties, and problems of the medium’ (2007: 16). Olivier Berggruen, writing of Ed Ruscha’s work—remembering that some of Ruscha’s paintings depict words and phrases such as ‘Other’ or ‘If’ or ‘Excuse me, I didn’t mean to interrupt’—states that ‘Words become objects—and as objects, they are lifted from an environment in which all words compete for maximum impact, like road signs along the highway’ (2003: 103). This statement is to some extent true of many works of visual art from the late 19th century onwards: a famous early example being Apollinaire’s ‘Il Pleut’ from 1918 (1980: 100).

Because collaboration—willed, unwilled, unwitting or purposeful—is an intrinsic part of the deeply abutted, sometimes warping, occasionally fluid creative cultures in which we move, it is perhaps time to argue for art as a form of sociability. This may be an often tricky, even agonised sociability, but a sociability nonetheless; and it is a form of sociability that even the most reticent or antisocial among us cannot entirely avoid. As one model of collaborative labour it emphasises aspects of creativity that may otherwise go unremarked. For example, the American poet Robert Creeley has engaged in numerous collaborations with other artists—to the extent that in the New York Public Library ran an exhibition in 1999 entitled In Company: Robert Creeley’s Collaborations. Anne Midgette quotes Creeley as saying of these collaborations that the juxtapositioning of poetry and painting:

keeps shifting the emotional center … particularly working with someone like Clemente, with such affective particularizing imagery. Any person reading what I’ve written and seeing what he’s made is moving back and forth between two emotional fields. (1999: n. pag.)

One can easily find numerous examples of Creeley’s collaborative work on the web and of his many collaborations with visual artists, Richard Huntingdon states that:

by joining words to a painted or drawn image, poetry gains entry into the drama of how a very special kind of object is made. Allowed into the secret mechanics of art making—which can consist of the scantiest line laid down on a sheet of paper—the poem is enhanced as object … commentators have noted how Creeley’s poetry defies paraphrase, how it so thoroughly deprives itself of the things of the world that we are forced to visit and revisit the words as things. (1999: n.pag.)

We have both relied consistently on a sociable creative practice to make poetry that has often been closely connected to visual imagery and the visual arts and have recently collaborated with visual artists and other poets. These have included projects with each other, as well as with photographer Judith Crispin, sculptor Victoria Royds, painter Lorraine Webb, installation artist Chaco Kato, digital artist Anita Fitton, and musician Caleb Byrnand. The creative projects undertaken with these people have been dependent on a creative sociability that has enabled us to write and explore our own poetic practice in diverse and satisfying ways. It has enabled us to ‘visit and revisit … words as things’ and to inflect our creative practice as poets in terms of others’ creative practices.

In this way, working with others opens up possibilities and promises neither of us could ever conceive of alone. This holds not only for poets and artists, but for other creative professions too. Randall Collins’ magisterial sociology of philosophers traces networks of philosophers from ‘China, India, Japan, Greece, the Islamic world, medieval Christendom, and modern Europe, over very long periods of time’ (1998: xviii), and in his analysis he found almost no eminent individuals across history and culture who were isolated, whether from contemporary networks or from those who came before.[2] The most eminent individuals, he notes, were those who possess both strong horizontal ties—connections with colleagues and rivals—and strong vertical ties, or generational connections (Collins 1998: 68).

The reasons he offers for this are both positive and negative. Connections of influence, association and collaboration allow both what he calls ‘the passing of cultural capital’, or knowledge of how to think and make, and ‘the transfer of emotional energy’—because as they spark against each other, all participants are galvanised. The third factor, one that is often left out of the literature on the value of collaboration, is the rivalry that exists in these relationships. As the philosophers compete with one another, Collins demonstrates, they increase the chances of developing genuine innovations (Collins 1998: 71).

But beyond that, there are personal satisfactions attendant on collaboration, and these relate to friendship and goodwill. The most fulfilling collaborations do not highlight the competitive instincts of artists—which so many stories about the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Shakespeare, Marlowe and many others emphasise. It is about something convivial, reciprocal and often matter-of-fact—two people getting along together in order to make art, and honouring an idea of art as shared territory. No Bramante is required to covertly let such collaborators into each other’s creative sites, because those sites are respectfully and thoughtfully shared and acknowledged.

6. Less sociable occasions

While our own experiences of direct collaboration have tended to be intellectually, creatively and sociable satisfying, this is not always the case in such practice. The ideal collaborative relationship calls to mind Plato’s notion of Form: collaboration as the perfect chair that never wobbles or cracks, the Ideal that is eternal and immutable. ‘Ideal’ is the key term here: of the many professional relationships of which we have been part, none has been ‘Ideal’ in the Platonic sense. The problem is that the Ideal Partnership is predicated on the Ideal Partner, and people are neither eternal nor immutable; we are not abstractions, but flawed creatures filled with tangential thoughts, idiosyncratic memories, bad habits, and a tendency to fall ill, to sulk, to slack off, to make mistakes. All of this tends to leave their partner crushed, or disappointed, or with a sub-par project because contractual or other constraints meant there was no early escape possible.

For those who can cope with conflict, competition, and the loss of their fantasy of being a lone genius, and who are therefore willing (or required) to dive in to a relationship of co-production, it is useful to take seriously the concept of the contract—however that may be understood in practice—and before entering into such a relationship, make sense of what is involved in the relationship; what is required of each participant; and what practices it might afford. Collaboration is not complex per se; there are modes of engagement, steps to follow, and ways of working to achieve a shared goal. But the relationship itself is extraordinarily complex; no theories convincingly explain what goes on in any collaboration; no amount of experience fully prepares an individual for a new project; and no matter how long you have been in a collaborative relationship with someone, with each new project you start again from the beginning. Or rather, you start from the beginning, but carrying the scars, satisfactions, frustrations and other traces of previous collaborations.

We cannot achieve the Platonic Ideal; the alternative however, need not be failure, but something else, something that avoids that sad continuum from Ideal to Hopeless. Here we turn, albeit naïvely, to physics—or to the analogies afforded by the language of physics, and particularly to the notion of the ‘strange attractor’. This concept was developed in the early 1960s by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz, and is predicated on a rejection of the conventional belief in cause and effect. As a part of chaos theory, it anticipates not linearity, but patterns in dynamic systems. Few systems are more dynamic and less linear than collaborative relationships, especially those located in a creative field which is itself characterised by openness and innate dynamism, by rejection of cause and effect in favour of emergent properties. Lorenz names, in this regard, the ‘butterfly effect’: ‘The phenomenon that a small alteration in the state of a dynamical system will cause subsequent states to differ greatly from the states that would have followed without the alteration; sensitive dependence’ (Lorenz 1993: 205).[3]

When it comes to collaboration/co-labour, we might identify as the initial condition the existence of two or more writers/writer-researchers who are mutually excited and enthusiastic about a new project. Entering the relationship that emerges from the prospect of the project, they depend on that initial enthusiasm. They believe in it. They expect it to last, and to be sufficient to the task. It rarely is. And ‘small alterations’, like the beating of a butterfly’s wings, can lead to a hurricane. Subsequent states of that ‘system’, the relationship, are not predictable; and this non-predictability, this impact of small alterations, mean that the patterns don’t follow a linear path, but a path described in terms of the strange attractor:

Strange attractors are unique from other phase-space attractors in that one does not know exactly where on the attractor the system will be. Two points on the attractor that are near each other at one time will be arbitrarily far apart at later times. The only restriction is that the state of system remain on the attractor. Strange attractors are also unique in that they never close on themselves—the motion of the system never repeats. (Bradley 2010).

We confess that we read this material from physics as though it were part of the language of the creative field. Our poor excuse is that the confidence that is born of ignorance allows us to steal this concept and apply it to collaboration, thus: someone called You and another person called I fall in love with an idea; the idea is the attractor, and we are close to it and close to each other because of the idea. We begin our patterns of behaviour, initially tracking very near each other, and very much on the lines an observer could have predicted by listening to us talking and planning, and reading our project proposal and other notes. But gradually we will slide away from each other. We are still connected by the attractor, but we are no longer connected reliably or predictably to each other. No one can accurately determine what might happen next, or where it will all end up.

This seems to offer an answer to the inevitable failure of the Platonic or even the bureaucratic notion of partnership. It acknowledges that collaborations tend to form not because of a very good matchmaker or even a very good idea; they form because of desire. People are herd animals; we yearn for connection. Ann Vickery, writing on women who write collaboratively, says on this that ‘desires are a medium of acknowledgment; a way of identifying ourselves in terms of others’ (2000: 249). We desire, and we desire collaborations, not least because it gives us a sense of being at home, of being a self that matters. But we then struggle to have our own way; to have full ownership; to be acknowledged fully. What I’d suggest is that we set aside the managerialism of the Perfect Partnership, and decide instead to rely on the notion of the strange attractor. Recognising that one can never know the other entirely, or know a shared project entirely, and that one will never willingly give up individuality, let us see where the beating of the butterfly’s wings might take us.

What emerges then is the importance of ethics. Stephen Crane states, bluntly, that ‘Every sin is the result of collaboration’ (2011: 329). Or rather Crane does not say it, but puts it in the mouth of the narrator of ‘The Blue Hotel’, who is explaining the murder of a character by five others. Certainly it is easier to sin with others than independently; and equally, interaction with others is bound to raise anger, jealousy, resentful, selfishness, greed—all the known ‘sins’. Hugh McKay implies something similar when he writes that ‘Morality can never be a solo performance … because morality is about our interactions with one another. It makes no sense to consider the good life in isolation’ (2014: 31). Taking that concept of ‘the good life’ into the possibility of ‘good collaborations’, it may be that anyone who enters into such relationships without an openness to dynamism—who attempts to force cause and effect within a dynamic system—is likely to find disappointment. A struggle to achieve linearity will render any expectations concrete, prevent the individual from seeing possibilities, and result in each participant focusing on the other’s shortcomings rather than on the central point of the project—the attractor. Ethics matters not just because of the good life, but because it affords something valuable, something creatively fresh. Certeau writes that ‘the ethical is to social practices what the poetic is to linguistic practices: the opening of a space which is not authorized by the order of facts’ (Certeau and Cifali 1984: 159).[4] It is the opening, in effect, of a dynamic system.

That opening is not only ethical; it is also, potentially, productive for creative writers because it offers new lines of thought, new ways to see and make. Poems and images: these are everywhere jammed together in the ceaseless, shifting noise of new technologies and postmodern art practices. In taking time to make space for our own particular collaborations, conversations and joint creative projects—in formulating ways to achieve a true collaborative sociability—we may have our best chance of acknowledging and understanding what relationships exist, or may exist, between these things. In engaging sociably and seriously with another’s art we may, paradoxically, sometimes find our own individual way.




[1] Giraudoux’s work has not, to our knowledge, been translated, and so we rely here on secondary sources. See the reference in the biography of Truffault, Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana 1999, François Truffaut, Berkeley: University of California Press, 99

[2] ‘On the whole, there are relatively few philosophers in world history who are isolates of either kind. In six long-term networks (Greece, China, Japan, Islam, Christendom, Europe), 114 philosophers are listed as major figures; of these between 4 and 8 (Confucius, Mo Ti, Wang Yang-ming; Carnaedes, Porphyry, Proclus; Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali) have no important contemporary rivals’ (887).

[3]. We must acknowledge that this section relies on mathematical discourse, which is not directed toward either poetry or philosophy; and that neither of us is schooled in the language of maths. However, taken as metaphors, they seem productive of thought.

[4] This is cited by Jeremy Ahearne in his own translation; see Ahearne 1995 Michel de Certeau: Interpretation and Its Other, Cambridge: Polity Press


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