Unacknowledged legislators

Shelley once wrote that poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind”. Well, he was young, but in the mood of the times he could probably be forgiven for thinking the liberal imagination was rising to a new pre-eminence. Where “society” once indicated a tiny elite it was beginning to embrace whole nations. Literacy was spreading in an unprecedented way and with it an interest in literature of all kinds. Tennyson, though always uneasy about being the voice of anything but himself (even when he was laureate) became wealthy on the sales of his books.

This popular success would be unimaginable now. Poets once again address a niche interest. You could point out that from Pound onwards this was a deliberate choice, a reaction against Victorian populist writing, but it marks too a shift in the way writers see themselves in relation to their readers, a shift influenced in one way then the other by technology (cheap printing). Now I don’t want to get bogged down in too academic a discourse here, but I do want to think aloud about how this new publishing technology, the open space of the internet, could affect how writers (or indeed other artists) think of themselves, and what they are doing.

I don’t mean left field experimentation with collaboration and interactivity (though I think that will come into it). I’m talking about a something that will influence practice whether or not it results in formal experimentation.

That probably sounds mysterious, but I hope what it could mean will be clearer over time (not least to me). And there will be a few by ways to explore. It strikes me that in the visual art world the pre-eminence of the artist as someone with “something to say” is practically unquestioned, with dire results. One of the interesting consequences of working in this open space of the internet is that while every voice might find two or three listeners, the availability of millions of voices means that artists will have to work harder to justify the attention they want to claim. Quite how that it is going to work is very much what this blog is about.