Make it New but Make it Old! Anchoring Innovation in Second-Century Celebrity Culture, Taylor Swift, and The Beatles Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens: this music venue was commissioned by Herodes Atticus and built in 161 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Make it New but Make it Old! Anchoring Innovation in Second-Century Celebrity Culture, Taylor Swift, and The Beatles

Modern artists are concerned with originality, while art in Antiquity was devoted to imitation, right? At least, that is how the story is often told. By looking at ancient and modern pop stars, this blog post shows that imitation and originality are not as irreconcilable as you would think.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Taylor Swift. It’s just that I couldn’t help but notice that the now ubiquitous 10-minute track ‘All too well’ is the same four-chord progression which makes up just about every pop song you can think of.

Taylor Swift “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) Lyric Video, Youtube, 12 November 2021

Is that a bad thing? Of course not. It works and the stock progression is probably one of the reasons why it works. It does say something, however, about originality. In order to become popular, a song has to be perceived as fresh, new, and different. At the same time it can’t be, say, alienating, unrecognisable, or hard on the ears (Williamon et al. 2006). Pop musicians are walking a tightrope: they can fail for being unoriginal or for being truly original. Pop music seems like an impossible combination of brilliant artistic originality and lazy repetition of the familiar recipe. The former is emphasised by hordes of cheering fans, the latter by snobbish detractors of the genre. How can both be right?

This is the kind of question that Dutch classicists are trying to answer within the framework of Anchoring Innovation. Our goal is to explain how innovation fundamentally works. Innovations are not (despite what the world of marketing or technology may lead you to believe) free-floating sparks of pure newness. Innovations succeed because they are ‘anchored’: their success depends on acceptance in society and they are only accepted if they can be connected in some way to what is already familiar. Last year, my colleague Leonie Henkes introduced the concept of ‘anchoring innovation’ to readers of this blog when she showed how Disneyland Paris first failed as an innovation because it was insufficiently anchored in European / French culture and how it went on to succeed only after such anchoring was achieved. Innovation, in other words, is much more about human psychology, society, culture, and history than the current discourse about research and development might suggest.

The Axis of Awesome, 'Four Chords', Youtube, 20 July 2011

The plight of the pop musician has made this clear already, but we can get a deeper insight into the workings of innovation by turning from 21st-century pop music to a 2nd-century equivalent of ‘pop music’: the rhetorical showpieces performed for large crowds by travelling celebrities. Ancient celebrity culture allows us further to question our current narrative on art and originality. The story often amounts to a contrast between the ancients’ focus on imitation of an earlier tradition and our (post-)Romantic obsession with originality (which has been challenged but not completely defeated by postmodern aesthetics; cf. e.g. Eco 1990). This frame tends to oppose anchoring (i.e. imitation) and innovation (i.e. originality). As we have just seen, however, it is not enough to talk about innovation when considering current pop music: we have to take anchoring into account as well. Similarly, we cannot do justice to ancient art by only talking about anchoring: innovation also plays its role. Just like current artists are not as immaculately original as they may present themselves, ancient artists are not as submissively imitative as they are still sometimes presented.

Let us look, for instance, at how the 2nd-century orator Philagrus of Cilicia is depicted by his 3rd-century biographer (Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists 2.8). During a tour, Philagrus arrived in Athens to play a show. At that time, the number-one celebrity in Athens was Herodes Atticus. Now, Philagrus was Taylor Swift to Herodes’ Kanye West: the two did not get along and neither did their fan bases. In the biography we read how, some days before his performance, Philagrus took an evening walk in Athens. He ran into a group of Herodes fans. One of the fans, either genuinely curious or taunting, asked Philagrus who he was. ‘Whereupon Philagrus said that it was an insult to him not to be recognized wherever he might be. An outlandish word escaped him in the heat of his anger’. Performers of this time prided themselves on only using words which occurred in (by then) classical authors of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, anything not attested in these authors was considered ‘outlandish’. Imagine current English performers only using words from Shakespeare. Hence the fan’s reaction to the outlandish word: ‘In what classic is that word to be found?’ (well aware that the embarrassing answer was ‘none’). In this anecdote, then, Philagrus is chastised for being outrageously and thus unsuccessfully innovative: for not anchoring his utterance.

A similar problem occurred at the beginning of Philagrus’ Athenian show a few days later. His opening piece failed because the speech came across as ‘sounding new’ (νεαροηχής). During the second piece, however, he fell to the other side of the tightrope. While the second piece of a performance was usually an improvisation on a theme proposed by the audience, many of these themes were quite predicable. Accordingly, Philagrus, ‘when a theme was proposed to him, used to improvise the first time, but did not do so on a second occasion, but would declaim stale (ἕωλα, literally: ‘day-old’) arguments that he had used before’. This time the audience was on to him: they proposed a theme on which Philagrus had improvised earlier and they got a hold of the text of that earlier improvisation. While Philagrus was pretending to improvise, the audience started to accompany him by reading the text out loud, much to Philagrus’ embarrassment. Moments after failing for being unduly innovative, he failed for not being sufficiently innovative.

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Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens: this music venue was commissioned by Herodes Atticus and built in 161 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Philagrus’ failures reveal a tightrope very similar to that on which the modern pop artist walks. Even more interesting are Philagrus’ reactions to the seemingly contradictory challenges. To the first one, the man asking in which classical author his outlandish utterance could be found, he replied: ‘In Philagrus!’ Faced with the second challenge, the public reading along with his ‘improvisation’, he started shouting ‘that it was an outrage on him not to be allowed to use what was his own (τῶν ἑαυτοῦ)’. In both cases Philagrus’ retort is a reference to his own persona. As he saw it, his apparently unanchored innovation (the outlandish word) was anchored after all: it was anchored in himself. Similarly, his apparently non-innovative performance (his fake improv) was innovative: he himself had invented it, albeit at an earlier time, and thus it was truly his original work.

Philagrus tried to present himself as the living, performing embodiment of Greek culture, as a persona in which anchoring place (the cultural tradition) and innovation (the performance) perfectly coincide. This goal was probably very much in line with the ideals which his detractors upheld as well. Their expectations regarding pure language use and improvisational skills assumed a similar persona: by flawlessly applying classical language even in everyday conversation and by giving overwhelming speeches without preparation, the performer in a way becomes the culture (cf. Schmitz 1997, 156-159).

The anecdotes about Philagrus and his attackers, then, do not show diverging views on innovation as much as they show that both a (perceived) lack of desired anchoring and a (perceived) lack of desired innovation could be negotiated and that this negotiation was part of the game. They show how both 2nd-century performers and their audiences were very much aware that a performance should be perceived as both anchored and innovative in order to succeed. In this cultural context both originality and imitation become rather meaningless terms: we are faced here with a brand of creativity which encompasses and plays with both. Is this any different today?

In The Beatles: Get Back, the documentary series which premiered on Disney+ two weeks ago, we get a fly-on-the-wall view of the most famous band of all time walking the artistic tightrope. In 1969, after years of being a studio band, the Beatles are planning to release new material which is meant to be performed (and which would become the album Let It Be). People are expecting something new, but at the same time it can’t be alienating: it should be anchored innovation. During a band discussion on whether or not to play older songs along with the new ones at the planned performance, George Harrison hesitatingly suggests including ‘oldies but goldies’: ‘But just to hear the first initial thing of us singing all completely new ones… They need something to identify with’. The 1970 documentary film Let It Be uses the same footage but cuts just a few seconds later and shows that Harrison is actually saying: ‘They need something to identify with aside from us’. At this point in their career, Harrison feared, they could not achieve anchoring simply by being The Beatles. Similarly, since his biographer hints that Philagrus’ reactions eventually failed, simply being Philagrus did not cut it. In the ideal artist, the living embodiment of a whole culture, anchoring place and innovation would coincide and the artist becomes the sole point of reference. Both ancient and modern stories make it clear, however, that this is nothing more than an ideal. Real innovation, although many self-proclaimed innovators will be loath to admit it, is a matter of negotiation, of rhetoric, of anchoring.

Further Reading and References

Whitmarsh 2005 is an excellent and concise introduction to the rhetorical celebrity culture of the Early Imperial period. Readers of Dutch can also turn to the website of J.-J. Flinterman [https://flinterm.home.xs4all.n...] and consult, among other articles, his ‘De tweede sofistiek: een portie gebakken lucht?’ (originally in Lampas 29.2 [1996]).

For Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists I have quoted the translation in Wright 1922, the edition in the Loeb Classical Library which provides a Greek text with facing English translation. A new Loeb edition of Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists is currently being prepared by Graeme Miles (with Han Baltussen taking on Eunapius’ Lives for the same volume) and is eagerly awaited.

Eco, U. 1990. “Interpreting Serials.” In The Limits of Interpretation, 83-100. Bloomington / Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Schmitz, T. 1997. Bildung und Macht. Zur sozialen und politischen Funktion der zweiten Sophistik in der griechischen Welt der Kaiserzeit. München: Beck.

Whitmarsh, T. 2005. The Second Sophistic. Cambridge: CUP.

Williamon A., S. Thompson, T. Lisboa, and C. Wiffen. 2006. “Creativity, originality, and value in music performance.” In Musical Creativity. Multidisciplinary Research in Theory and Practice, edited by I. Deliège & J. D’Agata, 161-180. London: Psychology Press.

Wright, W.C. 1922. Philostratus and Eunapius. The Lives of the Sophists. London: Heinemann (Loeb Classical Library).

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