Tuesday, June 23, 2009

the hubris of the mediocre

I know a lot of people who make music, work at record labels, art galleries, work in publishing, are artists, are getting MFAs, etc. Most interesting people in NYC are involved in some sort of cultural production.

At the risk, therefore, of offending everyone I know, I would like to urge people to disassociate themselves from mediocre creative production, and to really (at whatever cost) aim for something monumental, lasting, and interesting.

Take, for instance, the tragedies of the Roman playwright and philosopher Seneca. He is well-known as a prominent Stoic, but it might also be said that his plays are the most famous and well-regarded of ~ 1500 years of western literature, in the period between Euripides and Shakespeare. And yet you could hardly persuade anyone to READ Seneca today.

This makes it seem like we have very high criteria for art: the best tragedies of 15 centuries are not good enough for our discriminating tastes! Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don't want to wage a smear campaign on any band or writer in particular: but I think our criteria for judgment are all fucked up. All our judgments revolve around whether we LIKE something, or whether it it is WORTH seeing/paying $ for/attending---i.e. held up against other uses of our money and time. And so, an album may be "worth" the 3 cappuccinos which one foregoes purchasing in order to buy, and 2 hours of a movie/show may be "better spent" than sitting at home---- but these are not the right questions, if one is honest about things. In any case, no director ever tried to get a film made on THESE grounds. The right questions are: will this last? SHOULD this last? (sub specie aeterni)

Masterpieces are unfashionable. No one will ever make a film like "Gone with the Wind" again, not because they will try and fail, but because no attempt will be made. But I would trade the entire decade of films 1999-2009 for "Gone with the Wind", and feel that I was getting a good bargain. What we have today is a lack of ambition, of the "good enough." In short, art today is terrible.

To quote Ezra Pound, speaking of Thomas Hardy: "When we, if we live long enough, come to estimate the 'poetry of the period,' against Hardy's 600 pages we will put *what*?" Now I like some current things: the White Stripes, Bob Dylan, Darkthrone, the Dardenne Brothers, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers--to name a few. But look at this Ezra Pound quote again: obviously the answer to his question is "Ezra Pound." But what about today? Is there ANY poet of the stature of Hardy or Pound? Wouldn't you be mortally embarrassed to have to defend any answer??

The title here is "the hubris of the mediocre": wouldn't you, shouldn't you, oughtn't you--oughtn't anyone be mortally embarrassed to bring into the world, a world with more GREAT novels than hardly anyone can read! a world already graced with the complete works of Balzac, Proust, Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare--which could keeep anyone busy for some time!!----oughtn't anyone be mortally embarrassed to write their short stories and throw them onto this pile? Most people can't find the time for CHAUCER, and yet your short story is really going to compete for my time? Think of the Flaubert novels you would never read (Salammbo, Bouvard and Pecuchet)---and yet your little novella is hardly by a Flaubert, now is it? This is the real definition of hubris!

How many albums/paintings/novels does one really have time for in life? Write something better than the "Purgatorio" (which no one reads) and I'll gladly read it; paint something better than one of Raphael's more-forgettable Madonnas, and I'll attend the opening; record a record better than Dylan's outtakes, and I'll buy it.

Probably 1% of all this year's artistic production will have any interest in 20 years. And yet EVERYTHING produced today demands my attention. So, if you make art, make it for the ages: if you *don't* think you are better than Seneca, ask why anyone would want your art to enter the world, as though it were superior to 15 centuries of western literature!!