(AND THE WALLS COME A-TUMBLIN’ DOWN)
By John Skipp
Dear class –
Today, I thought it might be nice to slap the living shit out of some stupid ideas that have annoyed me for years, and hobbled us far too long.
They’re the same stupid ideas that Dave Wilson and the Tems grappled with, in their very smart essays that led off the month here at good ol’ SU.
And they function like the sand bags on the ballet dancers in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic short story, “Harrison Bergeron”, wherein all human excellence is systematically squashed flat, in order to make all things, all people, and all experiences nightmarishly “equal”.
STUPID IDEA #1 – THE WAR BETWEEN ART AND COMMERCE
STUPID IDEA #2 – THE WAR BETWEEN HIGHBROW AND LOWBROW
STUPID IDEA #3 – THE WAR BETWEEN GENRE AND MAINSTREAM
They’re three big dumb bastards, and they all rush in at once. But since I can only smack one ugly mug at a time, let’s take them in order, shall we?
STUPID IDEA #1
Art, as I understand it, is creative expression. It takes many forms, means different things to different people. But it’s all an attempt to evoke some feeling, communicate some vision, capture a moment, provoke a response, do any or all of the things that art is presumed to do.
Commerce, as I understand it, is an exchange of goods or services for the currency of choice.
What makes “Art Vs. Commerce” a stupid idea is the notion that art isn’t worth money. Only dumb shit is worth money. Which just patently isn’t true. (Ask Dali and Picasso. Oh, wait! You can’t. They’re dead.)
STUPID IDEA #2
Yes, there’s clearly a difference between the high-flung gallery and the low-slung gutter. And yes, they define themselves in opposition to each other, in a kind of perceptual class warfare. The Illuminated vs. The Great Unwashed. Or, conversely, the Snooty Elite vs. The World-Weary Grunt Who Knows The Score.
But if you take a step back and take in the big picture, BOTH OF THEM ARE IN IT. They do not exist in separate universes: no matter how much they appear to; no matter how hard they try. They form as much of a continuum as the black and white halves of yer basic Tao symbol.
They are flip sides of the same twirling coin.
And that twirling coin is us, in fullness.
Yes, our loftiest concerns and our basest realities can often seem pitted against each other, like Jekyll and Hyde.
But the point of that story was that they were both the same guy. And that the schism WAS the problem, because it yanked both sides out of proportion.
In other words, the stupid idea is not that high and low are different. The stupid idea is that they need to be at war. That they are mutually exclusive, somehow.
That they cannot be commingled into an all-encompassing – and altogether more accurate – worldview that I like to call “The Third Brow” perspective, with something like maximum impact.
Which brings us, neatly, to…
STUPID IDEA #3
Last time I checked, the “mainstream” of popular culture was made ALMOST ENTIRELY OF GENRES: types of stories, types of music, types of whatever delivery system you want, that somehow stood out and attracted the people who really like those sorts of things.
And just to be absolutely clear about this: “coming-of-age” novels and “relationship” novels and “embittered college professor” novels are every bit as much genre confections as romance, mystery, or horror novels. They’ve got sets of rules and expectations. They have customary tropes.
But what often sets the “mainstream” apart from the rest – in ANY genre – is its ability to simultaneously…
• deliver on the expectations of their core audience, and
• TRANSCEND AND EXPAND UPON those expectations, in ways that get the core audience so excited that other people wanna know about it, too.
If you manage to get any audience at all, you have formed a sort of cult.
And if the cult gets big enough, you just might wind up “mainstream”.
Mainstream is a function of commerce. It’s a numbers game. And all kinds of weirdos – which is to say, genuine artists — have stumbled into it, either accidentally or on purpose.
Was the afore-mentioned Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. a mainstream artist? Why, yes, he was. He sold shitloads of books, to both rich and poor alike. Was he highbrow? Yes. Was he lowbrow? Yes. Was he genre? ABSOLUTELY: first as a “science fiction” writer, until he carved out his own unique turf so successfully that he became a genre unto himself.
So what was the point of all this?
1. “Art vs. Commerce” is bullshit. There are genuine artists who make very good money. And there are cynical hacks beyond counting who will never make dick. So selling out your talent in the hopes of a big score is no guarantee of anything but ultimate self-loathing. Do not kid yourself on that. And for fuck’s sake, don’t use it as an excuse for creating anything less than your best.
2. “Highbrow vs. Lowbrow” is a ridiculous, short-sighted, self-limiting waste of time and everything else. If you don’t integrate both into your life and work, you’re a one-eyed man in a kingdom you make blinder with every myopic step you take.
3. “Genre vs. Mainstream” is dumbass because Genre IS Mainstream, the second it goes beyond its standard tropes to engage larger swaths of the entire human race. Usually through things like extraordinary talent, effort, empathy, ambition, and – get ready for it – a willingness to kick your audience’s ass in some sort of delightful and meaningful way.
Most of my art/cultural heroes have succeeded BECAUSE they went way the fuck out on the limb, not because they shied away from it. I’m talkin’ everyone from Dr. Seuss to The Beatles, Frank Zappa to Harlan Ellison, Thomas Pynchon to Tom Waits to Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick to Neil Gaiman, Charles Dickens to Stephen King.
IMPORTANT FINAL NOTES: Your audience is made primarily out of people who are either very much like you, or fascinated by people very much like you.
If you deliver the best work you possibly can, you are very probably making art.
If you make a point of identifying and connecting with your audience, there just might be some commerce going on.
If your work has depth and skill and sincerity, your audience might be bigger than you think.
And if nobody likes your work, you might wanna look into that.
Your homework for today, should you choose to accept it, is to take a good hard look at what you’re doing, what you love, what you hope to achieve, and what those things actually have to do with each other.
Then – if you’re REALLY gung-ho – steer your battle plan accordingly.
And don’t let imprecise paradigms (a.k.a. stupid ideas) limit you or weigh you down, like sand bags on a ballet dancer.
If you’ve really got something to offer, then there are people waiting for it.
Give it to them. Give it to yourself. GIVE IT UP.
At the very least, you’re doing something you love.
And when you tally it up, in the course of your life, there ain’t much that counts more than that.
Although money is very nice, too.
Yer pal/instructor/fellow pilgrim,