hearts and bones

5/23/06

After my “entertainers, don’t bore me” rant yesterday, Sean wrote something that shouldn’t be ignored, namely that the general populace has less respect for artists than the artists do for the general populace. Also, any rallying cry for art to be entertaining can necessarily be like Homer pounding the set, screaming “stupid TV, be more funny!”

I’d like to clarify the point. I have been to a lot of productions over the last fifteen years that have had several fatal flaws. In no particular order, here are some:

1. Artist writes play or movie and thinks that sarcasm, snark or pop culture references can take the place of plot.

2. Artist writes play or movie and purposely obfuscates the material, and when you wonder what the hell is going on, you are told it is “non-linear” or “a tone poem” and thus artist can get away with whatever he/she wants.

3. Artist writes perfectly brilliant pop song, then purposely dumbs it down or makes it sound bad so as not to appear “twee” and then calls it “lo-fi.”

4. Artist releases slightly sub-par material into the universe but figures nobody will notice, and besides, they’re lucky he bothers to make art anyway.

Obviously, I think number 4 is the worst because I’ve seen it in myself, or at least I occasionally see it in things I’ve done since 1990. This is going to sound like braggadocio, but everyone in my family has always been effortlessly good at pretty much everything they try. Not GREAT, mind you, but good enough to seem impressive. It has always been this ability to impress that has made us – or should I say, me (not to speak for anyone else) – unbelievably lazy during certain times when I should have been working the hardest.

I won’t say which things I’ve done that have borne the mark of this sort of nonchalance, but it pains me even now to think how much better certain projects could have been. It was only when I dropped 45% of my ego that I was able to see these compromises for what they were. You don’t have to be in AA to realize you’re just a worker among workers.

Here’s the double-edged sword of modern artmaking: most modern artistic success seems just random enough for a lot of folks to give up trying hard. Also, there is this persistent idea of “the natural,” the person who walks into an artistic endeavor with absolutely no training and is better than everyone else (this is talked about in acting circles all the time). However, I don’t think would-be artists understand how impossibly rare a “natural” is, especially in anything that requires more than instinct (everything from writing… to, say, the violin).

And artistic success still comes from an unbelievable amount of dedication. It’s when you start confusing fame (a cast member from “The Real World”) with talent (a cast member of “Wicked”) that you fool yourself into a level playing field.

My bigger point is this: excellence. It is a word that means everything when it comes to people at the highest form of their craft, and at some point in the last fifteen years, it also became a punchline. But when I exhort artists to “have their characters move from Point A to Point B” or to “SAY SOMETHING,” I don’t necessarily mean to be funny, to shout, or to have stuff explode. I only mean to be excellent.

Before, I’d work on long projects, like a novel or a screenplay or a musical, and invariably, at some point, something wouldn’t quite work. I used to glom over it, figure than none of you would catch it, and it was good enough anyway, and besides, you were lucky I was doing even THAT much work. I don’t behave that way anymore.

Those little errors, those little compromises went from being unseen hangnails to full-blown infections, too late for treatment. Any sliver, no matter how small, works its way to the surface. These days, I stop in my tracks and FIX THE PROBLEM right then and there, in the pursuit of excellence. You may not actually “like” what I come up with, but god dammit, it’s not going to be for the lack of giving a shit.

I’d rather “go for something” and fail, even if that something was a small, quiet reflection. Listen to Paul Simon:

One and one-half wandering Jews

Free to wander wherever they choose…

If you aren’t going for excellence, even in a tiny moment like that, I’m through with you. Oh, I’ll stay after the show and congratulate you and buy concessions to promote the idea of art, but you’ll have wasted the biggest joy: true commiseration with a fellow human being who, for a split second, actually knew who you were.

0 thoughts on “hearts and bones

  1. Neva

    I find the issue of not living up to your potential not one of art alone. I have struggled in lots of job and life situations because I expect people I work with to give a damn and do their job well. Call me a perfectionist if you like but it drives me bananas when people do only what is “good enough”. It’s particularly offensive, and unfortunately common, in medicine. I left a job at the health department for this very reason. There was too much of “not my job” or “I don’t have to do that” attitude amongst people who are really there to serve. I remember one day a very sad and obviously very poor person walked in at 11:55 to be treated for syphilis. She had heard on the street that she was a contact. Imagine the shame and fear and guts that takes. Anyway, the nursing and secretarily staff were incredibly mean to her saying this was lunch hour and clinic was closing and she’d have to come back some other time. I insisted this woman needed to be seen. We’re talking about a 15 minute visit really. The staff got mad at me for “breaking the rules” and making a lab person stay 10 minutes into their lunch hour. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been both a patient and a parent of a patient too many times but this mediocrity in medicine is sickening to me. I actually think shows like House and ER make it worse because they focus too much on “making the diagnosis” and lose the point of the patient and the relationships that are important. We need another Marcus Welby. Unfortunately the norm is now to make patients wait forever, never contact them with lab results, never explain things and rush through visits and… to think that is “good enough”.

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  2. alan

    Ian,
    You know, I probably disagree with you about more things than I agree with you about, but I like your taste in music. Paul Simon is my all time favorite. “Hearts and Bones” is a very underated album. It may actually be my favorite from him.
    I think most people end up giving less than their best at their work because it isn’t really something that they enjoy. It doesn’t matter what the work is, whether it be art, medicine, research, or carpentry. If you work just becomes a meal ticket, or a way to put some more money in the bank then you won’t do your best.

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  3. Steph Mineart

    About TV in particular — it’s easy for us to do the “Stupid TV! Be more funny!” thing sometimes because we forget how much better TV is in general now than it was when we were kids. There are some shows from my youth that stand the test of time, but I’ve popped in DVDs of my favorite childhood shows and been appalled by what I use to think was a good show.
    Its also easy to overlook how much some artists practice their craft over and over before they become great at it. You see the picture on the gallery wall, but you never see the ten goofed up canvases in the closet that just weren’t right, but lead in the direction of that great gallery display.

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  4. kevin from NC

    I think profit gets in the way of art most of the time. A great script is written but there are no scantily clad women or bombs going off in it. Can you say rewrite?
    It seems to me that commercial art (most of what the masses are exposed to these days)is profit driven and the art is watered down for the buck.
    I really do not watch big movies these days. As I watch the movies I see the sacrifics made in story line, actor selection, music and just whatever in the name of entertainment and profit.
    Maybe i’m just jaded.

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  5. Just Andrew

    On one side of the coin you have your Standard American, who will watch a TV show and say, “I could’ve written or acted in that.” Yeah, sure you could, if you actually did something about it, but you don’t, it is easier to sit on the couch and proclaim the others to be inferior and lower the collective IQ to what is in your living room.
    The other side of the coin is that there is a lot of luck involved. The best music is hard to find, very few great artist actually ever get heard despite incredibly hard work. Being signed to a major label that then also is willing to promote your record is a very unlikely proposition.
    Then you take the absolute crap that is reality TV and no-talent media whores are now famous simply because they’re willing to remove all their dignity in order to appear on the tube. Worse yet is American Idol. These people aren’t artists, they are singers, and it is readily apparent that lots of folks have great voices, all you need to do is dress them up, feed them some crap songs written by guys that crank out their tunes from their 10×10 cubicle and pay for lots of advertising. And yet they top the charts and are called artists. Bullshit. It is no different than someone doing a paint by numbers and selling it as art. Cool, you can follow directions, and somehow I’m supposed to think that makes you a brilliant artist? The whole concept is a downward spiral – we get fed even worse pop than ever recorded AND idiots eat it up because the glowing box of gnawledge tells them it is good.
    Art, to me, involves creating – it has nothing to do with how you style your hair.

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  6. eric g.

    Ian,
    I couldn’t agree more with your list of 4 flaws. The most egregious example of flaw number 4 that I’ve seen in quite some time is the recent Wim Wenders/Sam Shepard collaberation “Don’t Come Knocking.” As a big fan of “Paris, Texas,” Wenders’ film based on Shepard’s play that won the Palm D’Or at Cannes in 1984 and features one of the most haunting performances I’ve ever seen (Harry Dean Stanton as Travis), I was understandably excited at the prospect of attending the world premiere of their long-awaited follow-up collaboration at Sundance this year. I was one of eleven hundred people who showed up to watch this incredibly disappointing film at the Eccles Center and then sat squirming as Shepard and Wenders had to answer questions about it afterward. The screenplay had huge holes in it; the whole thing was just slapped together. The acting was awful (except for Sarah Polley, who obviously cares too much about acting to mail in a performance). Considering the talent involved and the time allegedly spent by Wenders and Shepard in co-writing the project, it really left a foul taste in my mouth. They could, and should, have done better. It opened in some theaters a few months ago, but this movie is destined for the Netflix dustbin, and rightfully so.

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  7. xuxE

    i always think of artistic *success* as having two totally different tracks, one being a commercial success track where somebody somewhere put their money down on your art and therefore that was a success, and the other is just the pure craft where success is what you yourself define. and i personally think they are just two totally different things which sometimes collide.
    just because someone had commercial or popular success doesn’t mean the quality of their art got better, and vice versa.
    speaking from my own art and our label, i think one of the main principles we follow with our music is that broad commercial or popular taste is very fickle and it’s an incredibly arbitrary, fast moving target. it’s something you shouldn’t chase. not only does that create something inauthentic, but you will just frustrate yourself trying to keep up.
    so we just focus on doing what we feel, from the inside out, doing the best job to satisfy ourselves. that way regardless of the commercial or popular success, you will never lose your artistic success.
    it is incredibly sucky to compromise your art in an attempt to gain popularity. if you succeed, you’re forever trying to get out of that one box and prove you can do something else more in line with your real artistic vision, while everyone wants you to stay in the box. and if you don’t succeed, then you have this sub-par art you never intended and you will never know what would have happened if you had done something real that really satisfied your soul.
    i think the only success really worth striving for is the one that is on your own terms, with art from your real inner voice, everything else is a glorified day job that pays the bills, some jobs being better than others.
    so i guess what i’m trying to say is i agree with the whole work ethic thing, but make sure you keep the nature and instinct and heart in there.
    be fearless.

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  8. ken

    As I was reading this one artist came to mind: R.E.M. When I was a freshman in high school (1983), R.E.M. were poised on the precipice of semi-stardom. Me and my friends devoured everything R.E.M. related, we tried to decipher what Michael Stipe was saying which often meant hours spent with headhones on, every lyric was like an archaeologist finding a tiny bone fragment on a dig. We even starter our own R.E.M.-based holiday (“http://gapersblog.typepad.com/gapers_blog/2005/09/happy_conversat.html”)
    Then somewhere around the time that Bill Berry left, the band ceased to do anything for me. If the rabid teenaged me saw the current me who could care less about R.E.M. he’d flip out. Sad but true.
    Oddly enough, U2, who were right up there with R.E.M. (minus the intrigue) in our devotion have largely held most of their appeal for me. And bands like The Smiths, Husker Du and The Replacements have only increased in value.

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  9. ken

    The link didn’t work for me but I know I’d like to see this video. I will see it and report on it in the future. Shalom everybody.

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  10. Just Andrew

    Ken,
    there are a couple of ‘Mats videos on youtube – Bastards of Young and The Ledge. Watched both of them on there recently.

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