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.