Culture

What Happens When the Artist Chides His Audience?

Street artist, earning his keep.

I’m writing this from my garret, watched over by two small mice, who – enviously – watch my three remaining crumbs of bread.  Tomorrow I eat them, and then it’s all up in the air whether or not I have the strength to finish the novel, my magnum opus upon which I have labored unrewarded for the last twenty years.

How many of you nodded along with that thinking it made any sense?

How many of you know I’m joking, but still think that is the way it should be?

Come on, reach deep into your soul and tell me the truth.  How many of you think that for a work to be authentic it must be labored over in extreme poverty for a very long time, unappreciated by anybody until, possibly sometime after the author’s death, it is declared a genius masterpiece and talked about in hushed, reverent tones for the rest of eternity?

You can tell me the truth.  You’re not an idiot.  It’s the culture that’s stupid.  It’s the culture that has labored since your birth to tell you a bunch of lies which are not only lies but utterly and completely nonsensical.

If you still don’t think the myth of the unappreciated writer, who labors in extreme poverty but creates True Art™, is nonsense,  let me explain.

How do we know it’s true art?  And before you start making gestures and sputtering, to finally come back with “knowledgeable people know that,” let me cut through the fog.  The answer is, we don’t.  No, not even experts.  If everyone knew what great art was, investment in art wouldn’t be such a risky business.  Great art, great literature, any form of “greatness” in creative expression is ultimately “What future generations think is great.”  And, like all speculation about the future, it’s difficult, if not impossible.  In visual art, what is often the acclaimed taste of an era is the laughable, ridiculous pastiche of a later era.  In literature…. Do me a favor, let your fingers do the walking through Gutenberg, then look up the biographies of some of those authors.  Many of the people who make you say “who?” and who in fact would make anyone but an expert in the literature of their time go “who?” were literary lions in their times, acclaimed by all and pronounced “the next Shakespeare.”  (Who, like “the next Heinlein,” used to rise every generation until people got tired of it.)

If the art is so great, how come no one is buying it?  Besides the artist who is spending way too much time with absinthe and way too little time with quill and paper, or brushes and canvas, that is?

Oh.  I see.  Because the general public is too stupid to appreciate the greatness of the artist.  Because the artist is “ahead” of the public.

Yeah, if you believe that you probably also think that history comes with an arrow since obviously art does.  That is, art moves from “primitive” to “exquisite and advanced.”  If you truly believe this, I invite you to go through any local art museum and move through it from, say, Roman times till now.  And then I invite you to think.  The Denver Museum of Art has an installation that consists of a bunch of twisted-together kitchen implements, something that often happens in my house due to the habit of overfilling drawers and my tendency –pre-coffee – to think there is no problem brute force can’t solve.

This is an “installation” worth 2 million and if you believe it is superior to Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, you should stop hitting the absinthe.  No, wait.  Have another cup.  I have this installation…

It might have happened once or twice that an artist was not accepted in his time, because his work didn’t conform, then became hailed in the succeeding generation as his work was more in conformance with current taste.  In fact we know this happened.  Van Gogh’s work is an example of it, since he definitely didn’t fit the prevailing French “Academic” style, but was embraced by the succeeding generations and still speaks to people today. However, the myth that he only sold one painting in his lifetime was … beyond somewhat exaggerated.  Van Gogh’s problem, and the reason he was not more commercially successful, wasn’t the indifference of a cruel world but the fact he was Vincent van Gogh and not exactly suited to manage his art as a business.

This is a problem that affects many painters and writers and would probably affect me (does to an extent) if not for the existence of a husband with his head screwed on tight.

However from such cases as this has a myth of the writer suffering for his art been born.

If it were absolutely true and the artist or writer labored in complete obscurity his whole life, how would be become famous after death?

Sure, sometimes these artists were lucky and their work when they died fell into the hands of a family member with a flair for sales and publicity and they became well selling or well known, particularly when the absinthe-swilling artist was no longer around and a touching story could be made about his/her life and demise.

There might be a few cases like that, but you must understand the reason for fame and fortune after death was not “magnificent art ahead of its time” but a relative or friend with a flair for publicity and business.  Sure, the art itself has to be good enough to withstand the push and publicity (if it were possible to do that with everything, neither art dealers nor publishing houses would ever suffer flops) but the artist could have made a good living himself, if he hadn’t been incompetent at business (something that afflicts a lot of creatives).

If the art were truly “ahead of its times” by a lot, if it were completely obscure, never appreciated, then nothing would make it popular, and certainly not the author’s/artist’s death.

Decent art tends to be appreciated in the author’s and/or artist’s life.  Oh, sure the author/artist might not have quite the level of accolades or interest he/she deserves, and might be eclipsed by what later on will come to be seen as lesser lights.

This is particularly true when the marketing of artistic products is reduced to a very few people who do not, in fact, match the taste of the majority of consumers.  Those people, acting as gatekeepers, will stand between the artist and the public, and refuse to publish/disseminate the artist’s work for a variety of reasons, up to and including the author’s skin color or political opinions.  Not that we have any examples of that.  Ever.  Which is a good thing, because it would be a pretty rotten situation.  (What, should I stop dripping irony all over your nice monitor?) But it does happen when an oligopoly controls the arts and looks down in disdain at the people who consume them.  It’s been known to happen, once or twice.  And yes, this might mean that in more free times the artist/writer comes to be appreciated more than the pushed/coddled/beloved establishment darlings.

But what I want you to understand is that it does not happen without interference from a relatively close and uniform establishment that stands in opposition to the vast majority of the culture and the people who would buy art.

Why am I so exercised over this?  Ah.  I’m glad you asked.  It is because the myth of the great unsung artist and of art that has an arrow and moves inevitably from the more primitive forms to the more perfect (in my field of science fiction and fantasy that inevitably means “more in accordance with the Marxist beliefs of our professors”) forms abets idiots like this:

You see, this gentleman of the inexplicable name, who is striving to bait with his “exoticism” the controlling oligopoly of science fiction and fantasy, is referring to the “styles of early SFF writers” who were, you know, readable and popular, back when the general public could be expected to fork over the price of a six-pack of beer for a story to be entertained and other such declasse stuff.

Those fans (you and me, and others like us) are deliberately hurting the genre’s “growth. Growth into what?  I have no idea, but I can tell you what isn’t growing: the laydown of traditional publishers in science fiction and fantasy.  In fact the numbers that would now get you on the bestseller lists are the same numbers that would get you fired for “not selling” in the seventies or any time earlier.

And please, don’t deploy the excuses New York publishers are so fond of: that people now have TV, and movies, and games.  They had two of those back then.  Also, I and most fans have experienced going to the bookstore and finding nothing to read, though we do find a lot of screeds lecturing and shaming us for the tastes we do have.

So what are you and I and other fans delaying because we  like a coherent story, decent plot, believable characters and a minimum of whining, and would buy the next Heinlein tomorrow (yes even late Heinlein) instead of the latest politically correct darling, if a sufficiently powerful Ouija board could be found?

We’re delaying science fiction “growing” into the written equivalent of a bunch of kitchen implements twisted together.

Good job.  Keep doing it.