(Or ‘EEK! No! Somebody wants to buy my stuff!’)
We live in a commercial world and we are all material girls…, wait. Let me rephrase that; aw, screw it, I’ll run with it.
As artists (in this definition I’m including anyone working in the arts) we have to maintain a balance between art and commerce. Or so it is said. But because it is said by the majority does not make it true. Something popular can also be good. The unpopular can also be bad. Not just people who don’t ‘get it’ but people who understand it but believe the artist has failed to properly convey their message. Failing is never a problem, as artists and as people we learn from our failures and the more we fail the more we learn. Or so it should be.
But is that true now? Or has the critical culture become so engrained into the collective psyche that success has automatically come to mean a lack of artistry? The more money a movie makes, the less good the movie is. The curious part of this phenomenon for me is the reversal of critical acclaim. Wherein a movie or a band or a writer or an artist is acclaimed as an underappreciated genius and the critics lambaste the public for not embracing that artist. Until that artist finds a way to reach the mainstream. Then at that moment they become lesser artists. And I’m not talking about those that compromise (sell out in the vernacular) in order to make it big, but those that just suddenly are big. Avatar, as an example, was reasonably well reviewed out the gate and even at the beginning it looked like it would be a modest hit. But then it turned into a juggernaut and small misgivings became enormous problems for critics (not just official critics but people who criticize) and were then used as a club to beat on anyone who actually liked the movie. Forrest Gump faced the same thing, very well reviewed and then made a ton of money, suddenly a crappy film. By the way, both of those movies are ones I like, not love, but I found it interesting in terms of tracking a trend.
The worst example of this is with music critics. Too often I have seen critics give good reviews to CDs and new bands, trumpeting them to the skies, deliriously hoping that the public finds a brain and rewards this band’s genius. And in follow up columns where the critic then decries the popular band of the day, comparing them unfavorably to the critics’ favorite new band. Which is fine, the problem comes when that critical darling suddenly becomes popular. Then that same critic starts sniping at that band, calling them sell outs, fakes, and saying how that band can’t hold a candle to their new favorite band. And so it goes. All the time that first band is still on their first album. The music can’t have been compromised because it is the same music that was uncompromised to begin with. They can’t have sold out the music, all they could have sold out was their image. And if that’s what the critics were attacking that would be fine, but they don’t because then they would be revealed as vapid people focused only on image. The music didn’t change. Their reaction to the music changed.
Am I saying that the majority rules? That the piece of art that is popular is also automatically good? No, not hardly. Some stuff that is popular actually is crap. My problem is that it seems difficult for some to grasp the difference between stuff that is popular and good and stuff that is popular and crap. The more popular something is, the crappier some see it to be. Ridiculous.
Imagine if we applied that standard to the past and threw out all that was popular simply because it was popular. Gone with the wind, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bill Watterson, Charles Schulz, all crap because too many of the great unwashed actually liked them.
How does an audience detract from the art? I’ve always felt that an audience added to the art. That by being loved the art itself gained a patina of that love and was thus more loved by the ones coming after. The more people who saw the Mona Lisa, the more touched they were by it, the more they spread that love to others by stories and emotion, the more the Mona Lisa matters to the potential audience. Age adds to genius. Audience adds to the piece of art. The more something is loved, the more something is embraced, the more it matters to people, the more artistic it becomes.
Audiences matter. And a small audience is not better than a big audience.
Not smarter. Not prettier. Not more discerning.
But, boy, do they ever like telling themselves they are.