Friday, March 07, 2008

The Ideology of Critique 3: Quality Sucks

Something gets overlooked in the continual quest for Quality in Art—ignoring for the moment the fact that such a Quest For Quality can unbalance the seeker, which was the whole narrative of Robert Pirsig's Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—the quest that seeks to improve art, and the artist, by having them always push themselves harder towards perfection and never allows them to create at a standard lesser than their own previous peak achievements.

This is what gets overlooked:

Every artist and writer and musician and poet creates minor work.

This is inevitable. It is going to happen. Just deal with it and move on. Not even Genius Artists created continuous series of masterworks with no lesser works in between. Every great artists creates bad art, even outright crap, at least some of the time. Every great artist, even if their crap is still better than anyone else's, creates lesser art.

The ideology of critique that demands continual perfection, however, refuses to acknowledge the inevitability of minor work; or at least refuses to discuss it, and would rather ignore it. This ideology prefers to focus only on achievement, and constantly risks collapsing into bitter cynicism when it's high standards are (inevitably?) failed to be lived up to. In criticism, this can be a real joy-killer; it can create a continuously bitter and cynical tone, and deprive even the critic of the ability to appreciate what is good even if it's not great. (Of course, there are tactful and non-tactful means alike in which to express one's critical cynicism. Bitterness, if it's the only critical mode available, leads inexorably towards genuine nihilism.) The problem, however, lies not with the artists who are doing work that is somehow "beneath them," the problem lies with with the critical ideology that would deny the value of imperfection.

Let's call it imperfectionism, if it must have an -ism attached to it, and regard it as the antidote to the creeping perfectionism that drives the ideological/critical economy of Quality. Imperfectionism might save your artistic soul, if you use it to let go of your obsessively compulsive drive towards perfectionism in both your own art and in the art of others that you critique. Imperfectionism is not an excuse to slack off, or be lazy; it is, however, an acknowledgment of a simple fact of life:

No artist ever creates at top form one hundred percent of the time. Beyond the mere problem of superhuman exertion leading to burnout; beyond the statistical inevitability of variable quality in all things created; beyond the existential truth that everyone has bad days and weaker moments—beyond all that lies the problem that no human being can embody the living archetype of Quality (or Perfection) every moment of their lives without being destroyed.

The ideology of critique that demands a writer only ever write at their top form, all the time, places an impossible burden on the writer that inevitably causes anxiety and, by its own Newtonian reaction, causes failure. There is no slack built into this expectation. The tension to always produce brilliance can only be destructive, in the end. The ideology of critique that refuses to let a writer produce minor work has, probably unconsciously, bought into the archetype of the Hero-Writer.

For example: Perhaps the reason Norman Mailer failed to live up to his early promise—the reason so many of his later books were so poor overall—was that his demand on himself to always be A Genius—a demand driven by his own ego and ambition as much as by his reviewers—burned him out, and kept him from the brass ring. Perhaps he could have peaked higher than he did, as a writer, if he'd allowed himself the guilty pleasure of writing the occasional cheap potboiler or pulp science fiction adventure, under a pseudonym if necessary. (The Hero-Writer archetype is as much about image as it is about accomplishment.) Perhaps the guilty pleasure of writing honest crap would have freed him up to climb higher than he actually did, despite his ego and ambition. It might have refreshed him, renewed his powers of creation, and been a necessary vacation from which he might have returned invigorated and newly inspired. Alas, he never let himself do any of that. He never let himself embody the Mediocre Writer archetype, even as an anodyne to his ambitions to be the Genius Writer.

There is an underlying assumption behind the critical ideology of Quality: that once you have climbed to a certain peak, you can never create below the level of that peak again. (Or rather, should not be allowed to, as if it were somehow bad for you.) This puts a lot of pressure on you to live up to your own best past work. It puts pressure on you to never allow yourself to slack off. Now that you're Great, you must always be Great. This is a road-map that can drive one directly towards paralysis and the existential dread of genuine artist's block. It can cripple the creative flow. Perfectionism can be the biggest obstacle of all to be overcome.

Perhaps one way to tell who was a true Genius rather than a failed genius is to note which mind let itself be deliberately sloppy and haphazard from time to time. The difference between Albert Einstein and Norman Mailer was that Einstein openly allowed himself to be sloppy—except where it mattered most. Einstein knew the value of refreshing the mind that can come from wallowing in occasional bouts of imperfectionism. He didn't care if his shoes were tied, when his mind was soaring into another Ideal thought-experiment. He allowed some of his self to be messy, so the important parts could be organized. Perhaps true Quality can only be found in the midst of imperfection—the robes a little tattered in the back, the vehicle needing occasional repairs and fine-tuning. Life knocks us off our rockers every so often. That's a useful reminder, after we've picked ourselves up and dusted ourselves off, that everything we do has necessary limits. One of those limits might be our own Heroism, our own Quality—at least at that moment we fell of our rocker.

Every artist and writer and musician creates minor work.

Here's another way to look at minor work, minor art, lesser writing—even your own:

Minor art is not a sin. Lesser art is a not failure.

It is not a weakening of resolve. It is not a betrayal or either the artist's goal, or the audience's demands.

Look at it as taking a breather between larger, more ambitious projects. Look at minor work as slacking off, vacation work, temporal études, practice pieces, sketches and interim projects in between projects of larger scope, ambition, and greatness of Quality. Don't be so hard on yourself for not living up to your own expectations, every single day of your life. No one can do that. You're not Superman. (Hopefully you're not Pirsig's Phaedrus, either.)

The truth is: Every artist makes lesser art, from time to time. How you deal with that truth is what matters.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Another word that I think is relevant here is 'different'. There are artists and writers who every now and then change direction (perfect example, David Bowie) and not everything they do is as successful, is as popular or is even as good as what they've done before (personally I liked Tin Machine) but it is important for them to continue experimenting to that they don't stagnate. I remember testing a young girl's IQ once and it came out at 140 or so and she was so full of herself. To put things in perspective I said to her, "Remember that is only your potential, there is no guarantee you're going to live up to it,"

There was a newspaper report recently about how we view the world and it seem 'reality' for most of us has less to do with what we perceive and leans more towards what we expect. It's an interesting perspective and it's impossible not to have expectations. Were I to buy Bowie's next album without knowing a thing about it I'm not sure what I would expect but I don't think that's a bad thing either.

And it's the same when I put pen to paper. I've been writing poetry for some thirty-five years but I still manage to surprise myself from time to time. I've been writing a lot recently – almost one a day – and, no, it's not my greatest work but it is interesting and it demonstrates growth as a writer; that, if nothing else, is motivation enough to keep plugging away until the next great work.

2:43 AM  
Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

I think the very idea of the Great Artist is poisonous. Do work that engages you, fascinates you, brings you to life. If you (or others) think what results is Great -- great! If not, so what? If you've engaged with the work, found yourself fascinated, and feel more alive than before -- and what comes out is crap ... no, 'tisn't.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Jim—

I agree with you about different directions that artists take. I like to be surprised by artists whose work I know. I'm the opposite of those fans who expect an artist to always repeat themselves. I like it better when they don't—whether or not that's commercially viable is of course another question. LOL

Nothing pleases me more during the writing process when something unpredictable and surprising to me comes out. That's what started this whole essay series off, of course: the surprise of finding I'd written a poem unlike the other poems I've been writing lately, and the responses it was getting. So, obviously, surprising myself is something I appreciate.

I've got at least two chapbooks from around ten or so years ago that were not my best work. But they were things I had to write at the time. Sometimes I think of this as the process of writing-through: you write through something, in order to get through it, to get a feel for it, to try it on for size. It doesn't always work, but it's worth it.

I think that you can't progress unless you risk failure. Time usually tells what works and what doesn't. (That inner compass again.)

12:00 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Glenn, thanks for the comment.

You put your finger on proper motivation, I think: the best reason to write. Being engaged with the work is its own reward, I agree.

I don't think about the audience when I write, usually. I'm into what I'm doing. I think about the audience later, though. Mostly in terms that don't affect what or how I write, but how to connect with those who might be most interested in this particular piece. Sourcing and distribution. Can you tell I used to work in marketing? LOL

12:03 AM  
Blogger Kyle Gann said...

Very eloquently stated, and a breath of fresh air.

12:05 PM  

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