Some time ago, a friend of mine was discussing the painful direction criticism has taken in the internet age. He suggested, in a bit of phrasing that has struck me as extremely perceptive ever since, that part of the problem is that people no longer approach art with any sense of humility. Although the democratization of culture and the tumbling down of the walls that arbitrarily separated ‘high’ culture from ‘low’ has largely been a good thing, it has also birthed a generation so enamored of their own opinions, and so distrustful of having something pulled over on them, that they seem incapable of experiencing culture as something transcendent, something capable of instilling in them unfamiliar feelings, something that requires them to learn something new or experience something confusing or strange. A generation raised on the idea that every opinion is worth publicizing and every cultural product is worth reviewing finds this unacceptable; unfamiliarity, discomfort and ambiguity make them feel dumb, so they eschew it, and approach every aesthetic encounter as something to be placed in a box that has already been labeled and slotted into an already-completed hierarchy. That this is precisely the wrong way to approach art does not seem to trouble them.
Similarly, in a discussion earlier with another friend, he mentioned that he encounters so many people who have completely bought into the notion of themselves as special and unique creative snowflakes that they drag the entire artistic process through the mud, presenting their art as something undignified, a scruffy child they happened to birth that, if it has any function whatsoever, is to reflect glory on their own very specialness. How can you have any dignity in your art, he asked, when you look at your performance as nothing more than an excuse to publicize your own oh-so-interesting bio, when the number and status of your credits is more important than the quality of the work? The important thing is that you’ve written a dozen webcomics, not whether the webcomics are any good; the important thing is that you studied under a well-known dance instructor, not whether you learned anything from her; the important thing is that you’ve seen a thousand movies, not whether the majority of them were worth watching, or whether you learned anything from them or had any insightful criticisms to offer after seeing them.
Paul Fussell, in his bitingly insightful book Class, pointed out that one of the characteristics of the modern classless Bohemian — the people who he called “Class X” for their attempt to break out of the unspoken but strangulating economic and social traps that surround us from before we are born — was that they could look at any contemporary work of art and imagine themselves creating something similar. This is all to the good, and there is nothing wrong with the idea that we take a proprietorial attitude towards art; indeed, it is essential that we read like a writer, that we listen like a musician, that we view like a filmmaker. All of us should take a creator’s view of art, not a consumer’s view. But as we often do in American culture, we have overshot the goal. We have gone beyond viewing art as creators; we have started to view it as jaded rivals, or scornful superiors, or worst of all, patrons. We have stopped looking at art as something glorious and mysterious, as aspirational, and started looking at it with the eyes of a latter-day Viennese emperor, wondering if a piece of music might not have a few too many notes in it.
From this sin of the art wagging the artist, none of us are exempt. In the mediated age, we have all come to be convinced of our specialness; we cannot abide the idea that we might lack any given artistic talent, because since we have fully committed to the esteem-building notion that artists are special people, we must be artists, because who will admit to not wanting to be special? And so it is that we elevate our artistic judgments to the level of artistic achievements — not because our criticism is artful, but because we must always be doing art. We convince everyone that it is the self-made qualities of our art that makes it special, its ‘original’ plot or its clever structure or its mere status of being better than awful, and our dignity crumbles, because merely creating well-crafted, well-executed art does not make us unique enough. We don’t create art anymore because it is a raw, pulsating need, a wound that must be cauterized through the creative process; we do it because we all want to be artists, because artists are special. We are not in bands because we have something to sing about; we are in bands because being in bands is something that you simply have to do.
Another of my friend’s comments struck home with particular harshness to me: he rightly complained about comics writers who, having taken distressingly little time to come up with an idea worth writing, or crafting it into a script worth reading, then go on the hunt for artists because they can’t be arsed to learn how to draw themselves — thus showing a gory disrespect by rendering another person’s struggle to refine and perfect their own art into a mere functional component of their own attempt to be special. That pained me, because I have been that guy. It took me years to learn what a jackass I was being to the artists of my acquaintance, who were working just as hard to become good artists as I was to become a good writer, but whose efforts I did not respect because I couldn’t personally appreciate them.
For many years, it killed me — killed me — that I had no real musical talent. I can sing passably well, and write decent lyrics; I can even compose music in my head. But whatever it is that allows your hands to translate what you hear inside to something that can be heard outside, I don’t have it. And this ate at me. I felt entitled to make music, because, well, after all! I knew so much about music, and it brought me so much pleasure, and here I am, a creative person and all — why wouldn’t I be able to make music? In all my attempts to do so, I showed a shameful lack of dignity and humility to the people I tried to collaborate with. I viewed them as functionaries in service of my attempts to express my unique snow-flower-itude, instead of people who were on their own (far superior) creative paths who I was pulling away and distracting in service of my own ego. I count as extraordinarily fortunate the day that I realized that, since there are a million people far better at music than I’ll ever be, and that I am good at other things, the world did not need me to be a musician, and that was okay. I don’t have to be miserable all the time because I can’t play guitar.
And I, too, was one of those people who bought into the privilege of artistic creation, and that I was missing out if I wasn’t good at everything. I didn’t have any perspective on my talent, because it was unthinkable to me that I couldn’t do something. I think I’m a good writer, but I wasted years of my life, and uncountable hours of the time belonging to my friends with artistic talent, arrogantly trying to push my projects onto them. I was approaching the art of comics with no humility; I had to be the one in charge. I was trying to convince the world that I was the boss of art, when it was art making a fool of me. Since then, I’ve learned what a pleasurable but complex thing a real artistic collaboration is, thanks to the patience and good graces of some truly talented partners. Collaboration — especially collaboration with someone who has a talent you lack — isn’t about being in charge, or issuing orders. It’s about surrender. It’s about giving up the sensation of thinking you’re in charge of the creation, and learning to work with your partner in order to make something that is bigger than both your talents. It’s about learning that artistic expression isn’t a fun way to express your personality; it’s a necessary way to transcend, to escape your personality.
Because technology has given us more access to art than we’ve ever had before, we’ve begun to devalue the great in favor of the new, the difficult in favor of the quick, and the art in favor of the personality of the artist. We have stripped the process of its dignity and made it a button to be punched on a fast-food menu; we have subjugated our humility before art into a situation where the artist must abase themselves merely for the art to be worthy of our attention. Until we re-learn this humility before art — until we admit that, while we are all capable of creation, none of us are bigger than the culture we have collectively created — we will keep putting the cart before the horse, and getting nowhere.