Monday, August 16, 2010

The Untalented and the Fearful

About a week ago, I saw some truly lousy modern dance. It went as these things often do, with odd costumes, occasionally amusing visual gags, brief moments of coordinated physical movement, and an audience that often tittered at what one could only guess were inside jokes. And so my mind wandered, a bit.

I found myself trying to determine if the dancers had talent in any discernible way. Did they, through combination of native ability and hard work, demonstrate high aptitude, if I took what they were doing at face value? I thought to other modern dance performances I have seen, and in subtle ways, I thought they were probably in fact a bit less skilled then many of their peers. To put it another way, I thought other dancers I have seen would have performed the same routine with more grace, more flair, and more humor. But those differences are minimized by the art form itself, which has sacrificed everything but novelty.

I don't mean to bitch about modern art, or not only to do so. Other writers, including one of my favorites, have done that much better than I can. But I mean to question if the sad state of modern art forms (I'd include painting, poetry, dance, classical music composition, and much of theater and architecture in this bucket) have evolved so as to coddle the talented and shelter the talentless.

If judgments about art's quality are subjective, then it is awfully mean to tell anyone their art stinks. So you don't, and the poor artists don't get weeded out. But the talented have no incentive to hone their skills, either, because that's not how they will be judged. They will be judged by novelty, their flair for self-promotion, and whether they master the language and the symbols of the in-crowd. Showing too much raw skill just might turn everyone else off.

And so the state of art is perfect for our self-esteem culture. The talentless are given a fair chance to beat the gifted. If someone rejects your work, it is not because you stink, it is because they don't get it. You don't need to master what your predecessors knew because it is old hat, and all anyone in your crowd cares about is what's next. Jackson Pollock is relevant as a cultural marker, but a young painter cannot learn what he needs by studying his predecessor's technique, because he can never fling paint at a canvas better than Pollock. The attempt would just be derivative. Maybe splatter a canvas with your own blood or desecrate a religious icon.

Great art, even mediocre art, requires deeply understanding and at least partially mastering what the public standard for quality is, and then either building on it or turning it on its ear. Modern art has build a Tower of Babel where the insiders only pretend to understand each others' gibberish, and then pat each other on the back in celebration of the wonderful new language each has created.

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