The End Of Quality (Not Really)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019-11-23 13:00:00 No comments

Here and there, now and then, you've seen me talking about this John Cage quote:

When Art comes from within, which is what it was for so long doing, it became a thing which seemed to elevate the man who made it above those who observed it or heard it, and the artist was considered a genius or given a rating: First, Second, No Good, until finally riding in a bus or subway: so proudly he signs his name like a manufacturer.

Clearly the point Cage wants to make here, and has made elsewhere, is that all this talk of First, Second, No Good is a red herring. But if we stop talking about good, better, best, then it stands to reason that all talk of quality will eventually fall out. And then we find ourselves in the embarrassing position of having to defend people who spatter paint at a canvas or do nothing in front of piano for minutes on end and call that "art".

At some point good, better, best, has to come back into the picture, if only for the sake of the people who have been educated into that as their first way to approach such things. They are not bad people for demanding quality; they don't deserve to be sneered at because they want a story they can follow or a picture that doesn't look like a dog barfed on a piece of paper.

I don't have a problem with quality in the abstract, either. I most definitely want to live in a world where my surgeons, car mechanics, and software developers produce quality work. But when it comes to creative things, things get muzzier. Okay, not completely so: I know that most people would rather want competent and functional entertainment than something daring but inaccessible. I know, too, that I want the former when it makes sense to have it. But I don't want it to come at the cost of all adventure and daring and envelope-pushing marginalized.

Two things become clear to me from all this. The first is how the marginalization of adventure is mainly about economics -- you can't spend tons of money to line the shelves with things that will appeal to maybe a few dozen people tops. But as time and attention, not money, become the main commodities to optimize for, it becomes harder for even the things in the corners to find the audiences they deserve -- yes, even if those audience only consist of a handful of people.

You know this lament by heart; no point in me rehashing it. The second thing, though, is more germane to this discussion -- how to reconcile all this to yourself as a creator.

What are you trying to justify by taking good, better, best out of the picture? If you're trying to justify doing bad work -- if you're trying to justify something that was born out of laziness or contempt, that's not worth it. Don't use any of these attempts to get past good, better, best as a cheat. Don't making pleasing yourself into a vehicle for running others over. Don't make a focus on the process, which we all need, as a way to ignore that the final product will mean something to someone.

Tags: John Cage art artists creativity creators