Seth Godin made a post last week about maintaining a commitment to quality in your work. (my emphasis)
When you seek the mass market, there are two paths available:
You can dumb down your message and your expectations, and meet your audience where they stand. You can coarsen your lyrics, offer simpler solutions, ask for less effort, demand less work, promise bigger results…
Or you can smarten it up, and lead despite your goal of mass, not chase it.
The very fact that “dumb down” is an expression and “smarten up” isn’t should give any optimist pause.
Culture is a gravitational force, and it resists your efforts to make things work better.
So what? Persist.
My first impulse was to mentally acknowledge he was right about how the impulse to improve isn’t common enough to bring a term like “smarten up” into common usage. I read his comment about culture resisting efforts to make things work better as an indictment of a society that demands satisfying results that require little of them in return.
However, when I got to thinking about it, those who embrace and define high culture often don’t want practitioners of low/pop culture to transition upward. There are a fair number of examples of pop artists who decide they want to pursue a more rigorous path as they mature. They are criticized for lacking the excellence required or expected of someone who has dedicated decades training in some discipline of high culture.
Certainly, some of these people may lack the seriousness, nuance and general quality of a long time practitioner. There may be valid concerns that in their popularity, they are misleading their fans into believing they represent the higher levels of achievement when a perceptible gap exists.
But for others, after 10-20 years of sincerely trying to “smarten up,” they are probably going to be operating at least at or above a level of 80%-90% of achievable excellence. That puts them on par with a lot of people who, like them, have spent decades solely devoted to the high culture discipline.
Except that the latter group will be labeled an X discipline artist while the former pop artist will forever have a modifier like crossover-X discipline artist. Essentially, you get branded if you try to step out of the original lines drawn around you.
So like Godin says, culture can be a gravitational force. It can feel like you are constantly being pulled to lower your standards, but it can also feel like you are being pushed away from ever being recognized as having achieved your ambitions if you try to become more proficient.
Yes, ideally things could get to a place where people and their efforts could be fairly evaluated but will it ever really be possible to create truly objective evaluations that are free from these sort of judgments?
I frequently cite Jamie Bennett’s comment that people have an easier time viewing themselves on a continuum with famous sports figures than they do with famous artists. As I think about it, I wonder if people are getting a message that they shouldn’t try to see themselves on an arts continuum.