Popular Artistry

Popular Artistry – It’s a bit odd.  If you think about it, the concept of having artistic works that appeal universally to the masses across multiple demographics is a relatively new phenomenon. Recently, I pondered the nature of artistry and cultural values.

100 years ago, cultural differences between geographic regions and socio-economic demographics were strong, reflecting the local values, worldviews and beliefs.  The USA was a nation made up of many cultures rather than a comprehensive and uniform culture.  Artists created their works within the context of their culture.  In many cases, an artist would study under a master, learning the master’s technique, style, and genre before launching out to create their own work.  In the aftermath of World War 1, a new universal culture began to emerge.  Over time, this national culture overwhelmed its smaller, localized counterparts.  Following World War II, the shift from regional, demographic cultures to a uniform national culture accelerated.  Values clashed and fell before the unstoppable onslaught of a universal national identity.  Similar cultural revolutions occurred throughout the world across the 20th century.

As a mass culture formed, art changed to express the new values and beliefs.  Instead of creating art within the context of a local, regional culture, artists began to create for the masses.  The teaching of the masters was dropped in favor of a new paradigm.  Art had to be accessible to the masses in order to be “good”.  Instead of evaluating a work of art based upon the artist’s technical skills, the new culture created new standards.  The value of art became based upon its popularity rather than by the technical skill required to create it.  Paint splashed without thought on a canvas was “better” than a skillfully painted portrait if the right people endorsed it.  A three chord song was “better” than a brilliantly written symphony if the popular people liked it. 

Writers and publishers were not immune from these changes.  Even within the last few years, we have seen authors feverishly jump on the latest trends.  Whether it was with wizards, vampires, werewolves, or zombies, writers were falling all over themselves to leap onto the bandwagon.  It’s not their fault, really.  It’s a cultural value.  We prize the popular.  We read the best sellers because we believed that their popularity indicates value.  These books must be the best because they’re the most popular, right?  We read book reviews written by others not because we wanted to know what other people thought but because we wanted to know if the book was popular enough to be “good”.  We looked at sales rankings before buying to make sure we’re getting a good value.

It’s not a question of knowing how to evaluate quality.  People are smart enough to know whether or not a book, song, or painting is well done.  The issue is that, as a culture, we place an extremely high value on popularity.  In many cases, we value popularity more than inherent quality.  The strange thing is that we also place a value on appearing not to value popularity.  Acting like you don’t care about such trivial things is one of the keys to increasing one’s popularity.  It’s quite a psychological dance.  We mock people who strive to be popular while feverishly working to garner the approval of others ourselves.

For an artist, this presents a real problem.  Do you chase the elusive mirage of popularity or be true to yourself and your artistic voice?  What good is it if you write your novel and only a small group of people read it?  If you pour your heart out in a song and few every hear it, does it matter?  If your painting captures the sum of your life’s work and it sits in a garage, is it worth anything?  If you create a work of art, can you be satisfied with it if it is not popular?

In creating art, we can choose to break cultural rules.  We can choose to do the unpopular thing.  We can express the minority opinion.  We can stand, not in opposition, but in indifference to relative popularity.  We can speak with our own voice, in our own style, in our own unique manner without imitating another’s voice.  Doing so may not be popular.  It may fly in the face of a culture obsessed with the cult of celebrity.  It may draw the scorn of fellow artists who feel threatened or offended by your difference in values.  It may lead to a life of obscurity, largely ignored by the world around you. 

On the other hand, what might happen if artists were to lead the culture rather than follow it?  Cultural values are always in flux.  If artists choose to change their own values, is it possible that they might influence the culture around them?  If so, would you like to help change the world?

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