Monday, March 28, 2011

The Era of Wasted Genius, or The Failure of the Contemporary Audience

Yes, I realize that geniuses of many eras were often wasted, as in "under the influence." Here I mean in the other sense, as in "used or expended carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose."

You see, I believe the state of being a genius is 1) a condition of relativity, having meaning only when used to draw comparison to those around a given person, and therefore 2) a constant throughout history (i.e, there is always going to be someone who will be a genius in comparison to everyone else around at the time).

And in that way, since we'll always have geniuses around, it may seem odd to express a lament for "wasted" genius, but there's a third component of genius that requires a receptive audience to provide them with the feedback they need to achieve their greatest height. Wikipedia defines "genius" this way:
Genius is something or someone embodying exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight. [emphasis mine]
"Insight," which is generally somewhat (though not completely, obviously) time and place determined, is the part of genius that requires an audience that can recognize it.

And so I was both pleased and dismayed to have a friend share with me a passage from the Martin Scorsese documentary on Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking. I haven't yet seen the film, but I've been eating up all the segments shared on YouTube. Here's one of the trailers:

In the trailer (if you're not watching it), Fran notes (and I fully agree) that "If we have horrible politicians, it is your fault."

That relates directly to the passage my friend highlighted, which is discussed in this review of the documentary:
And Fran is confident. Everyone’s constantly apologizing these days. They don’t want to offend anybody. They sacrifice their beliefs in order to be a member of the group. But an artist is separate from the group. Chances are if the celebrity is busy hanging out at clubs, being part of the moveable celebrity feast, he’s a shitty artist. Artists are square pegs who don’t fit in the round holes. They get depressed. But they survive by putting forth their insights, which so many of the silent multitude can relate to.

Fran says AIDS killed not only the best artists, but the [best] audience!

Let’s start with the artists… Those who died were the coolest. How do we know? THEY WERE GETTING LAID! Only those who were not having sex survive. Fran says if the dead came back to life, they’d be stunned who’s a star today, all the second-rate wannabes.

And it used to be that the audience was critical, demanded excellence. Now money trumps everything. Sold a lot of tickets? Then you must be good! You can’t criticize anybody who’s rich. [emphasis mine]
There was a comedy club I used to attend in London, when I lived there, that was a crueler version of boot camp for stand-up comedians. I mean, you had to be somewhat established to get a gig there, but you knew you had better be ready for it. This audience took extreme pride in not only making the comedians leave the stage, but in making them break down and cry. The hecklers were only about 1 million times more daring, smart, and, yes, funny than the average comedians there. But average comedians were not the point of this place. This club was an incubator for comic geniuses with skins like rhinos.

I recall one young guy who was trying to tell a fairly lame joke involving "Star Trek" (far too popular for this crowd's taste, and way too open to ready puns and "beam him up Scotty" heckles). At a certain point he lost complete control of the room (you know this when the audience members aren't even shouting out their heckles toward the stage, but sharing them among themselves). But something clicked inside that kid. He grew as determined as anyone I ever saw, and, through a positively brutal barrage of catcalls and boos, he finally made it through the joke. The audience gave him a standing ovation.

THAT was an audience. Demanding as hell, but generous to those who really fought to deliver.

I'm a big believer in the notion that each generation gets the art they deserve. To deserve great art, you must be a hard-working, critical audience. If you're not pleased with the art you see, demand better. It's the only way, as an audience, you can help foster genius.

Demand better.

Labels: contemporary art, quality


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved the movie, love this post!

----Ondine NYC

3/28/2011 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fran had a great comment on audiences. Not only did we lose so many gay people in the 80's and 90's but we also lost a very sophisticated theater and art audience of elderly people, many of them Jewish. These people were very discerning and well educated. Those folks when they passed away have not been replaced and these folks kept non-musical theater alive for a generation.

My cousin who is an educator just had friends visit NYC from California who are also educators in their 50's. The only theater they wanted to see in NYC was The Addams Family which seemed typical and made me sad.

3/28/2011 10:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stereotyping is not especially good form even when being used to make an artificial grouping of a positive trait.

3/28/2011 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Stereotyping is not especially good form even when being used to make an artificial grouping of a positive trait.

Tell it to Fran. See if she cares.

3/28/2011 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

Slightly tangential but not off topic, I'll admit this is one of the reasons I joined the academy - for the people I get to talk to about their and my work. Not that the academic audience is "better" than any other, especially after conceptual (small "c") art has managed commercial and non-commercial success. But rather that it gives me a constant and very challenging audience, through both faculty and students. Yes, sometimes it can be a bit too insider in its language and ideas, but so can every other art scene - and so straddling as many as possible really appeals to me. I like to think of my practice more generally as in dialog, and so teaching and collaborating on campus is just as important as working with galleries and curators and other artists and art appreciators elsewhere. Nice work if you can get it, I think. The best audience for me is those people who I want to talk to about what they are doing, too.

3/28/2011 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Saskia said...

This was my favorite part from the review

And unencumbered by distracting technology, Fran can observe. That’s a key element of being an artist. Getting out in the world and having experiences and weighing the meaning thereof. And talking about it.

Fran loves to talk. She’ll listen, she loves the exchange of ideas. Art can be created in a flash, but you think about it when you’re not making it. And the more you think about it, the more you feel, the more you talk about it, the clearer your vision becomes, so when you sit down to create, the result is better defined and richer.

3/28/2011 02:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blogger Edward_ said...

Stereotyping is not especially good form even when being used to make an artificial grouping of a positive trait.

Tell it to Fran. See if she cares.

How socially responsible of you to propagate it here on your blog for us to share.

3/28/2011 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How socially responsible of you to propagate it here on your blog for us to share.

Fran, who is both gay and Jewish, makes a comment that the audiences she admired were a stronger mix of gays and Jews than they were anything else, and you are going to tell her (or me) that simply pointing that out should offend someone? Who? A gay Jew?

It's a statistical observation, for f*ck's sake...with nothing more stereotypical than you personally bring to it, I might add.

3/28/2011 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'll also note that the point of this thread was for each of us to take stock of how hard we work as an look at ourselves as one possible source of the quality of the art around us...and yet rather than that difficult introspection, we're debating whether someone else's comment is "socially irresponsible" when it is a straight forward matter of opinion from first-hand observation that couldn't offend anyone so much as herself?

Talk about transparently changing the subject.

3/28/2011 04:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

ahhh that blasted audience reading these blogs ;)

it is easy to overlook our complicity in the state of our art world. I often thought "drats" at Pope Julius II for having Michelangelo paint that darn ceiling. Because if I remember correctly, the artist considered himself a sculptor before a painter. So I mourn the loss of what he could have brought us if he was allowed to express himself in his preferred domain. But then what of the loss to painting if a sculptor hadn't pushed that medium towards his comfort zone?

Hence a patron drastically shifts an artists output - one could argue for the better or for the "badder". Art really is social and collaborative in that mutual influence on arts expression.

Is it the audience that hasn't stepped up to the plate or is it the result of the egomaniac genius artist? Or is it the connection possibilities between audience and art - in terms of distribution and accessibility? (galleries, museums, exhibitions, revues, internet ...) I don't think only two parties are in play here, and the number is unlikely static. yet the contention that we should seek more is really poignant to all involved. Like some plutonic critical mass, too close or too far apart is crucial to the results.

3/29/2011 07:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Alex Novak, Contemporary Works/Vintage Works said...

Ed, I love your last paragraph. I will steal it with full credit though. You are one of the most interesting and honest observers in the art market. Keep up the great work.

4/01/2011 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, the audience gets it all too well. And that is why they stay away in droves. The"genius" went elsewhere, art became a wasteland of the irrelevant and self absorbed. The academies were reborn to support and create them.

Comedy is the heir of dada, being absurd in creative art is nothing but shallow one liners. And not worth the time or effort to see exhibtionists therapy games and pointless decorations.

Genius is seeing connections between supposedly unrelated things. It is passion, soul, physicality and being alive. Artists are workers. Now artistes have become the very intellectuals that those who work with their minds,bodys and souls hate. Shallow, one dimensional,mirror gazing dandies.

Monet and Michelangelo were workers. They understood their fellow human beings,and shared in life. Not apart in decadent Neverlands.

4/02/2011 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The"genius" went elsewhere,

Where did it go?

4/02/2011 01:26:00 PM  
Anonymous TLC said...

Writing on René Magritte’s famous pairing of an image of a pipe with the phrase CECI N’EST PAS UNE PIPE, Michel Foucault argued that the artist creates an “unravelled calligram,” in which text and image operate not in terms of glib resemblance but as a ruined tautology.

4/03/2011 05:29:00 PM  

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