The Not So Good, Part 1 can be found here
None of this is intended as a condemnation of particular artists. Bob Denver (Gilligan) absolutely made people laugh. I fondly remember watching him on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Dusty’s Trail, as well as the infamous isle- not in the original broadcasts of Dobie or GI. However, I don’t particularly want to go back and see if the reality matches my memory.
Apparently, I am nudging up against a theory of artistic mediocrity, which sounds harsher than intended. I do mean the term in the strict sense of something that is of moderate quality. I sincerely believe that work combined with inspiration produces art of some merit. That art may need to be judged based on a wide variety of criteria while also taking into account many, many circumstances, but that magic chemistry of intentional effort with an artistic goal is the recipe for magic. It is why parents see beauty in a child’s finger-paints. They don’t need you or me to tell them that it is mediocre art. That’s beside the point and also why we can all look at those blobs and feel something.
We ask so much of artists and we think that their efforts amount to so little effort on their part that we become inundated with a great deal that is poor. Audiences expect new art to appear as easily as water from a faucet. The idea is so widespread that artists expect no less of themselves. Consider that John Lennon and Paul McCartney appear to have an average of two songs composed per month during the Beatles recording career. The consensus is that they were rather good at the task, even if your only criteria was the fact that they wrote stuff that could be recorded and sold. Still, there were two of them, so it’s kind of like one person writing one song every month, isn’t it? And how long does it take to come up with “yeah, yeah, yeah”?
Pablo Picasso was extremely prolific, creating over 17,000 works, from big pieces to sketches. He lived to be 92, so we could say that he had 75 productive years. Let’s say that works out to 230 works every year. Couldn’t he make a sketch before breakfast and call it a day? Also, if he was one of the most productive, what are all the others doing with their spare time?
No person with the slightest knowledge of artistic work believes that Lennon, McCartney or Picasso were slackers. And we have television show runners, actors, fashion designers, and all the rest regularly profiled so we should appreciate the effort involved in their respective lives.
And then we go to their performance or their fashion show or their gallery opening and we shrug. It’s inevitable that we will not like everything. Arguably, a billion people on the planet have that reaction to the entire catalog of Beatles music, which would mean that they still have a remarkable relationship with the vast majority of the planet. Heck, as an artist, the vast minority of the planet could be the extent of your popularity and that might still equal a billion people.
Naturally, one audience member may enjoy a particular work while others find it boring. Initial reactions are always in the moment. The later reflection on the experience is what interests me here. Any art consumed beyond the level of background noise is probably not mediocre in the eyes of the beholder. We disdain and relinquish the dull. The problem is those revisits. You’ve bragged to someone about how this thing is simply fantastic and you can see in their eyes as they silently judge you. Sure, it could be them. After all, that silent judgement is not a one way street. But it is difficult not to wonder if it is not something about this piece that you have loved before.
I’ve been ignorant and ill-informed in liking some art. That doesn’t make me sad. It just means that I won’t be appreciating the same things anymore. It also does not mean that the art was better than it was and that I have become too much of a pedant. Collected experience makes us all different when we revisit past loves. The music of certain bands in my youth was truly not worthy of the ages, no matter how fondly recalled or how many replays received on Sirius.
Sometimes, It’s Not So Good
I recently finished writing well over a hundred thousand words about specific artists and I think i avoided singling out anyone for any serious knocks. Perhaps I did imply that something was not so good. Anyhow, I’ve tried to be positive, keep on the sunny side, and say only nice things. While that was intentional because of the bounds I defined when I started that exercise, I am not without a discerning heart. Criticism does distinguish even if it only happens through omission (though everything not mentioned is not necessarily disliked).
Rudyard Kipling and Theodore Sturgeon, as well as everyone who has been exposed to more than ten works of art, have placed the percentage of “crap” or “bad” or “what the hey?” variously between eighty and ninety percent. I don’t entirely agree, but certainly a solid forty to sixty percent is mediocre.
These thoughts occur to me as the various streaming services have begun inundating the WiFi with old television programs. Nostalgia is a powerful force that can lead to revisiting almost anyplace fondly remembered. Yet, the past is a different country entirely and we are not the people that we were. That hamburger joint from your youth really did not make the best fries ever. They only made the best ones that you’d eaten up to that point. Or you were just especially hungry and in the right company.
We watch any number of old shows on the streaming app machine. Sometimes, I just want to hear the theme song. Other times, I want to visit with long lost friends because there are so many that I have no way to see again and this is just an attempt to stave off another loss. Oh, the television set has been a devilish seductress.
Love American Style may have been entertaining once
CHiPs and Gilligan’s Island and Roseanne and so many more are like an IV drip of downers. They are unwatchable. That is not to say that I did not watch them when they first appeared. More recently, I had to constantly remind myself that this was entertaining once. Everything is not dreck. I was surprised to find that I could enjoy The Saint. I still try to track down episodes of Secret Agent Man. Perhaps a pattern emerges. Maybe comedy simply does not date well. Then again, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Tyler Moore, among others, still work for me. Did I really make so much time in my life for things like Fantasy Island and Happy Days?
Ignoring movies, sports and variety shows, the top rated programs in 1966, 1976 and 1986 were:
|Bonanza||Happy Days||The Cosby Show|
|The Andy Griffith Show||Laverne & Shirley||Family Ties|
|The Lucy Show||M*A*S*H||Cheers|
|Green Acres||Charlie’s Angels||Murder, She Wrote|
|Daktari||The Six Million Dollar Man||The Golden Girls|
|The Beverly Hillbillies||One Day at a Time||Growing Pains|
|Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.||Three’s Company||Moonlighting|
|The Virginian||All in the Family||Who’s the Boss?|
|Family Affair||Welcome Back, Kotter||Dallas|
|Hogan’s Heroes||The Bionic Woman||Newhart|
|Get Smart||Little House on the Prairie||227|
|Petticoat Junction||Barney Miller||Matlock|
Maybe it is unfair to judge television shows for their mediocrity. They were meant for momentary distraction aimed at the widest possible audience and constrained by methods of delivery and production. Nothing about them at the time reckoned with the future force of nostalgia. No one working on a show could afford the time or emotional cost to consider the impact of their efforts a decade or five down the road.
Is it really healthy to binge watch MacGyver?
That additional aspect of memory, however, is important. I do wonder how important time becomes in evaluating a work of art. Realistically, we have two types of critics: those who tell us whether or not we want to consume a work of art now based on their own immediate reactions and those who evaluate art for longstanding appreciation. Both types want to overlap. Both types need to feed the word beast and often bring all sorts of data to their writing (much of what I have written being a case in point). The former sometimes use history as a guide and the latter want you to feel the way they do right now about the pyramids or the Mona Lisa or Wagner.
My point here is simply that initial responses do not always stand the test of time. All consumers of art, including critics, are trapped in time. We are all creatures of popular fashion, both because that limits what is available, but also because our taste is shaped by constant reinforcement. We may withstand some of those forces with a seeking mind or a longstanding preference, but the world does tend to have its way with us.
Part 2 appears next week