Art is not a democracy

It’s not a secret that I’m a giant nerd. I mean, huge, enormous nerd. So it probably should not come as much of a surprise that one of the many books I own is The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook. It’s a fantastic read and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to write things, read things or watch things at all. The book consists entirely of transcribed emails between Davies — the head-writer and executive producer for Doctor Who at the time —  and Benjamin Cook — a journalist and writer for Doctor Who Magazine. They talk about the tv shows that they watch (the first two seasons of Skins UK) the books that they read, and mostly about the making and writing and re-writing of Doctor Who. Davies bares his soul and shows us the layers of contradiction that exist in all our heads– the confidence and doubt mixed with hope and despair. I learned a lot about writing. I learned a lot about being a tv producer.

In the midst of hilarious banter (I literally laughed out loud in the middle of an airport diner when reading it, drawing looks from half the restaurant) is one of my favorite quotes ever about being an artist:

 Creating something is not a democracy. The people have no say. The artist does. It doesn’t matter what the people witter on about: they and their response come after. They’re not there for the creation.

It was the first time I’d ever thought about art from this point of view. As an artist you are constantly told to ignore people’s reactions. To take risks, to do it for you. “Sing for you, not for them,” I always told my voice students.

Jeffrey Eugenides recently spoke very eloquently at the Whiting Awards about this.

You write your first stuff pretty much for yourself, not thinking anybody will read, much less publish, it, not thinking it’ll earn money, therefore not worrying about pleasing anyone or falling in line with any agenda; not worrying about censoring yourself, either, because who’s going to see it? And, miraculously, it worked out. Not only did you get published but older, established writers read your stuff and nominated you for a Whiting and the selection committee met and picked you out a huge body of nominees. And so here you are tonight, in New York City, and—I don’t want to ruin your night or anything—but everything’s about to change. You’re not writing for yourself anymore. Now you’re a published author or a playwright whose one-act has been produced—and suddenly everybody thinks you’re a professional. You did it before, wrote a book, a play, a collection of poetry, so you can do it again, right? And as you begin to worry about how to do that, that’s when your immune system is at its weakest and the pathogens can make their way in.

I’ve kept Davies’s  and Eugenides’s word in the back of my mind as I’ve read scathing reviews on the internet about new work from people I respect and admire. And yes, there were moments in these works I didn’t like. I could have lived without the last 8 “Doctor Who?” lines in the Christmas Special (though I for one enjoyed the Game of Thrones reference). I was underwhelmed by The Hobbit in general, wishing Jackson had just made a simple quest movie instead of trying to duplicate a masterpiece, but I can’t fault him for wanting to hang out in Middle Earth with all his friends for another decade.

Because what really gets me is the sense of entitlement from many of the reviewers of these creations. As if Peter Jackson, and Stephen Moffat somehow owed it to them personally to deliver THE BEST THING EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF THINGS. Let me give you a news flash people–

They don’t owe you squat.

Seriously. Not a damn thing. Artists and creators are human. Let me say that again. THEY’RE FREAKING HUMAN! Not everything they touch is always going to turn to pure gold. Everything has flaws. Every great writer has had a less than stellar book. Every director a not-quite-so-fabulous movie. Every actor has done that job they would rather just forget about. That’s life people. Look at other professions. Look at your own life. Has every paper you’ve ever turned in been absolutely brilliant? Has every deal you’ve made been perfect, every event flawless, every project groundbreaking? So why do we expect constant and eternal perfection from artists?

Additionally, (and forgive me for a slightly gratuitous Rent reference) who says that we have any say in how they say these things at all? It doesn’t matter if you liked the way Harry Potter or Mockingjay ended. It wasn’t written expressly for you. It ended the way the author wanted it to end. If you don’t like the stories you read, then write the ones you do want to read. If you don’t like the movies you watch, then start making some.  Not everyone is going to like everything. Just because you don’t like one element doesn’t mean the whole thing is crap.

And, for realz, who do we think we are to judge? Who are we to say that Emma Watson looks better with long hair or short?  When Renee Fleming went out on a limb and released a cd of rock covers and everyone tore it to shreds, all I could think was “that is the bravest thing I can ever imagine doing!” To depart so completely with what she was used to, to put herself out there for the wolves to devour– I have so much admiration for that kind of courage.

What if every single thing you did was on public display for comment? I imagine we all have the gossipers at work, all have the catty drama that accompanies human civilisation. We all hate being criticized and nit picked about every little thing we do, can you imagine that on a global scale?

I guess my point is simply that artists don’t owe us anything. They owe it to themselves to  be true to their vision, their idea of what their work should be. We don’t have to like it. It’s (obviously) fine to have opinions, and equally fine to express them– but get off your high horse about it. There are going to be things we like and don’t like. That is natural and human. But putting on a pretense of betrayal when we don’t like something by an artist is stupid and counter-productive. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it, watch it, read it or whatever. Express your opinion, but don’t endlessly bitch about it just because you have an easy outlet. Instead, maybe pour that energy into something productive? Maybe even something creative. You might be surprised what happens.


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