Comparison panic is a pernicious thing. Often utterly confusing and entirely irrational, it's frequently exacerbated (and often caused) by the ways in which society structures our appreciation of art and artists, in a frequently hierarchical paradigm that strongly serves commercial, but often not creative ends.
Last night I found myself heading into a mini-tailspin while sitting cross-legged in front of our rather fantastic DVD collection (most of which we nabbed in the Video Dogs closing-down sale, and we now discover are available via Hulu Plus in the Criterion Collection). I was looking for two specific films: Alexsander Sokurov's Russian Ark (we have it), and Sally Potter's Orlando (we don't). In the process my eyes tracked across scores of other films that have in some way or other, "made it" (and by made it - I mean a score of 69% or more on Rotten Tomatoes and a mention on Margaret and David). Some of them I've not yet seen, some of these I cherish with the fierce fire of the beloved, and others leave me a little cold and, yep - panicky. But last night, in the act of realising my rather strong reaction to these films, I caught myself and tried to analyse why thinking about them was causing me to freak out.
My frustration seemed to be being unfair to them. It seemed to be born of a combination of plain not-liking the works crossed with - and here comes the 'aha' moment - the ways in which they've been presented to the world; hyped in the media; regaled amongst the annals of film-buff geekery and praised on must-watch lists of tertiary institutions worldwide. As if that is supposed to mean something. And in that moment, I realised when I thought about it, I felt funny about my favourite artists making it onto those lists as well. When I hold the work of one artist whose film has made the grade against the work of another who hasn't, but that I love equally, what does that mean?
When filmmaker Béla Tarr was asked by a journalist at the Berlinale about his epic existentialist meditation (and grand bow), The Turin Horse, what it would mean for Hungary to win a prize at the festival, the essence of his response was that prize-or-no-prize it wouldn't mean anything. That it is ridiculous to pit such films against one another, just as it is to compare great authors. As if the merit of art could be determined by a number, a vote, a gold star.
Accolades are funny things. Must-watch-must-read-must-listen lists are actually kind of bizarre. They apply only so far. They can praise only so much. They cherry-pick for often arbitrary reasons - many of them values-driven and taste-driven by administrators of trend, and always people who have a particular lens on the world. We are after all, only human - even those who purport to determine cool. These phenomena try to ascertain patterns in massively crowded markets, giving those without a strong nose a sense of where to go in order to get a solid footing on a medium. In many ways they serve this purpose well.
But for the artist sitting in the dark at the end of her corridor, cross-legged and frustrated in the face of a world of moving-image that doesn't seem to make much sense (the big-budget piles of poop are lauded over the intimate-epic tales of interiority that can change lives), and an understanding that tastemaking is in many ways random, what conclusion can be determined from the presence of these manifold benchmarks? What can this mild, pre-bedtime panic teach me?
That it doesn't matter. Whether you're sculpting stone or penning poems, composing concerti or curating a dégustation; whether you're running workshops, writing software, or sewing birds for guerilla kindness projects. It doesn't matter. What you love is what you love. What moves you is what moves you. If your personal greatest hits don't make it onto the greatest-hit lists, if none of your work ever makes it to an awards ceremony; if you get the nice-but-no-cigar response to grant applications a hundred times over, it doesn't matter. It doesn't actually mean anything. Tastemaking is a fickle business. If the world doesn't end up getting 99.9% of what you do right now - or even what you love, that's okay. Stay on that wagon. Hold on for dear life.
I have to remind myself of this every. single. bloody. day. I often start work and then chicken out because I think it'll never be any good. (I've been doing this since I was 12.) I often get cold feet and try for a while to water it down to make it more like the work of people who seem to somehow perpetually hit the sweet spot of edgy-but-widely-adored. It always ends up in tears. I can't do what they do. I can't like what they like. It isn't in my creative/aesthetic DNA. Beating myself up about it, and trying to deny what actually turns me on is tantamount to artistic self-harm.
The market is crowded. It's full of fool-kings like you and me; those who would be hermits but who've been told they must vie for deification. Those who feel painfully compelled to attempt to make it onto top-ten lists and give up the still, dark, quiet core of our work for a bright-and-shiny prize that somehow endorses us as a "good artist". Accolades fade; they become abstract - part of a history; not a present. But our relationship to ourselves and our own work is always present with us. We have to have brutal honesty in this lifetime's transaction. Without it, it's all hollow striving.
I want to be able to grope around in the dark for my work. No flood lights. I want to allow my work to be able to be dodgy and ill-formed for now. I want to grow things slowly, softly and organically without trying to shoe-horn them into a box they'll never fit. I need the space to fuck it up and get up and brush myself off and start again without feeling like my work will never be worthwhile because I'm not actively trying to make an award-winner.
So, here's how I've decided to go about making work in a ridiculously crowded market: by not competing. By not trying to fit in. By disregarding the market. By dismissing its premise. By doing what I need to do and loving what I need to love, by following my nose, and by fucking the rest off, really.
There is so much going on out there. There is of course only ever a limited audience for everything. If I'm busy worrying about how I'm going to capture influential eyeballs before my footage has had time to render, then I'm shooting myself in the foot from the beginning. If I keep going consistently - bit by bit, bird by bird - eventually the work will find an audience. And one day, it might make someone's secret, unpublished, unspoken must-watch list. And I will have no idea. No trumpets will sound, and no statue will be awarded. And it will be wonderful.