Does Context Define Beauty?

Context in creativity is an interesting concept.  If you were to see a million dollar painting hanging in a coffee shop, would it catch your attention?  If you heard a multi-platinum band playing in a local dive, would you recognize the genius in their music?  If you saw a legendary dancer dressed in street clothes performing at a bus stop, would you be awed by life-long sacrifice and investment in their craft?  If a distinguished artist of any kind were to perform outside of their traditional context, would we be lured and captivated by their greatness?

I also love entertaining the flip side of that coin.  If no one is listening to your music or buying your art or attending your creative functions…are you less of an artist?  Are your skills called into question?  Does popular opinion and response truly determine the quality of the art?

Recently this quote from Seth Godin caught my attention:

‎”Popular is almost never a measure of impact, or genius, or art. Popular rarely correlates with guts, hard work or a willingness to lead (and be willing to be wrong along the way).”

…and yet, as artists, popularity tends to be what we crave.  Tweets about our latest blog entry.  ‘Likes’ on Facebook.  Fans on MySpace.  People attending our concerts or gallery openings or poetry readings or theatrical performances.  All they while, we’re holding up the giant question mark:  Do you like it?  Is it any good?  Is this beautiful?

I ran across a stunning article in the Washington Post about renowned violinist Joshua Bell playing in the DC subway station.  It’s a hefty article in length, but also in impact (TOTALLY worth the read).  It uncovers the more unlovely aspects of America’s painful relationship with artistic expression, and serves as a stinging indictment of our lack of value for the arts…but it also speaks loudly to this idea of how we artists tend to rate our value based upon the response of the audience.

In the article, Bell, a preeminent violinist who played on a multi-million dollar violin typically would pack out entire concert halls, with most mediocre seats going for $100 or more.  But on this day in January, the only things that changed were that he dressed in street clothes and played in the DC subway.

The article notes that before he began, Bell hadn’t known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.

“It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies,” he says. “I was stressing a little.”

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?

“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought:What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”

It strikes me as rather odd that a hugely successful musician with world-wide acceptance and validation would find himself in a bit of a fragile place, simply because of the change of context.  He once again felt the pressure to win the affections of his audience.

So if you are a creative, and the masses do not recognize your name or your style of art…or if your music isn’t packing out clubs with clamoring fans…don’t lose heart. Popularity does NOT determine the quality or value of your work!  Sales figures do not validate the brilliance of your art form.  Many of the legendary Masters of art went to their graves, penniless and unappreciated…only to fall into popular demand after their death.  So sad, but a strong reminder that we cannot judge our creative work by the response from the crowds.  Our validation MUST come from a different place…a more consistent place…a less fickle place.

Stop chasing the illusive affections of a numbed out crowd. It’s only when we learn to create for an audience of One and find our deepest satisfaction in obscurity that our creativity will be whole and healthy and pure.

Please take the time to read the original article by clicking the link below.  It’s so fascinating on so many levels.  Enjoy!

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html

 

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