How good does a professional work of art have to be? This would include painting, music, photography, poetry, any of the arts whether fine or otherwise. It would also include presenting oneself as an art form as well as one’s products.
Yes, how good does such a work of art have to be?
Ah, you say, but that is an imponderable, a thing that can’t be answered. Verily, you say, you have just asked a question for which there are no answers except the sneers and applause of critics. Indeed, this is why we have art critics! For who can tell how good good is. Who knows?
I have a surprise for you. There is an answer.
As you know, I searched for many years, as a sort of minor counterpoint to what I was hardwork doing, to dredge up some of the materials which might constitute the basis of art. Art was the most uncodified and most opinionated subject on the planet after men’s ideas about women and women’s ideas about men and Man’s ideas of Man. Art was anyone’s guess. Masterpieces have gone unapplauded, positive freaks have gained raves.
So how good does a work of art have to be to be good?
The painter will point out all the tiny technical details known only to painters, the musician will put a score through the Alto horn and explain about valve clicks and lip, the poet will talk about meter types, the actor will explain how the position and wave of one hand per the instructions of one school can transform a clod into an actor. And so it goes, art by art, bit by bit.
But all these people will be discussing the special intricacies and holy mysteries of technique, the tiny things only the initiate of that art would recognize. They are talking about technique. They are not really answering how good a work of art has to be.
Works of art are viewed by people. They are heard by people. They are felt by people. They are not just the fodder of a close-knit group of initiates. They are the soul food of all people.
One is at liberty of course to challenge that wide purpose of art. Some professors who don’t want rivals tell their students “Art is for self-satisfaction” “It is a hobby.” In other words, don’t display or exhibit, kid, or you’ll be competition! The world today is full of that figure-figure. But as none of this self-satisfaction art meets a definition of art wider than self for the sake of self, the professional is not interested in it.
In any artistic production, what does one have as an audience? People. Not, heaven forbid, critics. But people. Not experts in that line of art. But people.
That old Chinese poet who, after he wrote a poem, went down out of his traditional garret and read it to the flower-selling old lady on the corner had the right idea. If she understood it and thought it was great, he published. If she didn’t he put it in the bamboo trash can. Not remarkably, his poems have come down the centuries awesomely praised.
Well, one could answer this now by just saying that art should communicate to people high and low. But that really doesn’t get the sweating professional anywhere as a guide in actually putting together a piece of work and it doesn’t give him a yardstick whereby he can say “That is that!” “I’ve done it.” And go out with confidence that he has.
What is technique? What is its value? Where does it fit? What is perfectionism? Where does one stop scraping off the paint and erasing notes and say “That is that”?
For there is a point. Some artists don’t ever find it. The Impressionists practically spun in as a group trying to develop a new way of viewing and communicating it. They made it-or some of them did like Monet. But many of them never knew where to stop and they didn’t make it. They couldn’t answer the question “How good does a piece of art work have to be to be good?”
In this time of century, there are many communication lines for works of art. Because a few works of art can be shown so easily to so many there may even be fewer artists. The competition is very keen and even dagger sharp. To be good one has to be very good. But in what way and how?
Well, when I used to buy breakfasts for Greenwich Village artists (which they ate hungrily, only stopping between bites to deplore my commercialism and bastardizing my talents for the gold that bought their breakfasts) I used to ask this question and needless to say I received an appalling variety of responses. They avalanched me with technique or lack of it, they vaguely dwelt on inherent talent, they rushed me around to galleries to show me Picasso or to a board fence covered with abstracts. But none of them told me how good a song had to be to be a song.
So I wondered about this. And a clue came when the late Hubert Mathieu, a dear friend, stamped with youth on the Left Bank of the Seine and painting dowagers at the Beaux Arts in middle age, said to me “To do any of these modern, abstract, cubist things, you have to first be able to paint!” And he enlarged the theme while I plied him in the midnight hush of Manhattan with iced sherry and he finished up the First Lady of Nantucket’s somewhat swollen ball gown. Matty could paint. Finally he dashed me off an abstract to show me how somebody who couldn’t paint would do it and how it could be done.
I got his point. To really make one of these too modern things come off, you first had to be able to paint. So I said well, hell, there’s Gertrude Stein and Thomas Mann and ink splatterers like those. Let’s see if it really is an art form. So I sharpened up my electric typewriter and dashed off the last chapters of a novel in way far out acid prose and put the end at the bottom and shipped it off to an editor who promptly pushed several large loaves down the telephone wire and had me to lunch and unlike his normal blase self said, “I really got a big bang (this was decades ago, other years, other slang) out of the way that story wound up! You really put it over the plate.” And it sent his circulation rating up. And this was very odd because you see the first chapters were straight since they’d been written before Matty got thirsty for sherry and called me to come over and the last chapters were an impressionistic stream of consciousness that Mann himself would have called “an advanced rather adventurous over-Finneganized departure from the ultra school.”
So just to see how far this sort of thing could go, for a short while I shifted around amongst various prose periods just to see what was going on. That they sold didn’t prove too much because I never had any trouble with that. But that they were understood at all was surprising to me for their prose types (ranging from Shakespeare to Beowulf) were at wild variance with anything currently being published.
So I showed them to Matty the next time he had a ball gown to do or three chins to paint out and was thirsty. And he looked them over and he said, “Well, you proved my point. There’s no mystery to it. Basically you’re a trained writer! It shows through.”
And now we are getting somewhere, not just with me and my adventures and long dead yesterdays.
As time rolled on, this is what I began to see: The fellow technician in an art hears and sees the small technical points. The artist himself is engrossed in the exact application of certain exact actions which produce, when done, his canvas, his score, his novel, his performance.
The successful artist does these small things so well that he also then has attention and skill left to get out his message, he is not still fiddling about with the cerulean blue and the semiquaver. He has these zeroed in. He can repeat them and repeat them as technical actions. No ulcers. Strictly routine.
And here we have three surrealist paintings. And they each have their own message. And the public wanders by and they only look with awe on one. And why is this one different than the other two? Is it a different message? No. Is it more popular? That’s too vague.
If you look at or listen to any work of art, there is only one thing the casual audience responds to en masse, and if this has it then you too will see it as a work of art. If it doesn’t have it, you won’t.
So what is it?
Technical expertise itself adequate to produce an emotional impact.
And that is how good a work of art has to be to be good.
If you look this over from various sides, you will see that the general spectator is generally unaware of technique. That is the zone of art’s creators.
Were you to watch a crowd watching a magician, you would find one common denominator eliciting uniform response. If he is a good magician he is a smooth showman. He isn’t showing them how he does his tricks. He is showing them a flawless flowing performance. This alone is providing the carrier wave that takes the substance of his actions to his audience. Though a far cry from fine art, perhaps, yet there is art in the way he does things. If he is good, the audience is seeing first of all, before anything else, the Technical Expertise of his performance. They are also watching him do things they know they can’t do. And they are watching the outcome of his presentations. He is a good magician if he gives a technically flawless performance just in terms of scenes and motions which provide the channel for what he is presenting.
Not to compare Bach with a magician (though you could), all great pieces of art have this one factor in common. First of all, before one looks at the faces on the canvas or hears the meaning of the song, there is the Technical Expertise there adequate to produce an emotional impact. Before one adds message or meaning, there is this Technical Expertise.
Technical Expertise is composed of all the little and large bits of technique known to the skilled painter, musician, actor, any artist. He adds these things together in his basic presentation. He knows what he is doing. And how to do it. And then to this he adds his message.
All old masters were in there nailing canvas on frames as apprentices or grinding up the lapis lazuli or cleaning paintbrushes before they arrived at the Metropolitan.
But how many paintbrushes do you have to clean? Enough to know that clean paintbrushes make clean color. How many clarinet reeds do you have to replace? Enough to know which types will hit high C.
Back of every artist there is technique. You see them groping, finding, discarding, fooling about. What are they hunting for? A new blue? No, just a constant of blue that is an adequate quality.
And you see somebody who can really paint still stumbling about looking for technique — a total overrun.
Someplace one says, “That’s the Technical Expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact.” And that’s it. Now he CAN. So he devotes himself to messages.
If you get this tangled up or backwards, the art does not have a good chance of being good. If one bats out messages without a Technical Expertise carrier wave of art, the first standard of the many spectators seems to be violated.
The nice trick is to be a technician and retain one’s fire. Then one can whip out the masterpieces like chain lightning. And all the great artists seem to have managed that. And when they forked off onto a new trail they mastered the technique and then erupted with great works.
It is a remarkable thing about expertise. Do you know that some artists get by on “Technical expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact” alone with no messages? They might not suspect that. But it is true.
So the “expertise adequate” is important enough to be itself art. It is never great art. But it produces an emotional impact just from quality alone.
And how masterly an expertise? Not very masterly. Merely adequate. How adequate is adequate? Well, people have been known to criticize a story because there were typographical errors in the typing. And stories by the non-adept often go pages before anyone appears or anything happens. And scores have been known to be considered dull simply because they were inexpertly chorded or clashed. And a handsome actor has been known not to have made it because he never knew what to do with his arms, for all his fiery thunderings of the Bard’s words.
Any art demands a certain expertise. When this is basically sound, magic! Almost anyone will look at it and say Ah! For quality alone has an emotional impact. That it is cubist or dissonant or blank verse has very little bearing on it; the type of the art form is no limitation to audience attention generally when it has, underlying it and expressed in it, the expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact.
The message is what the audience thinks it sees or hears. The significance of the play, the towering clouds of sound in the symphony, the scatter-batter of the current pop group, are what the audience thinks it is perceiving and what they will describe, usually, or which they think they admire. If it comes to them with a basic expertise itself able to produce an emotional impact they will think it is great. And it will be great.
The artist is thought of as enthroned in some special heaven where all is clean and there is no sweat, eyes half closed in the thrall of inspiration. Well maybe he is sometimes. But every one I’ve seen had ink in his hair or a towel handy to mop his brow or a throat spray in his hand to ease the voice strain of having said his lines twenty-two times to the wall or the cat. I mean the great ones. The others were loafing and hoping and talking about the producer or the unfair art gallery proprietor.
The great ones always worked to achieve the technical quality necessary. When they had it they knew they had it. How did they know? Because it was technically correct.
Living itself is an art form. One puts up a mock-up. It doesn’t happen by accident. One has to know how to wash his nylon shirts and girls have to know what mascara runs and that too many candy bars spoil the silhouette, quite in addition to the pancreas.
Some people are themselves a work of art because they have mastered the small practical techniques of living that give them a quality adequate to produce an emotional impact even before anyone knows their name or what they do.
Even a beard and baggy pants require a certain art if they are to be the expertise adequate to produce an emotional impact.
And some products produce a bad misemotional impact without fully being viewed. And by this reverse logic, of which you can think of many examples such as a dirty room, you can then see that there might be an opposite expertise, all by itself, adequate to produce a strong but desirable emotional impact.
That is how good a work of art has to be. Once one is capable of executing that technical expertise for that art form he can pour on the message. Unless the professional form is there first, the message will not transmit.
A lot of artists are overstraining to obtain a quality far above that necessary to produce an emotional impact. And many more are trying to machine gun messages at the world without any expertise at all to form the vital carrier wave.
So how good does a piece of art have to be?