Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Artist as Good Enough

Recently a musician acquaintance made a comment online disparaging arrogance among musicians. He mused, I'll paraphrase, that even the best among us are still works in progress without license to be condescendingly confident. The idea of being "good enough" was thrown out there.

I hope he was saying that none of us are good enough to justify arrogance. My concern is if he also intended to imply that we will never be good enough, period. That is to say that we should never reach a point where we are happy with what we are expressing artistically, and if we do not feel hunted by an insatiable feeling of dissatisfaction, we can never be great. Whatever this uniquely talented musician meant, the idea is persistent in my experience of the art world.

In art, we study, we copy, we exercise, we create, we destroy, and we create again. Some of us do this to move vertically, upwards to a better art, closer to a set of rules defined by an amalgam of our predecessors. This amalgam is a bundle of not too dissimilar artists, gathered together by analysts, given a name borrowed from some artist in some other bundle, and synthesized into neat volumes. We have but to follow the instructions provided.

In fits and spurts, I have striven for betterness. Ironically, my expectation that I should push myself toward an ideal expression, one defined outside of myself, has led me to work less hard and to turn away from opportunities to make art. I fear that I could never make it to the ideal, so I don't move toward it. Or I fear that if I were to achieve it, whatever would be there waiting for me, futility perhaps, would be unpleasant.

I think there may be room in artistic expression for those volumes of clearly-defined parameters, not existing as ends in themselves, but rather as beautiful mirages. When we get to them, or possibly somewhere along the way, their apparent corporeality dissipates, and we discover something else we never would have seen otherwise.

As a high schooler, I wanted to join the Tonight Show stage band, not a well-defined artistic tradition in itself, but an objective which to me had a specific set of perceived prerequisite skills. The desire faded throughout my collegiate exploration of the deeper levels of music, and by the time Branford took over the only Tonight Show saxophone book in 1992, the year I finished my last undergraduate class, I was on to other things.

It was the Tonight Show ideal that guided me for a while, then it was another, and then something different. I do a disservice to myself if I hold on to the first thing for the sole reason that I haven't conquered it, yet. Moving on to the next thing may be ok, and it may even be right and good.

So instead of upward artistic mobility, I'm wondering if it isn't more helpful to think of what we do as a kind of lateral evolution, using nature and art as inspiration, recognizing personal expression as perfect in its fluidity, and choosing to make changes as they seem right. In this model, all artistic expression is equal, and we are all good enough.