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On not being awesome

October 9, 2008

People don’t often tell me that I’m awesome, but when they do I thank them and stay quiet. One thing I do know, though: over here (and perhaps in Britain too, but who knows? I haven’t lived there for three years now, a fact that unsettles me a bit) “awesome” is the default compliment that people pay to artists at their concerts, or plays, or poetry readings, or gallery openings. Times being what they are, surely no-one realistically expects to make any money out of art. The realistic renumeration that awaits an artist is that they be affirmed “awesome”, or else they remain not “awesome”. Personally, I would choose to remain not awesome.

It might be simply that the word isn’t part of the vocabulary that I grew up with, but the word keeps striking my ear uncomfortably. Especially when it’s used to congratulate an artist. The thing is, it assumes that an artist’s goal is to “awe” their audience. It sounds bombastic, or just plain bombardiering (compare with military use of “shock and awe”). Or it assumes that the audience is a stupid child, incapable of being spoken to or seduced by more subtle means, demanding to be impressed by louder noises, brighter images, faster movements. It’s a word that belongs to the marketing industry, or to American cinema.

Notice that I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but I’m now saying it in the knowledge that it can’t be very long now until universities start running graduate seminar courses in Post-Americanism; so perhaps what was once merely the blindingly (or should I say quietly?) obvious is now acting as pre-emptive Post-Americanist theory.

But also notice that in the above paragraph I was being dry and self-deprecating. That’s to say, I was being British. I was being a bit of a stage Englishman, which in all honesty is the main talent for which people are likely to affirm me “awesome”. You see how hard it is to get anything done?

Some art might attempt to inspire awe, and some might even succeed. More and more, though, I prefer art that approaches me with caution — it does not assume that everybody is its audience, which is the big mistake that “awesome” art makes — and instead of of exploding in my face, allows me to meet it halfway. And then, one meeting, its pleasures are quiet and unimportant.

I live underground.

I shouldn’t criticise the use of a word that’s very much in the collective vocabulary without offering some alternatives. Here are some examples of how art might otherwise be praised:

My favourite of John Cale’s albums is Music For a New Society, which is very underwhelming.

I love Samuel Beckett’s Malloy / Malone Dies / The Unnameable trilogy! It’s tedious and pedantic!

Taku Unami’s Four Pieces For Violin are great! I didn’t even notice them!

All of the descriptions above are used in the most complimentary sense possible.

To go back to my comment that “awesome” art makes the mistake of assuming that everyone is its audience. Of course, “awesome” art comes on in this friendly, generous, open-armed manner due to a fear of snobbery and exclusivity. This is interesting in the light of the comment by the Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, in the run-up to the Canadian election, justifying arts funding cuts by claiming that “ordinary people” don’t care about the arts. A couple of weeks after these comments, Toronto was host to Nuit Blanche, the all-night, Scotiabank-funded public art experience. Harper’s comments were discussed often in the build-up to this event; there was a tangible sense that a public, popular, populist art event would be a direct rebuttal to the PM. And naturally, it’s easier to prove Mr Harper wrong with examples of “awesome” art, than with examples of difficult, evasive, underwhelming art. What was needed was an arty party! That would show him… But can I object that art is not meant to be about arguing with idiots; and similarly, if art becomes entirely about justifying the money that’s invested in it, then we’re all in trouble. And I would argue that especially because the economic atmosphere is thick with a new fear of investment, the painter needs to pocket the patron’s money and spend it on the quiet — or in other words, evade accountability!

I am free of the fear of elitism. I would only be a snob if I felt that everyone really should share my interest in things that are boring and obsolete. I don’t feel this way. Maybe that makes me a hobbyist instead.

The idea of an “awesome” universal appeal is now an obsolete notion, anyway. The internet puts artists in direct contact with their audience, which means that the relationship between artist and audience can be more delicately negotiated. An artist needn’t worry whether their audience is made up of “ordinary people” (whatever that means). All that matters it that their audience are the sort of people who see themselves as the sort of people who like the artist’s sort of art… and so on. With this many-layered process of mutual selection between artist and audience, the need to be “awesome” vanishes altogether. There’ll always be someone who wants to be sung to on the quiet.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2008 10:38 pm

    I loved this post. And then I read it out to Andrew and he, too, loved it.

    Oh, Ross. You’re so awesome.

    (For the record, it’s absolutely okay for me to say that. “Awesome” is a very normal word to use in California. That I say it to a British man … all the more awesome. Dude.)

  2. Heather permalink
    October 31, 2008 5:30 pm

    For some reason, this entry reminded me about how you and i had an incredible misunderstanding concerning the distance between two cities. When an American asks how far away something is, we mean, “how long does it take to drive there?” but you kept telling me in miles (which was the actual question, wasn’t it? hah) and I couldn’t figure out why. haha.

  3. pacal sequitur permalink
    November 3, 2008 3:28 pm

    Mr. Tiger
    Have you heard the new Simon Bookish lp? It sort of reminds me of a slightly less experimental you. How are your new creations coming along?

  4. November 3, 2008 3:47 pm

    I haven’t yet heard it, but I certainly intend to! I do have his Trainwreck / Raincheck in my collection, and I’m eager to hear what else he’s been up to.

    It amazes me that you would consider him a LESS experimental version of me — because whenever I finish a work my common regret is that I might not have experimented enough.

    Anyway, I’m working hard at clearing my work schedule (hence very few updates here) in the hope that in about three days’ time I’ll be free to start recording my next album. I like the songs a lot and it will have have lots of acoustic percussion — I’ve been collecting objects from Chinatown that might make good sounds.

  5. November 9, 2008 7:45 pm

    Hi Ross, I liked reading that very much, it was awe… rather good indeed.

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