Love and Hate

A question posed by my friend François:

A person made a great piece of art and you loved it, but the creator puts it down, saying it's crap. Would that influence your view of it?

Depends on the creator's frame of mind and why he says it. Pete Townshend has written off much of the Who's canon at various points in time, but he also invariably comes back years later to say "Actually, i guess it wasn't so bad". One of my favorite straight-up rock bands is the Cult, who used to have a habit of launching each new album by announcing that they really hated their last album and were never playing anything from it again. Plenty of writers have works that they publicly decry, especially screenwriters, who are more prone than most to having their work messed with.

I think that when artists reject their own work, it often comes down to the fact that an artist is the only one who knows what the work was supposed to look, sound, or read like. Every piece of art has its Platonic ideal — the perfection toward which the artist strives, and only the artist can assess the finished work in that context. However, because you and i as viewers/readers/listeners don’t have access to that ideal, our sense of the worth of the art is necessarily different from the artist’s sense.

Which is to say, the work an artist sees in his head is always a 10, but the work the artist creates might be perceived by him or her as a 6, or a 2. The artist rejects it because it's not a 10, but the work that you or i see might be an 8 or 9, which  makes it more than worthwhile.

On the other hand, a creator might reject something for the opposite reason. He knows and accepts that he created a 5, but because of his reputation or extraneous circumstances, everybody else in the world calls it a 10, and the inverse gulf between ideal and  reality becomes a point of aggravation or embarrassment. The modern composer John Cage was arguably most famous for his piece 4’33”, which consists of nothing but 4 minutes, 33 seconds of silence. When the piece is performed, a pianist sits there for the entire length of time counting off rest beats, which is all the score consists of. Over the many years since it was written, many people have lauded 4’33” as a work of artistic genius, an appreciation that Cage was happy to accept. However, shortly after he died in 1992, i remembering reading an article in which he was said to have repudiated the work as not being music at all, but rather just a piece of clever intellectual claptrap.

I don’t remember where i read the piece in question, so i’m not going to say that the statement is categorically true. However, i’m compelled to say that i agree with it. I’ve always liked Cage’s philosophy regarding music, but to my mind, there’s a difference between saying “This work has a compelling philosophy behind it” and “This work is interesting and worthwhile as a work”. I think that works rejected by the artists who create them typically fall into the category of works where this divide of philosophy and finished piece is simply too wide to be sustained.