What makes good art? For anyone working creatively, it is a question you have to keep coming back to. The creative industries pressure us to make good product and to give people what they want. Not so long back I was at an event where Jonny Fluffypunk said that if you give people what they want, it’s entertainment. If you give people what they didn’t know they wanted, that’s art. This really resonated with me.
I come back repeatedly to Ursula Le Guinn’s comment that good art is entertaining. Yes, I want to surprise, challenge and stretch people. I don’t always want to make everyone feel totally comfortable. But at the same time I want to add something good to their lives. I want to cheer people, enrich them, give them something they feel was worth having. I want to give people what they didn’t know they needed.
I feel this keenly as an author, and as an audience member. I am not comforted by seeing familiar things. I don’t want to replay formulaic products, or revisit endlessly the variations on a theme of stuff I once liked. I want to be surprised, stretched and challenged. I am willing to not always be comfortable, if it’s going somewhere.
I’m not cool with shock for the sake of it. I don’t want to distress, demoralise, desensitise a reader. I want to make big, difficult challenging things more palatable. And I want it to be accessible. I want to use a language plenty of people can keep up with, and put things out there in ways that don’t lock you out if you don’t have a degree, or aren’t glued to a thesaurus. Being too clever, too keen to show off all the big words all the time doesn’t make for a good reading experience.
I studied literature back in the day, and I learned some things that have stayed with me. Shakespeare was a crowd pleaser. Dickens wrote newspaper serials. The people we think of as the literary great and the good were not trying to make high art. The way language has changed makes them obscure to us and a harder read, that’s all. At the time, they were writing for people. Drawing lines between high brow high Art and Literature and popular stuff seems to be a modern thing. Beethoven was just trying to get bums on seats.
For me, if it’s being made for the special elite few who have been trained highly enough to properly understand it… I’m happy not to bother. I’m interested in books and arts that are made for people. Not to give people what some condescending industry oik reckons the lowest common denominator wants. Not trying to make everything be bland enough to be tolerable to everyone. But on the whole, making things for people as best I can.