I wish I'd thought of this. I truly do. But I didn't, so credit is given where credit is due.
Hey, that kinda rhymes. Watch out, Charles! ;-)
Okay, seriously: Charles recently posted about a crappy literary novel he read, a much-acclaimed crappy literary novel. Lots of people complain about crappy literary novels. Others complain about crappy popular novels. In this verrrrrry long interview, Neil Stephenson (around question #2) casually drops the most elegant analogy possible for funding in Western Art: Beowulf and Chaucer.
Chaucer wrote for king and court. His meal ticket was creating art (The Canterbury Tales) that pleased and engaged his wealthy and powerful patrons. The anonymous bards who first sang Beowulf moved from town to town, night to night. A good tale that engaged the crowd meant a comfy bed and good food, etc. Boring or offending the audience... well, let's just say it's not a good idea to bore or offend a lot of big hairy men and women with axes.
It's probably no coincidence that The Canterbury Tales is a top-down look at medieval society: pious, occasionally bawdy (when the peasants feature) and gently teasing where Church-y materialism is concerned. Not that Beowulf features monsters by moonlight, subterranean caves of doom, flying dragons and the biggest, meanest, hairiest motherfucker to ever swing an axe riding into town to set the world to rights.
Modern fiction and movies, not much has changed.
And this duality is with us throughout the art world. While the very rich were daring each other to buy Picasso's throwdown to the art world, N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for Treasure Island were selling in the bazillions. About the time Martha Graham choreographed "Chronicle", Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were packing them in the aisles to watch the foxtrot.
Two camps, one where a small group of discerning patrons drop big chunks of money and another where a whole lot of folks vote a dollar or two at a time. It's probably no secret which one I'm in. (I mean, the blog title's a bit of a giveaway, innit?) Sure, I go to the opera and the ballet, and I dig those underlit European movies where a lonely guy drinks coffee and then dies. But you better believe I'm going to be there when Hellboy 2 opens here!
My own education geared me to a life in the ivory tower. My inclinations put me squarely on the street. Best advice I can give ANY artist is, know which camp you belong in and work as hard as hell in that one. If I have any regret about my art career, it's those early years I spent sucking up to arts boards for funding, chasing down gallery shows and all that. Many of my friends did well in that world, but it wasn't me...
At their best, the Chaucers give us bold and daring work, art that might never have a popular following but that still fills us with a sense of pride. Without the Chaucer approach, we might not have the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso or Claes Oldenburg.
The Beowulf crowd are easy to dismiss with a 'low-art' sniff. But our work endures, precisely because it appeals to the average joe. It's common, vital and alive. No endowment funding or princely patronage could have ever led to pulp fiction, comic books or the Blues.
Thing about the Chaucers is, when they fail, they fail BIG. At their worst, we get novels with no discernable punctuation. We get music with no tonality. We get much of the visual art of the 20th century.
Sure, the Chaucer crowd get it wrong sometimes. Okay, a LOT. Those ivory-tower eggheads are always looking over each other's shoulders, biting their lower lips and hoping not to embarrass themselves. Painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, it doesn't matter: they're all hoping to discover the next Van Gogh, all afraid of holding forth the next Jeff Koons.
Of course, it's not like we Beowulfs are perfect. After all, we brought the world the Da Vinci Code.