I just had a chance to pay visit to a fun little Houston museum full of culture and craziness, dedicated to exhibits by the community of local artists of all walks that contribute to the art car parade, which I won’t go into a lot of detail about other than to say this is a community that it’s really hard not to like. The exhibits on display, in addition to a handful of somewhat psychedelic automobiles, included those submissions to an open call for pieces, which by fortune the response size allowed the full display of all submissions, thus this was an uncurated exhibit showing artists’ works from a wide band of talent and effort. After seeing the somewhat overwhelming collection of the MET for instance, it was a little refreshing to be in an environment where not every piece was a certifiable work of genius, and some more relatable artists had the chance to show work who were clearly trying to express themselves earnestly and I suspect would be happy at a minimum to inspire a couple of friends along the way. After all not every artist started out writing symphonies or singing opera as child prodigies, some of us have had to slug it out in the trenches for a while until we found our voice. If it wasn’t for venues like this art car museum, well perhaps some of these voices would never be found at all.
When you’re taking in a collection of this variety, the natural tendency is to start playing the part of Simon Cowell, judging and criticizing and perhaps in a select few cases passing out a golden ticket of approval. Our friends Siskel and Ebert certainly made a name for themselves as movie critic gatekeepers to the masses, doling out thumbs up or down to films of all variety from their pulpits At the Movies which could often make or break a box office run. I have a certain fondness for the binary granularity of their ranking metrics, after all just like how Nassim Taleb offers that human intelligence is a vector not a scalar and subject to second order effects, evaluating works of art on a numerical scale can be a false measurement. Meaning lies not just in the poem but in the mind of the reader, and a poet’s work in the context of adversity or circumstance certainly should merit a different take from a critic. Further, a scale of say 1–5 stars on Amazon may be the wrong axis of measurement, as sometimes the energy of a review carries more information than the content — I’d certainly rather read a book that got a lot of 1 and 5 star reviews than one with mostly 3–4 stars, even if the latter had a higher average — such information is lost in the aggregation of reviews that are available to movie-goers through the likes of Rotten Tomatoes, the closest that modern movie-goers now have to a central authority on review. My personal take is that I tend to follow the guidance of the Lindy effect and let time serve as a filter. I’ve seen the intellectual Jordan Peterson (in some circles that adjective is not a complement but just calling em like I see em, I expect his popularity is a net positive based on some of his advocacies), sorry I digress, I’ve seen the intellectual Jordan Peterson describe J.K. Rowlings’ success with Harry Potter as evidence of capturing truth in her story’s archetypes. I believe an analogue can be found in engineering: mechanical systems have an inherent property of resonant frequency at which a vibrational energy amplifies. That’s truth.
Unfortunately one of the byproducts of our reliance on central metrics for evaluation of art and media is a tendency for distribution channels to converge towards winner-take-all effects. Any online recommendation system tailored to a specific user’s taste can give rise to echo chambers and filter bubbles which can narrow a user’s content exposure, and perhaps ultimately shift their world view (HT Deepmind). Some of this is healthy, what would we discuss at our water-coolers without Seinfeld or the Super Bowl? But winner-take-all has more societal benefits on the scale of the masses than that of individuals. Consider a music shop that only sold albums like The Beatles — Abbey Road or The Grateful Dead’s performance at Cornell on 5/8/77. Yes this is music and performance at it’s pinnacle, but there are benefits to society in encouraging a thriving community of upstart performers and artists, some of whom may even have within them the potential to eventually create work of this caliber given enough blood sweat and tears. I bet most great artists start out with a touch of delusion in their quest.
My friend Pamela Belitch recently published SPEAK, her first collection of poems. Although already a spoken word poet, this was I believe her first venture into collected writings. I would like to take a second to quickly encourage her in a public forum. I applaud that she was not afraid to bare her true self, and doesn’t need someone else’s judgement to know what she is or to validate her worth. She doesn’t need to fill stadiums to be satisfied, she feels that if she can just inspire one person, well it’s like saving the world. I happen to know that she’s had a few obstacles of circumstance and run into some walls, but she strikes me as the type that when running into a wall doesn’t look for another path but carves her name into it. She’s a fighter and trying to get her voice heard. I think that’s what it takes to create great art. Sometimes life can feel like running on a treadmill, and all of the cycles of experience an exercise in repetition. Well consider the movie Groundhog Day. Phil Conners started out, let’s be frank, fairly self-absorbed and full of pride, however deserved it may be. But he was blessed with second chances. And he eventually found that it wasn’t by chasing indulgences that he was able to escape this treadmill, but by serving others, by becoming a friend to those he was lucky to meet at the coffee shop or wherever. And along the way he became an ice sculptor, and a jazz pianist, and an orator. And he did it all for Rita.