An abundance of good art is being made today. It’s just not good for a lot that matters, in the reality-altering way that great art seems to. This is even more the case with criticism. The present sheer quantity of smart art writing is unusual, in my lifetime. But, similarly, the writing is not smart about very much. Critics now are good at answers. We’re short of good questions. This is a matter of how the world is. The world isn’t raising questions in forms that individuals can very well lay hold of. We might conclude that the world hates individuals, but that would be to flatter ourselves. The world doesn’t care.
I would like to be proved wrong tomorrow, when I come across new writing that is brilliant in itself, compelling in its comprehension of our lives in common, and suggestive of fruitful attitudes and actions – a game-changer. But I won’t bet on it.
Our part of the world is droopy these days, isn’t it? Prevalent are moods of frustration, senses of insufficiency and piled-up disappointments. The worst thing about this is that it conduces to despair, which conduces to bullshit. Bullshit is a time-honoured way of disguising voids of meaning and of getting by in life by getting around people, because who cares? I would like to think that some of us care or, at least, might act as if we care and see where that goes. Call it moral make-believe. Make-believe has nothing in common with bullshit, by the way. It requires absolute honesty. Ask any little kid.
[And also this:]
I saw recently that Bob Dylan was buttonholed by a fan who enthused, ‘You changed my life!’ Dylan replied: ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do about it?’
That was bad manners. It wouldn’t kill Bob Dylan to say thank you, fake it a little. But his point is impeccable. If you’re an artist, you don’t start the morning by saying to yourself, ‘Hey, think I’ll change some idiot’s life today’. You work. To be really good at anything, assuming that you’re talented, is to work harder and longer, with more ruthless honesty and discipline, than other people could do without bursting into tears. Your secret is that, hard as it may be, it doesn’t feel like work to you. It feels normal, like eating and sleeping. You are not about to hand your own life over to anybody to change or to not change, though you might wish you could. And you positively do not accept responsibility for the lives of your audience. That’s not good for them, and it is a day-spoiling pain in the ass for you.
So as an artist you’re lonely. You know the fragility and vulnerability of your Great Good Place but you lean your whole weight into it anyhow. Along with wanting fame and money and sex, like everybody, you want to slip that place into the map of the world, to make the world a little less wretched to you. You will even go without the fame and money and sex parts, if necessary. You will be misunderstood, often enough by people – darling dumbbells – who praise you. (Be kind to them if you can.) That’s the deal. No one said you were an artist. You said you were an artist. You asked for it. No whining.
[The full text of the Peter Schjeldahl talk can be found here.]