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February 17, 2008

Aiming Too High

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This isn't new news, but it's worth repeating every so often: An early success can create psychological poisons that inhibit further success. Terry Teachout does a nice job of illustrating this here in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

Some exerpts: We begin after Teachout tells us about Leonard Bernstein's creative collapse following "West Side Story."

What happened? Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein's collaborator on "West Side Story," told Meryle Secrest, who wrote biographies of both men, that he developed "a bad case of importantitis." That sums up Bernstein's later years with devastating finality. ...

I'd like to put forward Teachout's First Law of Artistic Dynamics: "The best way to make a bad work of art is to try to make a great one." That law was inspired at least as much by Orson Welles as by Bernstein. ...

Welles's story is one of the saddest tales in the long history of a hard profession. He became famous far too soon and was acclaimed as a genius long before his personality had matured. At 23 he made the cover of Time magazine. Two years later RKO gave him a near-blank check, which he used to make "Citizen Kane." By then he was convinced that he could do no wrong, and when the money dried up and he had to struggle for the first time in his life, he lost his creative way. ...

Voltaire said it: The best is the enemy of the good. Ralph Ellison, like Bernstein and Welles, learned that lesson all too well. In 1952 he published "Invisible Man" and was acclaimed as a major novelist. The well-deserved praise that was heaped on him gave Ellison a fatal case of importantitis, and though he spent the rest of his life trying to finish a second novel, he piled up thousands of manuscript pages without ever bringing it to fruition. Why did he dry up? Because, as Arnold Rampersad's 2007 biography of Ellison made agonizingly clear, he was trying to write a great book. That was his mistake. Strangled by self-consciousness, he never even managed to finish a good one. ...

Yes, it's important to shoot high, but there's a big difference between striving to do your best day after day and deliberately setting out to make a masterpiece. What if Welles had gone back to Broadway after "Citizen Kane" and directed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on a bare stage, with no expensive bells and whistles? Or if Bernstein had followed "West Side Story" with a fizzy musical comedy that sought only to please? Or if Ellison had gritted his teeth, published his second novel, taken his critical lumps, ignored the reviews, and gone back to work the very next day? Then all of those gifted, frustrated men might have spared themselves great grief -- and perhaps even gone on to make more great art.

Teachout uses George Balanchine as a counter-example: an artist who kept cranking out ballets for decades.

Contrast Ellison's creative paralysis with the lifelong fecundity of the great choreographer George Balanchine, who went about his business efficiently and unpretentiously, turning out a ballet or two every season. Most were brilliant, a few were duds, but no matter what the one he'd just finished was like, and no matter what the critics thought of it, he moved on to the next one with the utmost dispatch, never looking back. "In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse," he said. "Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time." That was the way Balanchine saw himself: as an artistic craftsman whose job was to make ballets. Yet the 20th century never saw a more important artist, or one less prone to importantitis.

I think Teachout is basically right. But this subject has more subtleties than can be compressed into a newspaper column or an arts blog posting.

For example, it's common for an artist to have but one major work in himself -- an artistic one-trick pony, so to speak. Consider pop singer Don McLean, known for his epic "American Pie." From his Wikipedia biography I see that he had a career after Pie, but he never got back on my radar again. Ditto one-shot novelists, opera composers and so forth. The results are similar to what Teachout was discussing, but the cause seems different.

Actually, the Ellison example might be a case of one-trick pony. I'm not familiar with Ellison's career, so I'm not sure what he did before "Invisible Man." In contrast, Bernstein had successes on Broadway before drying up after "West Side Story." And Orson Welles, as noted, gained fame before "Citizen Kane."

Also: Are there cases of artists who consciously strove for works of genius and succeeded fairly consistently -- thereby counteracting Voltaire's aphorism? I haven't had my second cup of coffee and can't come up with an example. Well, perhaps Richard Wagner might quality. What do you think?



posted by Donald at February 17, 2008


I'd offer the rather interesting case of Michelangelo. His early career was basically one of a sculptor for hire who occasionally did a few paintings on the side (sometimes, apparently, uncredited to help out friends). In this way he created a number of striking works, including several Pietas and, of course, the David and (in painting)the Holy Family. Then he got a major commission for a wall painting, created a sensation among the artistic cognoscenti with cartoon (i.e., the preliminary drawing for)the Battle of Anghiari, which he fortunately was yanked away from completing. He then went to work on several mega-projects, in sculpture for Pope Julius' tomb, and in painting for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Under unrelenting papal pressure he cranked out the ceiling fresco. This success made him the most famous artist of his era.

However, he then struggled, in some respects, for the rest of his days. Granted, his struggles are pretty darn impressive: the (not quite finished) Medici chapel, the statue of Moses for the long-delayed commission for Julius' tomb(never quite finished), and the fresco paintings of the Last Judgment, The Conversion of Saul, and the Crucifixion of Peter. But all these are more turgid and more difficult to approach emotionally than his pre-Sistine Chapel ceiling work. They deserve, in perhaps an emotional sense, the title of "mannerist."

And one wonders if any of his projects in the post-Sistine era would have been completed except for unrelenting pressure from politically powerful patrons. The number of never-finished projects of his later years is striking. He also has a tendency to be able to achieve some of his best work through the intermediation of others--his "collaborations" with Sebastiano del Piombo in competition with Raphael are among his more interesting works of these years.

Interestingly, the most "direct" expression of the later Michelangelo probably comes in the form of the architecture for St. Peters' Cathedral and his other building projects. Maybe this suggests that when even a supergenius is afflicted with important-itis, his or her best bet may be a radical change of artistic media, especially to media where other people do much of the execution.

In contrast, most of the artists who cranked out many, many superlative works never seemed to have fallen into this ego trap. Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Hals, Holbein never give the impression that they are trying to consciously work at or beyond the outer boundaries of their talents, Rather they have the feeling of highly ambitious craftsmen or showmen who keep wanting to try out some new tricks they've thought up, and who liked the opportunity to show off with big projects. (I might make a possible exception of Raphael's Transfiguration, which one notes he never finished, despite working on it for several years with lots of studio help.)

The two painters that jump to mind as self-consciously seeking greatness would be J.L.David and Ingres. You'll have to be the judge of their success--this is comment is too long already!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 17, 2008 1:30 PM

Re: Don Maclean...I believe his song "Starry, starry night" is probably his best work. Maybe not as popular as "American Pie", but certainly as good or better.

Posted by: Bob Grier on February 17, 2008 4:47 PM

The obvious example to my mind is Beethoven. Throughout his entire career he strove for artistic achievement at the highest level and succeeded. However, he probably did not regard himself as 'important'. Regarding possibly his finest work, the op 131 C# minor quartet, he is reported to have said that it was "less wanting in fantasy than my other works."

Posted by: bryan on February 17, 2008 5:42 PM

John Coltrane reinvented his style three times.
His 1950's playing culminating with "Giant Steps" was the height of bebop. He followed that with modal playing (using a single chord) in "A Love Supreme" His third phase led into the avant-garde with "Interstellar Space"
Read this:
"Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" Ben Ratliff

Posted by: Tadd on February 17, 2008 5:56 PM

Didn't Leonard Bernstein concentrate mostly on conducting and writing orchestral pieces after West Side Story? If so, his failure to write a musical of similar reknown can't really be classified as a failure.

Posted by: Peter on February 17, 2008 6:39 PM

I saw a documentary about Bernstein and West Side Story a few years ago - BBC, probably. In the course of all the chat he managed the considerable feat of not once mentioning Sondheim.

Posted by: dearieme on February 17, 2008 7:16 PM

The one thing that separates the great artist from the rest of the pack is the large volume of work he creates. This is almost always the case no matter whether we are talking about writers, painters, composers or performers. What we think of as genius is sometimes sheer effort furiously expended over a very long period of time. During a lifetime of effort an artist will hit a streak of masterpieces, then will come mediocrity, then perhaps the streak will reappear, only to subside again. But the point is that it takes a long period of sustained effort before the masterpieces begin to appear. Beethoven is a good example. In fact he underwent long periods in which he composed nothing, or very little. Suddenly, the creative bomb would go off and masterpieces would tumble out of him in rapid succession. The real artist is not concerned with "being a genius" or "masterpieces". He works because he MUST. He can do nothing else, nor does he wish to. Think of van Gogh here. I would also point out that many proud parents think their children are gifted because they show great promise in some particular area. They push their offspring to become a success and herald them as "artists" before they leave their teens. This is staggeringly premature. Young people already possess the hyper energy of youth. It is natural for them to exuberantly express themselves in many ways. But will they retain that energy, freshness and exuberance into middle age? Very, very few will do so. There are a tiny handful who get lucky and produce at least one great piece before sinking out of sight forever. But it is those few who seem to have that boundless enthusiasm and energy for their work till the day they die that distinguish themselves as true artists. But I would be willing to bet that those who measure up do not consider themselves to be "artists", as Donald notes. They take great pride in having discovered the simple secret to a lifetime of fulfilling work. They call it craftsmanship.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 17, 2008 7:39 PM

"Are there cases of artists who consciously strove for works of genius and succeeded fairly consistently -- thereby counteracting Voltaire's aphorism?"

Donald, I would definitely put Bernini here. Starting at a very early age he produced a body of work that today would be considered impossible to achieve. A good 90% of that output would be considered sheer genius. He lived to a ripe old age and he never lost his artistic ability, his energy, or his originality. Try to picture Rome without him and you will quickly see what I mean.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 17, 2008 7:44 PM

Miles Davis was consistently ground-breaking and brilliant for 30 years.

In the pop world, David Bowie cranked out brilliant and inventive stuff for a good 20 years.

Nabokov wrote at least 4 genius books.

But yeah, talent isn't enough, you have to have that rare blend of talent, discipline, perseverance and focus to produce more than one great piece of work.

Posted by: JV on February 17, 2008 9:03 PM

I don't know that Evelyn Waugh started out seeing himself as a genius, or important; he was always more inclined to view himself as a craftsman. But he did manage to achieve success early, and remained in demand throughout the rest of his life. He was not spoilt by early success.

Posted by: alias clio on February 17, 2008 9:24 PM

Charlton Griffin's excellent analysis applies in spades to Frank Sinatra.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on February 17, 2008 10:21 PM

I wonder too if a worthwhile comparison can be made between different kinds of cultures ... Some cultures (German, Italian) seem to encourage a concern with genius, inspiration -- shooting for Greatness becomes a genuine motivator, and not something that paralyzes. In England, on the other hand, they'll "take the piss out of you" if you make many claims for yourself. Many English people find aiming at Genius either hysterically funny or a burden; meanwhile, laughing at themselves and getting it all in perspective seems to spark them off. And while most aren't, god knows there are some people who are sparked off by Terry's "importantitis" (good word) -- Susan Sontag probably never wrote a non-important word in her life, for example. But lordy, there do seem to be an awful lot of people who are just paralyzed by their desire to do something important, no?

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on February 17, 2008 10:38 PM

If you bother to read one of the better biographies of Orson Welles or watch the DVD Working With Orson Welles, it's clear that he had a good perspective and sense of humor about himself. Welles wasn't paralyzed by some mistaken sense of greatness, he was a victim of circumstances: his movies for the studios weren't commercially successful and he never had the resources after they dropped him to successfully realize his vision. His last studio film, Touch of Evil, is certainly the equal of Kane, and some Welles fans, myself included, prefer it to Kane.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on February 17, 2008 11:04 PM

Donald says, "Voltaire said it: The best is the enemy of the good."

Over the years, especially with certain artists I work with, I have heard and used this truism as, "Perfection is the enemy of excellence." It always seemed to me to apply to those whose internal drive for the former has kept them from completing projects or works of art that have a good shot at achieving the latter.

One of the best sets of advice to fellow artists I've encountered came from the late Jules Olitski. While his brand of abstract painting may not have many fans here, among those of us who do appreciate abstraction he is considered one of the greats and did excellent work to the very end. He always said, "Expect nothing. Do your work. Celebrate."

Posted by: Chris White on February 18, 2008 8:22 AM

Philip Roth managed a late-career resurgence of awfully good books (granted, I know tons of people who can't stand ANY of his work). Some of that can be chalked up to losing the preceding years to Halcion and postmodernism, but he did manage to put together a great run years after he was thought to be over-and-done.

Posted by: Virtual Memories on February 18, 2008 8:58 AM

A really great post and great comments.

Did Michelangelo suffer from importantitis or did he just try to load too much freight of feeling onto his late work? I agree with FvB that much of the late work is turgid.

Good points about Bernstein's energy going into conducting and Welles unbankability from the standpoint of the studio execs.

Ellison a one trick pony? I'd say so.

It's almost as though Phillip Roth has had two careers: from Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral. He wrote The Great American Novel but that book may actually be AP. Try it.

Posted by: ricpic on February 18, 2008 11:05 AM

Has anyone considered the possibility that some artists don't enjoy the craft and wouldn't like being craftsmen? In their cases, Perfection becomes a means of motivating them to get something done. Granted, the perfect really may be the enemy of the good and a more mature outlook would have produced more work. On the other hand, the lust for one perfect work may have been just the motivation needed to prevent a few special cases from sloughing off into drinking or whoring or whatever-the-pre21st century-equivalent of Halo 3 was? And the promise of mere competence would have led them to become accountants or tradespeople.

Posted by: Not gandhi on February 18, 2008 1:26 PM

It's mildly surprising that no one has mentioned J.D. Salinger.

Posted by: Peter on February 18, 2008 3:24 PM


I'm in Rome this semester and impressed again with the workmanlike character of much Baroque painting. I mean, great stuff, but there's great stuff on every ceiling. I'm living next door to a church with Pietro da Cortona above and 3 Rubens paintings at the altar....

But then there's Caravaggio.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on February 18, 2008 3:43 PM

Bob Grier said:
"Re: Don Maclean...I believe his song "Starry, starry night" is probably his best work. Maybe not as popular as "American Pie", but certainly as good or better."

That song is actually called "Vincent."

If you flip it over, you get "Castles in the Air," which McLean remade in 1981. For my money, the 1981 remake of that song (which was a hit) is the best thing McLean ever did. A bittersweet critique of high society:

Posted by: Tony S on February 18, 2008 3:47 PM

Bill Watterson is another very good example of this principle. He started Calvin and Hobbes, one of the most acclaimed cartoons of all time, when still in his 20's. He ran it for ten years and abruptly quit. It's been more than a decade since his "retirement" and Watterson has done essentially nothing.

Posted by: Peter on February 18, 2008 4:00 PM

While I agree with the artists mentioned in Teachout's column, it still seems to me that he's cherry picked a few of the artists that would have been better off sticking to smaller scale stuff (NY Times music critic Harold Schoenberg's famous dig "he could have been the American Offenbach.")

Its just that so many counterexamples leap to mind. Wagner has already been mentioned, but Mahler too. And I think Beethoven fits the mold (and probably created it). If op 131 isn't a self consciously "important" and difficult work I don't know what is. Ditto the ninth symphony.

Heck, even composers who would seem to be like Balanchine in their productivity and work habits-particularly J.S. Bach & Haydn-set out to create capital M Masterpieces. Both the b-minor mass & the creation both fit Teachout's things to avoid.

Posted by: AndyS on February 18, 2008 5:10 PM

You'll get no argument from me regarding the poison that is importantitis.

But as Peter mentions, I'm not sure Welles is a good example of it.

For one thing, I'd say Welles was one of the rare individuals who was *born* with importantitis. It didn't afflict him following Kane, in other words. Rather, it was something he nutured internally from a very young age. It was part of his personality.

Also, I'd argue that Welles' inflated view of his own importance (which was, after all, somewhat justified) was the wellspring for much of his work. It was vital to him. You don't attempt a movie like Citizen Kane at 25 if you don't consider yourself a giant, and you don't pull it off if you don't have the balls to reckon with importantitis on its own turf.

Shoot, Kane is, in a sense, *about* importantitis, almost as though Welles was anticipating his own future comeuppance as a "great man."

Speaking of that comeuppance: He was pretty much asking for it, wasn't he? The martian radio debacle, taking on Hearst, habitually abandoning projects. Welles was a guy who seemed to *strive* for Icharus-like failure. I think this ambition/failure thing was part of his own internalized mythology. It was his engine.

After Kane, much of Welles' stuff deals with "important" individuals who have either lost their ways or been turned into grotesques by their own ambition. Simply put, it's hard to see Charles Foster Kane, Mr. Arkadin, Hank Quinlan and Falstaff as anything but 1) portraits of the same character at different portions of his life, and 2) Welles' way of reckoning with his own vast ambition and the mix of horror and perverse satisfaction he felt over never having been able to live up to it.

Posted by: Ron on February 19, 2008 8:51 AM

For some reason, this post made me think of a recent CD compilation that was put out by a progressive metal band called Dream Theater. The CD is entitled "Greatest Hit and 19 Other Pretty Good Songs."

Gotta love the honesty. Also gotta love the fact that they didn't let their one success stop them from continuing. They play for audiences of 200-800 and consider it good.

Posted by: B. Durbin on February 23, 2008 9:51 PM

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