Jim Leff’s Slog: The Quandary of Unacclaimed Genius

One of the world’s greatest musicians plays, utterly ignored, in the DC subway:

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One of the world’s greatest artists has his work – on sale for $60 – utterly ignored in Central Park:

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(see more info about Banksy’s current NYC hijinks)

These stunts raise deep questions for most people. But for those who work in the creative arts, they hardly merit a shrug. We know people don’t appreciate greatness unless they’re told to. Or unless there’s already a flock accumulating (for reasons largely unrelated to talent). Or unless someone’s made an arrogant, noisy big deal about him/herself. The only thing that would surprise a musician about violinist Joshua Bell’s stunt is that no one chased him away…or indignantly demanded he play softer. The only thing that’d surprise an artist about Banksy’s stunt is that he actually sold six works, and no one had his vendor arrested for trying to hug them. $32 for 45 minutes of busking, and six prints sold in an afternoon? That’s damned good! Only a genius could make out so well!

But here’s the narrow sub-issue which fascinates and infuriates me about the phenomenon such stunts illuminate: If these guys were to keep it up, day after day, they’d eventually attract small followings. They would be recognized for their talent. A few perceptive, sensitive souls would notice them and feel troubled by the lack of recognition. It’d strike them as obvious these guys deserve to do their thing in more respectable settings.

It’s not that no one recognizes quality. A tiny minority usually does. But among even that tiny minority, I’d bet my house, my car, and the happiness of my unborn children that none would ever suggest that these anonymized artists are world-class. “Too good for the subway,” sure. Talented, yes. Deserving wider acclaim, you bet. But “best in the world”? Well, geez, hold on a minute, I don’t know if I’d go that far!

Yet both Bell and Banksy are world-class. It’s not empty laurels; they truly are. But, viewed in a vacuum, even by someone clear-eyed and appreciative, it would require chutzpah – courage, even – to recognize and proclaim their full magnitude. And, alas, we humans are modest beings. Our discernment tenaciously reverts to the mean as if spring-loaded (with an awfully tight spring).

I’ve long been criticized for my “lack of restraint”. Residents of Avenue J in Brooklyn still don’t understand why I made such a big frickin’ deal about Difara’s Pizza, attracting all those hipster kids to the nabe and driving up the price to $5/slice. It seems utterly delusional! Sure, Dom makes perfectly good pizza, but he’s not all that! He’s just….Dom!

I was once ridiculed in print by Sam Sifton – my editor at the time – for overpraising the unacclaimed, unanointed, and unmonied. Just generally, I am known to go apeshit for any little thing….when, really, we’re only supposed to go apeshit for the things we’ve previously been told to go apeshit about. Independent, uncorroborated apeshit-going is the mark of a crazy person.

My plumber is one of the greatest brewers in the world, if not the best. Doesn’t that sound like an odd claim? Doesn’t it reek of hyperbole and breathless excess? Well, he’s won many ribbons in local home brewing competitions, and one sip of his beer easily confirms his serious talent. You’d surely agree he deserves some level of acclaim. But “one of the greatest?” No observer would ever go that far on the basis of what someone actually does. No sip of beer – no minute of Beethoven, no bite of lasagna, no work of art – ever triggers the full recognition of an anonymous genius – even among the .1% that takes any notice at all.

Acclaim is entirely based on how one is perceived. And, of course, the process of perception-building has very little to do with intrinsic talent. Cream, alas, does not rise.

Home Beer Brewing

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