... the doctrine that the genius must be in advance of his time is almost wholly false and vicious, and opens up the universe of art to evaluations which have nothing to do with the values of art. Intellectually, both theories are on such a low level that it is astonishing that they were ever taken seriously. The first can be dismissed as trivial and muddled on purely intellectual grounds, without even looking more closely at art itself. The second-the theory that art is the expression of the genius in advance of his time-can be refuted by countless examples of geniuses genuinely appreciated by many patrons of the arts of their own time. Most of the great painters of the Renaissance were highly appreciated. So were many great musicians. ...
I think that success in life is largely a matter of luck. It has little correlation with merit, and in all fields of life there have always been many people of great merit who did not succeed. Thus it is only to be expected that this happened also in the sciences and in the arts.
The theory that art advances with the great artists ... is not just a myth; it has led to the formation of cliques and pressure groups which, with their propaganda machines, almost resemble a political party or a church faction.
... There may be something in the ambition to write a great work; and such an ambition may indeed be instrumental in creating a great work, though many great works have been produced without any ambition other than to do one's work well. But the ambition to write a work which is ahead of its time and which will preferably not be understood too soon-which will shock as many people as possible-has nothing to do with art, even though many art critics have fostered this attitude and popularized it.
Emphases mine. I came to these comments fresh off having read Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, and they are among the most unsentimental and unsparing things I have read on the subject. If anything, they only further reinforce my feeling that the main reason to make art is to make art, and not to hedge bets about its public appeal.
It's Popper's attack on avant-gardism that may also be hard for some people to stomach, and I think I see where he comes from with it. The attack is not specifically on people who want to reject fashion — in fact, he's quite approving of those who don't want to march with fashion. Rather, it's on people who are more interested in cultivating their image as a revolutionary than they are in creating something that is a product of their own unduplicatable point of view. (Popper's idea is that the expression of emotions on the part of a creator [in this case, a composer] is not the main point, since it's not even the only way art can be important. But more on that another time.)
Much of the urge on the part of artists, and scholars of art, to move things forward appears to be borne of the horror of duplicating effort. Some of this is valid: you don't want to tediously rediscover the same things over and over again, and pretend there's something genuinely new there. But you also don't want to make newness and envelope-pushing into the only criterion that matters, because then you're left with a game of perpetual one-upsmanship.
I have championed the works of some avant-gardists in the past that I thought had real merit:, like Merzbow or Karlheinz Stockhausen. I don't expect to be able to make an airtight case in their favor, and a lot of that is because I find things in them I find personally stimulating. But I'm also not offering up their careers uncritically, as both of them have just as much dross and failed experimentation as anything else. The point isn't to hold them up as being better than people doing more "ordinary" things, but to see what it was they did that was a product of their experiences and outlook, and see what can be gleaned from that. Hagiography alone never cuts it.
More on this later, I'm sure; there's lots to dig into here.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind