Cultural Iconography

Success in the arts is a strange thing, coming and going seemingly without rhyme or reason. There is a scene or a movement, a development in the art form, and a whole clutch of artists disappear as the newcomers roll on in. Some fall from grace, out of the limelight, and others are just drop from public life like they were never there. I know it’s something that has troubled me for most of my nascent writing career, which has yet to develop into anything even approaching a public life. Dispensing with the conventional wisdom of worrying about one thing at a time, for the purposes of this article, it’s something worth thinking about. What if you do make it? Will you be a phase, part of a movement that just gets memorialized by the slowly balding and slowly wrinkling? Well, it’s not that simple.

No stratum of art suffers from this anomaly more than the popular, the general. General fiction, pop music, blockbuster cinema, etc. It’s like a circus of the mad, populated with shapeshifters and timebenders, where nothing is real and everything is possible. Trends evolve and stars play with their images as if great leaps can be made in a single bound, and we consume it as part of the vast and seething effluvia of culture. We’re ignorant of the gears ticking beneath the surface. The publicists are kept invisible, producers move unseen. Market analysts shuffle the pieces around the game board like the gods of commodity which they are, their touch as weightless as a feather.

But where does the artist come into this? As a victim, just another moving part? Are they complicit, knowledgeable of their use to the machine, and their longevity is determined by their obedience and their changeability? Some, certainly. And these, I think, are those who go by the wayside. Who drop off, fall off. Pop stars, bestsellers, chart toppers, blockbusters: they’re all somewhat like patron saints. They live in the shadow of true talent and ability, but are given life and adoration by an incurious or disinterested or downright uneducated population. They are the nearest thing, the most easily formed in the mind, like the image of your mother when you’re a child; but, in their time, saints are gods in the minds of the idolatrous.

With anything in life, we all have different starting points. Some are ahead, some are behind. Some are dead last, some are born at the finish line. Hell, they already have boxes for the next race being run by all us schmucks. But I think, or I’d like to think, that with a little elbow grease and a little honesty anyone can make it. The difference is staying. Be a useful enough tool for the market quacks and changing moods in production, and you’ll stay.

Say you believe in what you’re doing, though, and that doesn’t fly. Say you try and, damn it, you just don’t adapt as well as the other guy. What then? You might get kicked to the curb. The proverbial graveyards are filled with the would-be’s and has-been’s that would attest to it. But how many kept true to their word, who walked the line, who stuck to their guns and evolved in their own time and in their own way? Look and I think you’ll find there’s not many. The fates play with us all, and they’ll always hunt you down. But be honest – be natural, as Dickens said on his deathbed – and I think you’ll do alright.

That’s what I tell myself, at least.

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