Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ricky Nelson

Remember the Ricky Nelson song Garden Party? How many artists have made the same logical error as he does in his chorus: "you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself"? From the standpoint of logic, this is a non sequitur. This says: if you can't please everyone else, then don't please anyone else except yourself. In its pure form, this is the motto of the navel-gazing artist who believes the arts are totally and completely about self-expression, and that to consider pleasing anyone else is to "sell out." There are few who wholly subscribe to this idea, but they do exist, and have existed. But there are other logical: "you can't please everyone, so please as many as you can," "you can't please everyone, so be happy with the ones you DO please," "you can't please everyone, so don't get so bent out of shape about bad reviews..." Well, the list is endless. The point, however, is to avoid Nelson's genial yet deadly extreme.


Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. I agree with Willy Nelson. To me it means: "you don't know what pleases other people, so you have to please yourself first if you're going to have any hope of pleasing them".

I follow this dictum quite religiously in all my work. I can't see the point of writing otherwise, frankly; if I don't please myself, I might as well have stayed a wage slave. Oddly enough, it has worked very well with my fantasy novels, the only work I've done which I wanted to be popular. And, not to put too fine a point on it, they are popular, so I figure that it holds quite well. My publishers are very pleased, anyway.

YS said...


I have been thinking about what you have been posting about immediacy, the ephemeral nature of performance and the audience.

A local critic has an interesting way of asking about shows you have seen.

I posted about it here:

Scott Walters said...

Thank you for the link -- what an interesting post! As someone who once won the American College Theatre Festival Criticism Competition which led to a wonderful month at the National Critics Institude at the O'Neill Festival, I can appreciate the question "what happened?" While sometimes it can be a cop-out to focus on the audience -- criticism as popularity poll -- it is also a danger to rely too completely on the echo chamber of one's own critical sensibilities. Love the Emerson quotation.

Allison, I didn't mean to imply that the artist SHOULDN'T please themself, or focus solely on trying to anticipate what will please the viewer. But after years and years of hearing artists complain about how under-appreciated and misunderstood they are, my belief in finding artistic true north within the artist's own preferences is waning. I think art is an interaction, an intersection between an artist and an artist. By which I mean that the work that the audience member does, the construction of meaning from an artistic stimulation, is as creative as that of the artist. And for that interaction to take place, there must be some common ground that is considered and negotiated. Just like you and I can't have a meaningful conversation if we are speaking different languages, the artist must seek to speak in a language that can be grasped, comprehended, and transformed into meaning by the spectator.

Alison Croggon said...

Nothing to argue with there, Scott: I think however what many people complain about (and this is very true in Melbourne) is that the negotiated language, if you like, is mediated and made much more narrow by a kind of privileged "gangland" discourse, which encloses art in a position where it can only pander to and flatter an audience. And a wealthy, entitled audience, at that. And everything outside that is considered to be, whether it is or not, self indulgent. Eg, the latest Katie Mitchell production of Attempts on her Life at the National Theatre in London.

One local node of this conflict has been the Melbourne Festival, which is making waves by programming a bunch of innovatve work from all over the world as well as from local artists. Some of the gangland commentators, those who consider the arts, if you like, to be their property, claim that this art "betrays" this negotiation (the usual buzz words, elitist etc). But the fact is that this programming is creating sell-out shows, and attracting new and younger audiences who seem to have no problems with this work, or at least are happy to be challenged in different ways. The true elitists, in this case, are those who want the walls of art to be barricaded against, say, the young, or those who want something more exciting than the middlebrow and expected. Audiences, properly primed, can be a lot more open minded and curious than they are given credit for.