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Good vs. Interesting

First of all, let me state that I do not think there is an inherent conflict between being a "good" artist and an "interesting" artist. Furthermore, both descriptions are to some extent subjective. These categories are nevertheless on my mind, as I think it is possible to have wildly different ambitions as to where one wants to be on this specter. Recently – in a masterclass I was giving – I was asked by a student about the difference (experientially?) between performing as a chamber musician, a soloist and an orchestral player. My answer was not consciously premeditated and came out something like: "In a large group, you need to be 'good'. As the groups get smaller, it becomes more important to be 'interesting'." When I was a young student, I somehow thought the opposite; that as a musician in a big group, one could "hide" one's inadequacies, and I think I was not even aware of the need or desire to be "interesting" in one's art. As a result of this impromptu question, I have been forced to consider the validity of my answer, and I feel compelled to share some of my more general musings on the subject.

Often in teaching, I've brought up the analogy of the tent trip: If you go camping all by yourself, hygiene is not a big concern, but if you share a tent with a group of people, you owe it to your fellow campers to brush your teeth and wash up. Likewise, in a big group like an orchestra, you need to "keep it clean" because the accumulative effect would be disastrous if everyone "stunk it up" just a little bit.

There is also built in to the description "Classical" a certain expectation of "goodness". If we abandon the "classical"fields of artistry, I would argue that the "good" aspect pretty much disappears, as we wouldn't even quite know how to define what is "good" – to be "interesting" would however be paramount.

My field is classical music. I will absolutely refrain from using specific examples from this field, as this would naturally become petty and hurtful, and my idea is simply to share some thoughts – not to offend. Let's instead have a look at the visual arts: Paul Gaugin had no formal training, his technique is crude, and yet his limitations seem to distill his focus. His inability to alter his style (my assumption) gives a strength of vision. In other words; Gaugin was not "good", but he was "interesting" – his ideas had such power that they could overcome his (complete) lack of skill.

Paul Gaugin: Tahitian Pastorals

On the other hand, an illustrator like Rolf Armstrong created work that takes immense skill. Will his illustrations excite our senses? Are we compelled to think new thoughts or experience intense emotions as a result of looking at his illustrations? Probably not... Armstrong would (for me) fall in the category of being "good" without being "interesting" (one could argue that it is interesting in and of itself to display such skill, and also that most of his work was created with a very specific purpose which did not allow him to infuse much of a personal message into his pieces.)

Rolf Armstrong: I'll Say So

Thirdly, let's look at Pablo Picasso, who was a consummate craftsman. Whatever style he attempted (or invented) he would quickly master. Picasso at his best is supremely "good" AND "interesting" as he uses his prodigious technique to convey a message. (Picasso at his worst gives me the feeling that his need to explore a new style for his ideas, BECOMES the idea. At times, the extent to which Picasso is interesting lies exactly in his technical mastery. The MESSAGE becomes subordinate, and simply by dazzling me with his mastery of the craft can he keep me interested. However, even at these times he has moved me to new thoughts and experiences.)

Pabo Picasso: Blue Nude

If the market place, as exemplified by Sotheby's, should be allowed to pass judgement on the value of art, it remains clear that the combination of "good" and "interesting" reigns supreme. "Interesting" without "good" is trailing not too far behind, whereas the opposite – "good" without "interesting" is more easily forgotten.

My point is; for us who pursue the "classical" arts: Let's by all means continue to strive for "goodness" – as in acquiring a healthy technique, avoiding mistakes, knowing the styles of masters past and present – but let not our deficiencies in these fields keep us from being interesting artists. If you have a message, put it out there unabashedly. If your message has been lost in the years-long process of refining your technique; reclaim it!

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