The best is the enemy. No, not just of the good…but of everything worth pursuing. Or is it?
Recently, there was a spirited discussion on a folk music listserv about the merits of talent-buyers using a particular electronic-press-kit-parking/gig-listing website as their gatekeeper—at a cost to the artists both of membership and in most cases, per-application fees for gigs and contests. Recently, the efforts of and services rendered by the site had begun to deteriorate severely, to the detriment of all, but especially of its artist clients.
As one might expect, arguments quickly lined up both for and against the practice of using said site. Predictably, it was predominantly artists who were against it (as were some venues); and almost all those who defended it were on the talent-buying side: festivals, contests, a few concert series.
All but one, that is. Canadian singer-songwriter John Wort Hannam, after running up against the proverbial brick wall with the site, wrote that he wondered whether the problem lay not with the marketplace or its gatekeepers, but instead with whether he “was simply not good enough” and needed to go back and “woodshed."
That cacophony you hear? It’s the collective sound of thousands of guitar strings pinging violently as they are snipped under tension, of thousands of guitars being smashed, of thousands of heads banging against walls, of millions of pages of printed songs being shredded and of thousands of singer-songwriters strangling themselves with their computers’ USB cables in frustration. For Hannam is among the finest and award-winning writers and most compelling performers in folk music today. He plays venues and consistently places high in contests many if not most of his contemporaries can only dream about (and pray to access). If he is questioning his talent and competency, what about the rest of us further down the folkie food chain, struggling to earn minimum scale or even break even on tips?
Then there’s actor-writer B.J. Novak. You probably know him as Ryan, a modern-day Sammy Glick among the fictitious Dunder Mifflin staff in the hit American version of the long-running sitcom “The Office;” he was also its executive producer, major writer and occasional director. Recently, he released his first collection of short stories, “One More Thing.” It immediately became a best-seller in hardcover, electronic and audiobook versions.
Funny thing about first-time best-selling print authors, especially those who’ve made their mark in another endeavor (and don’t use ghostwriters): we all—readers and aspiring authors alike--approach them with special scrutiny, even skepticism. We’re all impressed, surprised perhaps, at their ability to string together words on paper with such skill—even though their facility with language was probably the underlying talent that most likely made them famous. In Novak’s case, however, not only is his wordslinging prowess a given; but his imagination is prodigious. Depressingly prodigious, in fact. Were he alive today, Kurt Vonnegut might well have wept over the amazing range of concepts of Novak's pieces, short and long. What aspiring prose writer would be blamed for throwing in the towel after reading Novak and resigning him/herself to lowering one's literary career trajectory—or opting for another endeavor entirely?
Which brings me to that hoary old maxim “the best is the enemy of the good.” How many times have we been soothingly told that when we come in second….or last…in a talent or songwriting contest, in failing to land a coveted club or concert gig or festival slot, or just plain losing out on a job opportunity in general? Meant to console us, to encourage us to dust ourselves off and try again, it usually has just the opposite effect: all we hear is that we are not “the best” and turn a deaf ear to (or refuse to believe) the “good” part. And we in the Boomer generation grew up hearing that old saw far less often than we did Vince Lombardi’s “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing;” making “it’s how you play the game” ring hollow and meaningless.
But what kind of a world would it be if only the “best” were allowed to work, perform, or play? What would become of the rest of our society—especially the vast majority who’ve been exhorted all our lives to be “the best we can be,” emphasis on “we?" And think about it—you want to see a flick, listen to music, attend a concert, dine out. Do you say, “If this year's ‘Best Picture’ isn’t playing or is sold out, I won’t go to the movies. If I have no Grammy winners in my music collection, I’ll sit in silence. If Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell aren’t playing at my coffeehouse or U2 at my local arena, I’m staying home. And if I can’t get a table at Per Se or Alinea, I’ll fast?”
Of course not. Think about it. I’d venture to guess that every one of you who is a musician has at least a few fans who are eager to see you and who have your CDs or mp3s in rotation in their cars or smartphones—even if Lady Gaga or Coldplay are among their favorites. Every one of you who’s ever had your prose, poetry or fiction published has readers eager to read what you have to say—even if they also read best-sellers and classics. Every chef and line cook has people who look forward to savoring their latest creations, even if they dream of eating at (or have even eaten at) multi-Michelin-star awardees.
I'm reminded of the protagonist of the late Harry Chapin's poignant story-song "Mr. Tanner." Tanner was a dry-cleaner who loved to sing, and whose friends, family and customers delighted in hearing his baritone as he worked the conveyor, hanging and retrieving the garments in in his shop. Until some suggested he start concertizing, he had no idea how talented he was--he knew only that singing completed him. So he rented out N.Y.C.'s Town Hall (second only to Alice Tully or Carnegie) and staged a recital. Despite the audience's applause, professional critics' appraisals ran from tactful to scathing--one even suggesting he seriously consider a different career path. The song ends with him never singing another note....except late at night, when he was sure he was all alone. I hope the song was entirely fictitious, because it'd have been a shame if the real Mr. Tanner abandoned the music that so delighted both him and those around him. The Mr. Tanners of the world far outnumber the Pavarottis, Domingos, Grobans and even the Paul Pottses. Must the Tanners publicly silence themselves so that only the stars can take the stage?
There are clubs, concert series and festivals whose bookers enjoy your performances and look forward to having you grace their stages—even if they’d jump at the chance to host Springsteen, Arlo or Mary Chapin Carpenter in the insanely unlikely event they show up with a hole in their schedules and a preference to play out rather than hunker down in a hotel room or tour bus. If you are a good writer, compelling & entertaining performer are you going to chuck it all just because there are famous geniuses out there who draw bigger crowds, higher gates and win bigger awards & prizes than you ever will? Are you going to tell your fans to sit home and watch “Hoarders” because the biggest coffeehouse or most prestigious house concert series in town won’t book you?
Look at all those Olympic team members who converged on Sochi last month—many delegations had more athletes than were medals (of any color) available in their events (not to mention other nations’ teams in those sports). How many of them turned down an Olympic berth saying “Screw it, I probably won’t even win a bronze so I might as well stay home?” (At least how many without pathological underlying ego issues)?
I think you know the answer. The world needs artists and artisans of all stripes, so long as they are competent and compelling. If only the most illustrious are available to write and perform, what are the people who want to be entertained and wowed but not necessarily by celebrities supposed to do for entertainment and enlightenment?
No, it isn’t whether you win or lose. It may not even be how you play the game. It’s THAT you play the game. There are always those who want to see you “play it"—and those not yet exposed to you who will delight in having discovered you.
And that is what art is about. The best need not be the enemy of the good—perhaps just the pot of gold at the end of its rainbow, no matter if you ever reach that rainbow’s end.