Kung Fu Panda
I've told this story before but I'm thinking of it again so I'll tell it again, only shorter this time.
I have this very clear memory from my childhood. I must've been very young, no more than eight years old. Two doors down from me there lived this older boy, Steve. I got it into my head for some reason that I could physically overcome Steve and his friends. I'd decided I could beat them in a fight. I don't know where I got this idea, but it seemed to me that if I could meditate, do a mind-meld, like Spock -- only mind-meld on myself -- then I'd become great fighter.
So I went over to Steve's front yard where he was fooling around with a couple of his friends and I challenged them. They went along with it. I went to the side of Steve's house, performed my self-mind-meld, came out, and promptly found myself on the ground looking up at Steve. He helped me up laughing. I demanded to try again and got flipped onto the lawn again. I asked for one last try and got it -- and landed flat on my back. Of course. Steve was a lot bigger than I was. I was a little kid.
I don't think I was very upset by my defeat, just confused. I'd done the self-mind-meld! What could have gone wrong?
I learned something that day. I learned that wanting something, needing something, no matter how passionately or intensely, isn't enough. You can believe really, really hard -- you can almost sprain your belief muscle -- and whatever you're believing in still won't be true.
Now I have children of my own and I'm not sure if I wish a memory on them like mine. But in many ways it'd probably be good for them. Surely our culture has been trying to teach them an entirely different lesson. There is, for example, Kung Fu Panda. Now, far be it from me to put too much emphasis on a childrens' entertainment. My hope and expectation is that five years from now, ten years from now, almost no one will remember that Kung Fu Panda even existed. It's not a classic, I trust, which will echo down the decades. But it is a fine example, here, of the lessons we're trying, collectively, to teach our children.
The story of Kung Fu Panda is as simple as it is simple-minded. Recent poster child for failing upwards Jack Black voices Po, a large panda who, it turns out, is the Chosen One prophesied to defend the village against some super evil badass. The only trouble is Po is out of shape, incompetent and lazy. Dustin Hoffman's little rat critter tries to teach Po but to little effect. After many more lengthy minutes of pratfalls, spit takes, and topical humor, the super evil badass shows up and Po defeats him, not by outwitting him or out-lazying him or anything, but in a blazing kung fu battle. How does Po do this? By believing in himself. Despite the several well-trained super kung fu good guys in the vicinity, Po the panda is the best, because out of all of them, he has faith in himself.
I'm telling you this: If I were an Asian cartoon duck living in a little Asian village in an Asian-inspired movie (where the main heroes are naturally played by two Jews from California) and some Asian tiger super evil badass were bearing down on me, I certainly wouldn't want to be defended by the untrained fat guy who believes in himself. Give me the platoon with years of practice and experience any time. Likewise, if I ever find myself in a car accident, I hope to hell the firefighters and EMTs who show up have gone to a lot of classes, practiced intently and frequently, been to the sites of many accidents, trained under older, more experienced people, and in short KNOW WHAT THE FUCK THEY'RE DOING. If Jack Black shows up with his unshakable belief in himself and not much more, I'll be converting to Christianity and cranking out the Lord's Prayer mighty quick.
Which brings us, in roundabout, characteristic and I hope endearing fashion, to the topic of today's post, which is Roberta Smith's recent column, "Post-Minimal to the Max". Every other art blogger has weighed in on this and now so must I.
Roberta's call for a change in the art world -- particularly aimed at New York City museum curators -- strikes me as too little too late, among other things. But the bit that bugs me the most is possibly the bit that most people jumped on as the good part: "What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand." Out from the woodwork poured the lice of the blogosphere wheedling in their little squeaky woodlice voices, "That's me! That's me! Intense personal necessity! I create art out of intense personal necessity! That's MEEEEE!"
Allow me to be the first person to tell you, then: Your intense personal necessity means nothing. Absolutely nothing. The universe doesn't care about what you need, no matter how intensely you think you need it. Too big for you? Let's zoom in then: The universe doesn't care, the galaxy doesn't care, the solar system doesn't care, the planet doesn't care. Your continent doesn't give a crap. Your country doesn't have half an old rat's ass for you. Neither cares your state, province, or województwo. Your city cares nought. Your borough couldn't care less. And your block? Well, maybe there's someone on your block who cares. That someone is you.
The fact is, whatever Kung Fu Panda tells you, believing in yourself means nothing whatsoever. Having a vast and firm faith in your ability to kick the super badass' butt will only get your own ass handed to you. Intensely needing to beat up the boys who live down the street from you will get you nowhere but flat on your back in the grass. You can do the self-mind-meld until your ears get pointy and you'll get precisely nowhere.
Unless you do the work. Intense personal necessity doesn't mean a damned thing but if you put in the work, you may get somewhere. If you take those kung fu lessons, if you train diligently and hard, you will eventually learn kung fu. You may never be a world champion. You may never be the best. But you'll be better than someone who didn't try, no matter how hard they believe in themselves.
Roberta thinks we'd be better off with more art made from some inner personal necessity. She's right insofar as we'd be better off with that than what we have now, which is a lot of art made for no good reason at all. (Although possibly a lot of it is inspired by self-love and self-aggrandizement and other words beginning with self- that your mother warned you about.) But we'd be a lot better off with art made by people who work at it, who respect the field, who spend their time looking hard and trying their very best to get better and better.
Working hard is no guarantee in art -- as Walter Darby Bannard likes to say, "There is no sweat equity in art. Art is art by its effect, not by anything that accompanies its making." But he'll also add that great art comes, not necessarily from hard work on an individual piece, but from hard work over time. Or, as my beloved music director Professor William F. Ondrick used to tell all his students, "There's no substitute for the work, not even genius."
The art world in general -- and certainly the New York City museum world in particular -- may be missing art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. But we sure as hell don't need it. What we need is damned good art, made by artists who care, not about their careers or their price tags or their auction results; and not about their own intense personal needs; but about art.