The title is a quote from Ursula Le Guinn, an author I much admire. It pokes straight to the heart of a curious and widespread misconception – that popular=low quality and good art=elitist. Industries trying to cater to the mass market seem to assume that they will get bums on seats by finding the lowest common denominator, and pandering to it. People who do ‘proper’ serious art, literature and so forth can be quick to sneer at the ‘not proper books’ of ebook land, the genre fiction and the blockbusters. Good art is not for the masses. If everyone gets it, it can’t be clever. And that’s so wrong.
What good is a creation if no-one else can appreciate it? That’s the pinnacle of elitism, making images and stories that no one else can understand. If the smallness of audience equates to quality, then to be a success is to fail. This sounds to me like the argument of a creator whose work is not successful. They appeal to a select few. They have not sold out to the mass market. They have integrity. On the downside, no one much sees their stuff and their chances of paying the bills are going to be much reduced.
Then there’s the blockbuster monstrosities that are supposed to be for everyone. Can I say Dan Brown? Or Twilight? The books everyone buys, and that within six months are appearing in second hand shops by the bucket load. Commercial success comes to those who manage a crowd pleaser, or at least a crowd persuader. Plenty of people acquire, and are disappointed by, the new big thing.
Much of the problem is the dualist separation going on. Either it’s mass market or it’s elitist, there’s not much claiming of middle ground.
Coming at this from a bardic/druidic angle (you knew I would) I have a few points to offer. To be a bard is to entertain the people who are sat in front of you. All of them, if you can. The bard has no target demographic, no marketing strategy, and quite possibly an entire community gathered round the central fire, wanting to be entertained. It is the job of the bard to entertain them. The best stories, songs, images do this – not by being bland and mediocre, but by working on more than one level at a time.
It can and does work. That’s why we have the growing phenomena of adults reading what are ostensibly books for young adults – they are in fact stories that work on many levels and so have something for older readers as well as younger ones. Tales with layers and nuance. Songs that draw people in but still carry poetry. Films that engage the brain as well as the eyes. It’s not an either/or. We can, and in fact should have both. Aiming to be elite and exclusive, is, to my mind about as pointless as trying to please the lowest common denominator you can imagine. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes and will be much happier if they can engage with entertainment on their own terms.
Damh the Bard is a fine case in point. Tunes to stomp your feet to, easy choruses that go ‘na na na’ a lot, so anyone can join in, and deeper, spiritual aspects to the words of for anyone who wants to think about it. And he’s good to dance to. That’s win all round. Children and non-pagans like him too. He’s a true entertainer, his work is accessible, and it has lots of layers of depth and meaning. He’s good art, and he’s entertaining, and that’s definitely the combination to aspire to.