Selected to Bother

A pessimistic dinner conversation with a musicologist friend about the patent incompetence of composers with highly visible orchestral careers brings to mind David Mamet’s classic essay “Decay: Some Thoughts for Actors.” A 1986 lecture given at Harvard, it’s included in Writing in Restaurants:

We as a culture, as a civilization, are at the point where the appropriate, the life-giving, task of the organism is to decay. Nothing will stop it, nothing can stop it, for it is the force of life, and the evidence is all around us. Listen to the music in train stations and on the telephone when someone puts you on hold. The problem is not someone or some group of people unilaterally deciding to plague you with bad music; the problem is a growing universal and concerted attempt to limit the time each of us is alone with his or her thoughts; it is the collective unconscious suggesting an act of mercy….

…[T]here is a reason our civilization grew, and there is a reason it is going to die – and those reasons are as unavailable to us as the reasons we were born and are going to die….

Let’s face it and look at it: how is our parochial world decaying? The theater has few new plays and most of them are bad. The critics seem to thwart originality and the expression of love at every turn; television buys off the talented; the art of acting degenerates astoundingly each year….

…Today the job of the agent, the critic, the producer, is to hasten decay, and they are doing their job – the job the society has elected them to do is to spread terror and the eventual apathy which ensues when an individual is too afraid to look at the world around him. They are the music in the railroad station, and they represent our desire for rest.

You might say what of free will in all this, what about the will of the individual? But I don’t believe it exists, and I believe all societies function according to the rules of natural selection and that those survive who serve the society’s turn, much like people stranded when their bus has broken down. Their individual personalities are unimportant; the necessity of the moment will create the expert, the reasonable man, the brash bully, the clown, and so on.

…In this time of decay those things which society will reward with fame and recognition are bad acting, bad writing, choices which inhibit thought, reflection, and release; and these things will be called art.

Some of you are born, perhaps, to represent the opposing view – the minority opinion of someone who, for whatever reason, is not afraid to examine his state. Some of you, in spite of it all, are thrown up by destiny to attempt to bring order to the stage, to attempt to bring to the stage, as Stanislavsky put it, the life of the human soul.

Like Laocoön, you will garner quite a bit of suffering in your attempts to perform a task which you will be told does not even exist. Please try to keep in mind that the people who tell you that, who tell you that you are dull and talentless and noncommercial, are doing their job; and also bear in mind that, in your obstinacy and dedication, you are doing your job.

…[I]f you strive to teach yourself the lost art of storytelling, you are going to suffer, and, as you work and age, you may look around you and say, “Why bother?” And the answer is you must bother if you are selected to bother, and if not, then not.


  1. says

    Just what I needed to hear right now – thank you.
    It’s probably time to get out the Kandinsky again and read about pyramids and cycles.

  2. says

    What a great essay. Yes, what we’ve lost are our opportunities to daydream, which is where a lot of great creative work gets done. Instead, we measure things today with how busy we are, quantity over quality, cramming in more than we need, afraid to be left alone with our own thoughts.
    As I write this, though, you would think that at least the craft of those orchestral composers would be better, since when creativity is scheduled out, craft predominates. So then there seems to be a situation in which not only creativity is gone but also craft, except perhaps the craftiness of career building.

  3. Jonathan Russell says

    Is it really any worse now than it ever was? Is it ever usual for the truly creative and thoughtful artists to be the ones who are most successful? Has it ever been the norm for critcs to be thoughtful and perceptive? We would be wise to remember that time has weeded out much of the crappy art from the past, even much that was lauded in its own day, and will doubtless do the same with the art of our own time. Of course it’s a shame that the trifling and the inconsequential abound, but that’s the way it’s always been and probably always will be. It doesn’t mean that our present society is in a unique state of decay.

  4. says

    Mamet’s fatalism is a religious tenet, inarguable as such; either you believe it or you don’t. I find his pessimism to be terror-and-apathy-spreading, and if examined, extremely muddled.
    The implication of the “civilization is decaying” metaphor-complex is that things were so much better, way back when. And when would that be?
    When Ives couldn’t get his music performed?
    Take my 3 favorite poets of the 19th century: Dickinson, Whitman, and Blake. The first published a handful of poems early in her writing life, met with general incomprehension and condescension from the leading lights to whom she reached out, and then wrote many hundreds of poems which she kept in her desk. Many hundreds of brilliant poems.
    Whitman had to publish — and print — his first book. People hated it, and it sold very poorly. Emerson wrote him a magnificent letter of encouragement; Whitman continued his work (as he may have regardless), and at the end of his life found himself revered by the intelligentsia, but not by the general public, which was his great ambition.
    Friends of Blake’s published his teen-age poems against his wishes (in the 18th century), and he had to publish — and print — his mature work himself. Very few people read it, and many thought he was crazy.
    Even the 17th century, when people like Shakespeare were writing hit plays, the great poet Robert Herrick’s single published book was 20 years out of popular fashion when it came out and was met with indifference, and Thomas Traherne never published a thing; his now-highly-regarded poems were found in the 19th century.
    I don’t want to give the impression that I hate popular culture, because I don’t. I like a couple TV shows, and occasionally there’s a tune that catches my ear on the radio. To consider Whitman’s day, I like Longfellow’s poems and Daniel Emmett’s songs.
    Not to say that indifferent reception is not frustrating and dispiriting. It is, no matter where you are in the culture world; and I know sincere and accomplished artists who work in “popular” as well as “non-popular” fields whose work probably won’t find very much of an audience. If you don’t find solace in the process of making the artwork itself, then you definitely should not be bothering.
    And, contra Mamet, I firmly believe that it’s YOU who will be deciding whether or not to bother. Not some necessity of the moment.
    Have the courage of your vision, like Dickinson and Ives and Blake and Traherne; don’t let some terror-spreader like Mamet get you down.

  5. says

    Jonathan: perhaps we are not in a unique state of decay (we’ll just have to see what happens to our energy supply though…), but the fact that our decay is not historically unique still doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be very very bothered about it!
    I’m willing to consider Mamet’s stress on the necessity of the moment. It sure explains why the biggest bigtime composers living today in Europe emerged in the 50s at a very young age and are still unrivaled in reputation; the generation immediately following taking up important positions; generations following that getting harder and harder a time in the competition for musical resources until we reach the generations that don’t fit well at all any more and that have to build up a new musical infrastructure by themselves if they know what’s good for them.
    The difference between music and poetry BTW is enormous. Poetry you can do for yourself. But compositions really need to be performed. (Though nowadays you can use electronics to bypass that).

  6. says

    I agree that poetry is less dependent on collaboration than is music, with the exception you cite — electronics — as well as the “Ives” exception. Mamet was speaking of drama, which has no exception for electronics.
    In certain respects I’m sympathetic with Mamet’s concerns: the big grant-supported regional theaters do tend to be a “minor leagues” for television and film; a lot of the best actors and writers leave the intermittently middle-class pay of grant-supported theater work to go into the megabucks world of screenwork (large or small). My sympathy for Mamet diminishes, however, with my feeling that his work — what of it I know — is screen-friendly, small-scale, realist, “chamber” — the musical equivalent might be a concern with “correct” European forms and traditional classical ensembles. His very success as a playwright feeds the dynamic he decries, and he has indeed written for film.
    Most of the best theater I’ve seen in the last 20 years has been done by professional-worthy artists working in a non-screen-friendly way, for no money, often in “non-traditional” theater spaces. Much like the small-ensemble post-classical scene where performers and composers overlap.

  7. David Carter Scott says

    This civilization is like any other. It’s had a whirlwind time of it, like a child who gets to spend the whole day at the circus. Eventually the day comes to a close, and our particular child is getting tired and maybe even a little fussy. And so, full of cotton candy and happy memories of clowns and calliope music, he settles down to a long lullaby-induced sleep and the dreams of that most perfect day.

    What we have to remember is that our child, our civilization, isn’t the only one. There are thousands — perhaps more, as the new tribes made possible by the Internet are springing up every year — of others. There are other children enjoying the circus. Some are in the middle of the elephant show with lots of cheering and stomping. Others are laughing at the clowns halfway through the second act. And there are still others whose days at the circus are only beginning and they’ve just gotten their balloon and their first taste of popcorn.

    And who are we? We who create and bring the things of beauty to life for this endless line of civilizations filled with child-like wonder? We are the circus.

    Never despair because one child is cranky and ready to go home for a rest. For us, the day never has to end. Let that child go as we greet the happy newcomers. As long as the human race exists, there will always someone new to hear our music and see our performances.