In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I consider the careers of Leonard Bernstein, Orson Welles, and Ralph Ellison. All were artists of extraordinary promise who failed to live up to it. What went wrong? Each of them contracted the same dread disease:
Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein’s collaborator on “West Side Story,” told Meryle Secrest, who wrote biographies of both men, that he developed “a bad case of importantitis.” That sums up Bernstein’s later years with devastating finality. Time and again he dove head first into grandiose-sounding projects, then emerged from the depths clutching such pretentious pieces of musical costume jewelry as the “Kaddish” Symphony and “A Quiet Place.” In the end he dried up almost completely, longing to make Great Big Musical Statements–he actually wanted to write a Holocaust opera–but incapable of producing so much as a single memorable song.
Alan Greenspan recently proposed a constitutional amendment: “Anyone willing to do what is required to become president of the United States is thereby barred from taking that office.” In a similar spirit–with tongue partway in cheek–I’d like to put forward Teachout’s First Law of Artistic Dynamics: “The best way to make a bad work of art is to try to make a great one.” That law was inspired at least as much by Orson Welles as by Bernstein….
Read the whole thing here.