Mike Spinak »

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The Artists’ Double Standard

Many artists harbor a pernicious double-standard. Not just against others, but also against themselves. It’s holding some of them back.

An example of this came up the other day. I was in an online disagreement on a writing forum. The original poster started the discussion by noting how much it bothered her when people “misused” the word literally – by which she meant used literally to emphatically describe something that was not actual. For example, “I literally died of laughter when I watched The Producers.”

I pointed out that Charles Dickens did it; James Joyce did it; Mark Twain did it; many of the biggest names in writing did it. None of them considered it misuse to use the word literally this way. They did it as hyperbole, and hyperbole has a legitimate literary role.

I was accused of being contrary, as the only one taking the dissenting view, amidst the flood of, “That drives me crazy, too,” type comments. Meanwhile, I thought to myself that they were making up silly things to be bothered about, and parading their ignorance. It’s even right there in the dictionary as one of the definitions, for Heaven’s sake.

I wasn’t surprised they disagreed, but I was taken aback by their specific retort. To paraphrase, they said, “Sure, Dickens and Joyce and Twain could do that. They’re literary masters – but you and I are not. They could make it work. We can’t, so we shouldn’t be doing that.”

There it is. The artistic double standard. It’s OK for literary gods like Twain, but not OK for mere mortals such as ourselves. There are rules for the rest of us, but they don’t apply to the greats.

I’ve also encountered this double standard beyond writing. For example, when I’ve told people they can stop composing their photos by the golden ratio, because it’s nothing but empty superstition – some have replied to me, “That’s easy for you to say, Mike. You’re there. But I’m not.”

It pains me to hear this. It’s a philosophy of failure: Be small and unambitious. Avoid the new and challenging. Know your place and don’t try to exceed it. 

How do you think the greats got to be great? Not by acting like this. They did it by unflinchingly pushing their limits and doing whatever it takes.

What do you have to lose by daring to use literally hyperbolically? Or by beginning a sentence with a conjunction? Or ending one with a preposition? There’s a chance it won’t work well (which doesn’t imply any universal rule against it; it just means it wasn’t best for this instance), in which case you may have to try again.

On the other hand, what do you have to lose if you avoid all such linguistic hazards? The possibility of ever achieving mastery, and the chance to ever create a masterpiece. Or, let me put it another way, since the point isn’t the prestige and pride of mastery and masterwork. You lose the possibility of rendering the very best work your capabilities allow. You exchange those for mediocrity, and the regularity of achieving the safe and pedestrian.

It’s not that you must go out of your way to break “the rules” to make a masterpiece. It isn’t about pointless rule-breaking gimmicks for their own sake. It’s just that you have to be unfettered in your exploration of what’s possible, and in your pursuit of the best choice for each creative decision you make.

You can’t keep that necessary openness while stifling all nonconformist possibilities. You can’t make something exceptional without making exceptions. And you can’t attain mastery without pushing the limits.

Personally, I think that living fearfully and consigning your future work to safe blandness is more abhorrent than making some missteps and having to do things over.

So take some risks. You might even find that you’re more capable than you realized.