In the arts, the most important thing is to have something new to say, something no one else has said before. Having a new way of saying it is even better.
But what happens when everyone else in your medium has had the same idea and is saying it in the same new way? What if you are making art in a genre that’s been around for centuries, and everyone else is doing it your way? What if everyone who plays jazz has come up with their own style such as bebop?
Michelangelo was the first great artist to struggle with this problem. He didn’t invent sculpture; he invented the sculptural equivalent of high Renaissance Italian painting, with its balance of order and freedom, of decoration and energy. But then so did Ghiberti and Donatello and Verrocchio—and all of them were competing for the same commissions.
The history of art since Michelangelo has been a story of how other artists have dealt with this problem. From now on we’ll call it the Michelangelo effect: having your own way of doing things isn’t enough; you also need to find an audience that appreciates your unusual approach.
When art historians make lists of the greatest artists of all time, they tend to leave out blacksmiths. The same goes for lists of the greatest writers or poets or composers. But there are no lists of the greatest blacksmiths, because blacksmithing is not considered a fine art. This is a problem that has bothered me for some time. Certain classes of professions have what we might call creative power: They are capable of producing new kinds of things that aren’t already in existence. And yet there seems to be no way to recognize and cultivate this power beyond just having a new thing enter the world. There’s no reward for the unique expression itself, only for its commercial success (if any).
Some readers may find this concept disturbing, because it suggests that many people are doomed to obscurity and disappointment. But I think that if you look closely at what we mean by “greatness,” this conclusion makes a lot of sense. In general, we don’t consider something great unless it stands out from its peers in some desirable way — even if that desirable way isn’t always obvious. This is true even in the arts, where individuality is valued above almost everything else: Greatness comes from being different — from doing something other people aren’t doing. This means
Once when I was writing about a movie star I had heard the sage advice, “Find something unique about each individual. Everyone wants to know what is unique about themselves.” Some years later, when I was writing a book about Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, I heard another piece of good advice, this time from a museum curator: “Find something that no one else has noticed.”
In his lifetime Michelangelo was already known as a master sculptor, but in 1517 he set out to create an unprecedented work of sculpture that would demonstrate the mastery of his art and genius. He created a huge statue of the prophet Moses to sit upon the tomb of Pope Julius II. When finished it was considered one of the greatest works of art ever created. It is still considered one of the greatest sculptures in human history.
Those who have a real passion for art will always find ways to produce it. But in the same way that a young man might have to get a job in a bank before he can become an actor, the fact is that most artists don’t make it big without the help of patrons.
In a competitive market, if you want to stand out, you need something special. It doesn’t matter if that special thing is really just something unusual, like the albino alligator wrestler from Houston. Reporters love to write about such people because they are interesting, and even though their uniqueness doesn’t really add up to much of a story (what has the alligator wrestler done lately?), there is no harm in it.
And most of the time this kind of fluff doesn’t hurt anyone. But sometimes it does. When we don’t realize how much uniqueness is driven more by marketing than by artistry, we can fall into some bad habits: like ignoring artists who are not so outlandish as to stand out in their own right but could still make significant contributions if they had just been better marketed; or giving too much weight to novelty over substance; or thinking that what’s true for one artist must be true for another even when the two don’t resemble each other
American art critic, novelist, and poet Charles Baudelaire once said: “The painter of genius must possess nature. He must unite her most subtle secrets with his own talent.”
Well known for his use of shock tactics and unique style, Baudelaire was considered an eccentric and a failure in his own time. But today, he is widely admired for his works.
How did he do it? How did he distinguish himself from others and make a name for himself? The answer is simple but not easy. He did it by becoming the most original artist that has ever lived.
It’s hard to imagine how one can be more original than the great masters of past eras like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci but Baudelaire was just such a man. He had a reputation for being confrontational and shocking but unlike other artists who were obscene and blasphemous in their work to draw attention, he was not interested in fame or popularity.
Baudelaire’s aim wasn’t shock value but rather to show people what they didn’t want to see. His goal was to reveal hypocrisy, criticize social norms and taboos, and discuss controversial subjects like sex, religion, politics, etc. in such a way that no one had done before
Dylan said his first album was a collection of songs he’d written when he was either 17 and 18. But the truth is that he did not write all the songs on the album—not even close. The majority of the songs on this debut were covers, played in a style that Dylan was then refining and would later perfect.
The Times They Are a-Changin’ is often cited as one of Dylan’s most original albums, yet a quarter of it—five out of sixteen tracks—are covers. And if you look at the whole span of his career, from 1962’s self-titled debut to 2009’s Christmas in the Heart, only one out of every three albums is made up entirely of original material.
What we see here is an artist who has found success by doing what great artists do: taking things they find around them and making them their own. Dylan doesn’t need to write everything himself because he knows how to make the world around him part of his art.