A Question of Relevance

Pippin, in the musical of the same name by Steven Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson learns that the problem with a creative life is that “you’ve got to be dead to find out if you were any good.” What he should have learned was that, no matter your skill level, in order to be any good, you have to be relevant. And if your art is to last, it has to stay relevant, or at least be relevant to periods other than the one in which you lived.

Relevance does not mean “generalized” so all people in all ages can understand it. Rather, it means that the artifact, while being specific to its own era, can also speak to audiences in other times and places. The words of Confucius, of Jesus, of Gautama Buddha are relevant today, not because they are generalizations, but because they are universal and apply to humans no matter what time or place.

If you look at the sayings of Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, you will find that they are very specific, referring to particular people and situations of their respective times. What they have to say, however, is, with certain small exceptions, applicable to people and situations far removed in time and place.

This is also true of works of art. Certain works speak to people of different places and times and others do not. The works of Eugene Scribe and Victorien Sardou, for example, are not well-remembered. Famous in their own time, their plays are not revived outside of France, and even there they are not well received. You never hear of a play by either man being produced. Why? Because they are no longer relevant. What they wrote was relevant to their times only; reports are that they were very well received at the time, but they were too much tied to the times, too closely linked to the people and the place in which they were written.

Other artists are still relevant, or can be made so. Shakespeare is the first to come to mind. But not all audiences are ready for the language and the milieu of his scripts as written. If the producer and director can get the audience past those barriers, Shakespeare has much to say to the modern audience; his insights into the concerns of many of his characters are concerns of people today.

Relevance is not an all-time thing. Because of the current political situation in the US, work which has seemed irrelevant to many in the past suddenly provides understanding and perception. Take the work of Chekhov. Unlike some, film critic David Edelstein thinks that Chekhov is always relevant. However, he says, “But maybe there is something more relevant now….  Change had to come – but at what cost?

It is difficult to believe that Shakespeare or Chekhov or Picasso or Michelangelo or Rodin sat around and worried about whether his work would speak to generations besides his own; the work is far too specific for that. What mattered to each of these artists is that the work spoke to his own audience.

Unless we can do the same, our work will lack significance. As Pippin so clearly pointed out, only time will tell whether we speak to future generations. In the meantime, we must work to make our own work relevant to our tribe and perhaps a larger audience of our own time. Only then can we consider ourselves serious artists.

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Date: Monday, 17. April 2017 2:10
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Originality

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