Believe in nothing, no matter who says it, even if I say it, if it does not agree with your own experience and your own common sense ~ Buddha

Wunderkind

I have been described as a wunderkind. It was meant as a compliment, and or course I took it in the spirit in which it was intended.

But I’d like to state for the record that I am not a wunderkind. I actually think of it as kind of a disparaging term—like overnight success, it’s a faddish sort of celebrity, and disguises the work involved.

Furthermore, name a wunderkind that went on to be a wild success. Mozart. Michael Jackson. LeAnn Rimes. That’s all I got.

I remember about three kids who were going to make it big in country music, like Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift these days. No one remembers those guys anymore. And what’s Micauley Culkin doing these days? How about Jonathan Taylor Thomas?

Sure, a lot of it was hype.

More of it was the short attention span of the public.

And perhaps the kids outgrew their passion for their art.

The fact remains that they are no longer known for their accomplishments.

From what I can see, people aren’t all that interested in how good these kids are. I mean, they’re good, but what people are really enamored with is their potential.  If these kids are so good now, what will they be like in 20 years? We like to imagine that they will continue on their tangents. A prodigal pianist at 7, a soloist at 12, a master composer at 18, and then…what? Where do you go from there?

Wunderkinds have to live up to all kinds of expectations. We won’t even go into how difficult and damaging that can be, but how about this; how do you distinguish between what you do for yourself, and what you do to maintain your wunderkind standing?

What I want to be is someone with sustained accomplishments throughout my lifetime. I don’t want to be a shooting star, a flash in the pan. I want to be Haley’s comet, quietly out of the line of sight most of the time, but each reappearance is wildly anticipated. Like Seth Godin’s books.

Repeat after me; not like Mozart, like Beethoven.

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Comments on: "Wunderkind" (8)

  1. what people are really enamored with is their potential. If these kids are so good now, what will they be like in 20 years? We like to imagine that they will continue on their tangents. A prodigal pianist at 7, a soloist at 12, a master composer at 18, and then…what? Where do you go from there?

    That’s a very good point. I’ve been mulling that over all day. There’s some basic problem with that mindset that’s nagging at me, but my thoughts are too inchoate right now. I feel there’s a lot I’d like to say to that, but I’ll be damned if I can articulate it the way I want. Grrr.

    With any luck, I’ll figure out how to formulate it over the weekend.

    • I think the problem with the mindset is that it creates an environment where the prodigy is simultaneously adored and expected to achieve effortlessly. This produces a ego that cannot cope with the expectations for it and implodes under the strain. There is no greater cruelty, really.

      • Well, that’s a problem too, but it’s the notion of linear progressivism in art that irritates me in this context. You can measure someone’s craft in that way; it’s easy to track their growth as they become more proficient and sophisticated, skillwise. But yes, there does come a point where there is, in that sense, nowhere left to go. There’s no meta-levels of mastery to achieve. Maybe you could analogize it by saying that the vertical climb of one’s craft leads to a horizontal plateau where questions of progress or improvement are no longer relevant. At that point, they’re just free to explore their artistic vision as they see fit, and attempts to measure achievement are pointless. Which of Mozart’s symphonies is “better”, his 35th or 41st? It’s a totally stupid and meaningless question.

        In a different context, Alan Watts compared this sort of blinkered mentality to watching a dance and only being able to see it as an over-elaborate, wasteful means for the dancer to end up on a certain spot on the floor. Great art is not “going” anywhere or “improving” itself or, most irritatingly of all for me, serving as an illustration of some pedestrian, practical life lesson. It just is.

        When it comes to prodigies, the notion that their prodigious talent at a young age will inevitably lead to them scaling new heights of artistic accomplishment in two or three decades tells me that people like that simply don’t understand anything about art.

      • That’s a really well-thought and -articulated point. I agree that people don’t understand “art” (but art doesn’t go out of it’s way to be transparent either) and I really have to disagree that art has no lesson except beingness. Unless you want to start individuating art — ie, art, entertainment, mechanisms for social change; not to mention all the barrier crossing forms. Where would you place Slumdog Millionaire along that continuum?

        I’m reviewing a book on an exhibit at the Dunlop Art Gallery. It’s all about exploring the underlying themes and social mechanisms of war. (It told me so in the foreward) Is this not art? It’s certainly not what I would call art, but it is selfdescribed as art, and I’m not enough of an art snob (or a plebeian) to tell THEM it’s not art.

        But I agree that wunderkinds are the personification of societies “great hopes for the future” where they expect game changing artistic innovation that they can all understand and digest. Which is a laugh, really, when you consider that really cutting edge art seems to be barely dicipherable and unspeakably indescribable.

        Even half-assed attempts at innovation shock and horrify. Remember when Daniel Radcliffe cavorted naked onstage with a horse? My god. Is that really suitable for Harry Potter to be doing? Couldn’t he get a better role somewhere? Maybe he’s making sure he doesn’t get typecast.

        Preserve me from such a fate.

  2. I’m sure you remember how Calvin’s snowman sculptures were Bill Watterson’s way of mocking the insular, pretentious, self-absorbed and self-referential modern art world, and I agree with him there — many artists are just stroking themselves and aren’t worth bothering with. But I’m talking more about people not understanding the concept of art for art’s sake, the idea that one can create simply for the joy of creating and expressing, without a subtext of preaching, without a goal or a direction. I don’t know how prevalent this attitude is worldwide, but it’s definitely an American thing to not have much patience for anything that isn’t practical to a fault or aimed at making money. And the mindset I brought up before, of being unable to consider anything without wanting to “improve” it, to make it bigger, better, faster, louder, glitzier, onwards and upwards on a constantly rising trajectory, to infinity and beyond, hallefuckinglujah, is so reflexively, unthinkingly American it makes me want to scream.

    As for the “lessons” of great art, well, you’re free to be inspired any way you want. It’s a two-way street between the artist and the audience, and while I think it always adds to the appreciation to take the time to find out what the artist was thinking and expressing here, obviously you are by no means obliged to only think and feel what s/he intended. Still…I remember rhapsodizing about Beethoven to a friend once, and she responded with a statement that started off by saying something to the effect of, “Yes, he certainly was a great teacher…”

    Oh, for fuck’s sake. As if he wrote the Eroica or the Ode to Joy for the purpose of imparting some middlebrow, maudlin pep talk to shallow suburbanites. What was he “teaching”, exactly? To never give up in the face of adversity? To not be a raging control-freak dickhead to your nephew? Or to not drink your wine from lead goblets? I mean, I guess all of them apply if you want them to, but it just seems to me it misses the point in a big way to reduce art to such a banal, “what’s in it for me?” type of thing. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I want my art to make me think, not to tell me what to think.

    • Speaking for no one but myself, of course, I never saw art the way you say it’s seen. Is this another example of the cultural Great Divide between our mighty nations? This feels like one of those “what’s different in this picture” games

      And how do you get the links into the comments? I can’t even make it do italics…

  3. For links: (a href=”http://www.google.com/”)Google(/a) — the word Google will show up as the hyperlink.

    For italics: (i)Italicized word here(/i)

    For bold (b)Bold word here(/b)

    Now when you do it for real, instead of the parentheses, use the greater than/less than symbols.

    • hehe, i guess this is the kind of knowledge you pick up when you’re around for the dawn of the information era… back when everything was done in machine code….*ouch* don’t smack me!

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