What’s Wrong With Good?

Mostly I’d like to use this post as an opportunity to link to this series of essays by graphic designer Frank Chimero, and to say very emphatically, READ THEM! As he writes about his own personal quest to essentially save his sanity by re-evaluating his work–by trying to rediscover what, if anything, is actually good–he offers a lot of insight into much more than just design. He offers a lot of insight into life. Not only is the message relevant, the narrative is enjoyable to read. And taken as a whole, the essays say everything that needs to be said.

Well, almost.

One reason I’m posting his essays here is because they made me think further about something I’ve been pondering anyway. Namely: Why does good sometimes go bad? (Or, more often, just mediocre?) Why is an artist’s, writer’s, designer’s, or musician’s early work–even if not very refined–so often more moving and more powerful than their later work? What goes wrong?

I first began thinking about this question as it relates to musicians. Some of the music I love is a bit obscure, or at least started that way. But across many years, I’ve seen much of it become less obscure–more popular. And as that happens, it often becomes less good. There is something (something that is the opposite of magical) that happens once a work of art seeks to appeal to the masses. Often, it becomes just a watered down version of itself.

And it’s so disappointing.

I could go on a tirade about what the masses love (think: watered down) and why, but I’ll refrain. I’ll refrain, I’ll refrain, I’ll refrain. Because really, it doesn’t matter; it just is.

I’m not even sure if I’m posing this as a question (Why does this happen?), or just making a wandering statement about my observations. But either way, I feel that more often than not, as a maker’s work gains more popularity, something gets lost along the way.

Is it because intentions are more pure in the beginning? Is it the amount of time spent on early work? Is it that passion and authenticity wane?

An unknown artist, with nothing to lose, doesn’t really have a choice but to pursue making what he or she is passionate about. The work can be original, authentic, hopefully unique, maybe even a bit wild or ground-breaking. However, once hit with a bit of fame, notoriety, acclaim–whatever you want to call it–there are expectations to meet and pressures to succumb to. Time pressures, money-making pressures, people-pleasing pressures. Maybe a musician spent years crafting a debut record, and maybe it was a culmination of a life’s work in some ways. If it’s successful, then what? More work is expected, and chances are the process will be forced into a speedier ritual. And chances are, something in the quality or uniqueness will be downgraded a notch or two.

Personally, I think there could be any number of causes, depending on who is the maker in question. But too often, I think it stems from giving the people what they want, from trying to appeal too generally, and from straying from the original passion, intention, purpose, and pleasure that came from making the work.

This is probably a complex issue–one that could be deeply analyzed–and I know I’m only scratching the surface. I’m not delusional enough to think this situation will ever change on a grand scale, but it’s refreshing to see someone like Chimero–undoubtedly a successful young designer–questioning this issue. I, for one, appreciate his willingness to not just accept his own status quo, even if it’s all a result of him being “not a very balanced person.”

It’s okay, Frank. I can relate.


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