Importantitis, The Enemy of Art (and the church)

I’m a fan of Terry Teachout’s weekly columns in the Wall Street Journal. Some time ago, I kept a copy of his take on why brilliant artists often suddenly hit a wall – unable to match the quality of their earlier careers or first projects. It especially happens when their first major project is received with remarkable critical success. Afterwards, they feel they have to continue the climb to greatness. So instead of just going back to work the next day, they spend the rest of their life trying to be even more brilliant – but more often that not – end up in failure.

He describes
Ralph Ellison – author of “Invisible Man” like this:

“Voltaire said it: The best is the enemy of the good. Ralph Ellison learned that lesson all too well. In 1952 he published “Invisible Man” and was acclaimed as a major novelist. The well-deserved praise that was heaped on him gave Ellison a fatal case of importantitis, and though he spent the rest of his life trying to finish a second novel, he piled up thousands of manuscript pages without ever bringing it to fruition. Why did he dry up? Because, as Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ellison made agonizingly clear, he was trying to write a great book. That was his mistake. Strangled by self-consciousness, he never even managed to finish a good one.”

It also happened with Orson Welles after his movie “Citizen Kane” which many consider the greatest film ever made. It happened with Leonard Bernstein after “West Side Story.”

As Teachout describes Bernstein: “Leonard Bernstein set Broadway on fire in 1957 with “West Side Story,” a jazzed-up version of “Romeo and Juliet” in which the Capulets and Montagues were turned into Puerto Rican Sharks and American Jets. It was the most significant musical of the postwar era — and the last successful work that Bernstein wrote for the stage. His next show, 1976’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” closed after seven performances. For the rest of his life he floundered, unable to compose anything worth hearing.”

As I read the article, I thought about a few major pastors and ministry leaders. Having met with great success early on, they stop doing the normal, everyday things that made them great, and start focusing more on “being great.” As a result, either they begin a steady decline, or burn out through failure, distraction, or moral and financial issues. They forget that true “greatness” comes from the everyday things in life. It doesn’t come in “spurts of brilliance” but rather from slogging away in the trenches – of doing your job with integrity, purpose, and commitment.

If you want to be great – don’t try to be great. And certainly don’t think of yourself as suddenly important. Just grit your teeth, take the lumps, stay in the moment, and listen to your calling. Woody Allen said: “90% of success is just showing up.”

I think there’s something to that…

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  1. Thanks Phil. This is a good reminder for us not to cave into the public pressure to “perform” nor our own internal desire to “be great.” Just BE who we are in this journey through life and seek to bring God glory.

    This post goes back to your earlier posting on Innovation – success is built on a series of smaller steps carried through to their logical conclusion. We are often afraid of failure or criticism, so we don’t try or complete the task. Personally, I battle with this sometimes when it comes to my writing. So the information about Ralph Ellison serves to encourage me to finish my manuscripts, put my work out there and build upon previous steps.

    The Bible says that “Your gift will make room for you and bring you before important men.” Just be who God has created you to be… with no pretense. You’ll have less stress, less pressure and will be able to be “creatively open” to receive and act on the impacting ideas that come to you.

    God has given EACH of us SOMETHING that will impact the lives of others, if we develop it and utilize it to its fullest potential. Be encouraged!

    As Denzel Washington said, “Man gives the award. God gives the reward.”

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers

  2. Thus may be why good directors have a longer string of successes. Because they know that they're totally dependent upon other people in order to achieve the "greatness" factor. If they don't have a good script, if they have the wrong costume designer, or DP, etc. Same with the music industry. It's usually the creators who don't care about the pressure from 'the suits' who give us consistantly good work. It's the famed "sophomore" album that's notoriously bad, right? – except on rare occasions. It's because the artist or band now have 50 people around them, thinking  $$$ – $$$ – $$$. "Gonna give us another good one?" "Gotta give us some more hits or they'll drop you from the label!"

    And let's face it, the grit and struggle that went into creating the first hit album, has now been replaced with Pierre Cardin, Prada, and 4-star restaurants. It's like rap stars who are still writing about living in the 'hood' while they're sitting in the 25,000 sqft mansion. It may have been the same way with Bernstein (there are some pretty interesting stories about the twists and turns in the creating of "West Side Story." I read that Bernstein was working on many different projects at the time and kept telling himself, "Man, I really need to get crackin' on this West Side Story project." and then got to work.) When the money and fame starts flowin'…

    Didn't Jesus, Himself, say that even "the pleasures of this world", have the potential to choke a good seed?

  3. What is "great" anyway?  Sometimes the lesser known works of an author or artist end up being the secret gems of their creative collection.  It's possible one day we'll learn how God's opinion of what is "great" will be vastly different the general consensus.

    Loved this post, Phil.

  4. To the point Jeff! Especially with that last paragraph. It is one of the things said to me when I entered the media business full time “Make pleasure a transition not an address;”. I think Paul said it better “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment”.

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