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Blog // Creativity
October 4, 2010

Crabs, Poppies And Danish Towns

Art is never further from its potential than when it is cast as a form of competition. When we talk about art in the same way that we talk about sport, or politics, we lose all sense of what art can be and how it should function, both in our lives and in our society. […]

Art is never further from its potential than when it is cast as a form of competition. When we talk about art in the same way that we talk about sport, or politics, we lose all sense of what art can be and how it should function, both in our lives and in our society.

Sadly, I’m becoming aware that for some people, their cultural imagination is so impoverished that they struggle to describe art in anything other than a competitive framework. This is dangerous because for artists to grow and develop, they need to be able to speak about their work in terms of uniqueness and even greatness that will, up to a point, precede the full development of their talent. To put it another way, as an artist you need to think about your work as having qualities of (and potential for) greatness, even before your greatness is fully recognised, or you have the technical ability to manifest that potential. This will make no sense to those trapped in the language of competition.

Of course, all that can make young and new artists come across as terribly awkward and even pretentious at times. In a way, the first flourishing of artistic talent, be it musical, visual, or whatever, is not entirely unlike an aesthetic adolescence, complete with all earnestness, exuberance and oversimplification we associate with youth.

As the artist tries to reach the point where their work habits and technique catch up with their latent talent and potential, the cultural context they find themselves in starts to play a greater role. Mentoring, friendship and support become crucial. Moreover, the way they fit in the greater fabric of society will often become a point of tension.

This is more acute because in some (perhaps most) cultures, there are mechanisms for drawing people back to the herd and making them feel uneasy and dishonourable when they stand out from the crowd. In Australia, the Tall Poppy Syndrome is a much commented upon phenomena, where the masses often react as if successful people, like tall poppies in a field, need to be cut down to size.

An important point to remember about the Tall Poppy Syndrome is that its activation is not tied to the actions of the successful person, whether they behave in an arrogant, or entitled fashion, but rather, it flows from how they are perceived by their accusers. In this way, the Tall Poppy Syndrome is a kind of pre-emptive cultural violence; people need to be cut down, for their own and the society’s good, sometimes even before they become truly unique or prior to the realisation of their success.

In a recent blogpost, Trine Falbe talked about a Danish cultural phenomenon, called Jante Law, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Again, the goal is the harmony and stability of the group (or village) over the success and potential of the individual.

That has me wondering if there is not some kind of universal human tendency to hold people back and make them fit into groups. Sometimes this is referred to as the crab mentality, echoing the idea that when you put crabs in a bucket, they will claw back those who are close to freedom as each tries to gain an advantage over the other in a futile cycle of repression. Perhaps no song better summarises the smug self-regard of the crab mentality better than John Lennon’s insidious anthem to hippie self-importance, Imagine (here’s a rant that summarises most of my thoughts about the former Beatle’s most unfortunate ditty).

2081 is a short film adaptation of Kurt Vonngut’s story, Harrson Bergeron, which imagines a world of total equality and where no-one ever feels inadequate or inferior. In this imagined universe, uniformity is created by crippling and handicapping those who are more gifted and talented within the society. In this restrained form of life, no-one struggles, or tries to improve themselves, partly because no-one can remember anything in their lives clearly or they never feel overly troubled by any moment in their lives. That’s one way to imagine all the people living life in peace.

2081 Trailer from 2081 on Vimeo.

This leaves me wondering if one of my own mantras, “do the best you can,” isn’t simply a relic of a competitive way of viewing relationships and work. Perhaps that’s why I found Hugh MacLeod’s latest post so challenging, when he says,

“Don’t be the best in the world at what you do; be the only one in the world who does what you do.”

That takes the notion of standing out from the crowd to it’s logical, wolf-like extreme. Instead of being one of many people struggling, crab like, to emerge from the same bucket, you just go out completely into your own field and hope that, in time (and with a combination of luck and patience), people will find you and maybe even understand you.

From such a vantage point, art looks a lot less like a competitive game and more like a way of life.

Toni 14 years ago

I was interested in your comment about youth and musical development. So often musicians clearly reach a peak and then pass over into relative mediocrity, having mined out the lode of creativity they fall back onto the blandness of ability and technique. Outside of classical circles (where technique and interpretation are everything) uniqueness and inspiration seem fleeting, rather than the journey. While I can think of a few musicians who have become better with time, they seem few in comparison to those who ceased to be inspiring.

Something which bugged me about music reviewers was how they’d want bands to reinvent themselves, never being happy unless they heard something new. In a sense this is also creative competition: requiring that the artists compete in a fresh race, rather than doing what they did best.

But as for individuality, there often needs to be a compromise. Being truly unique and standing out from the crowd on the basis of ability can make people lonely, paranoid and more competitive. Most people need peer group and very few are robust enough to lead in any one direction. There may be a certain amount of protection for the individual, bringing them back into the herd, just as much as trying to maintain harmony by lowest common denominator.

Yamabuki Zhou 14 years ago

This also brings to mind
The Phenomena often seen
Where successful musical groups
Have to play their old hits
Because audiences expect it

Art is the act of taking us outside
Outside the everyday
Outside the known
Outside the comfortable
This means being a tall poppy

Showing the unshowable
Makes us feel uncomfortable
When done successfully
Everyone gets it
But that is mostly a matter of timing

If the same thing is shown
Before we are ready to see it
We as a group will Boo it
But there’s really no way of knowing
When is the right time

If you don’t take risks
You will be left in the dust
All you can do is look within
Find what is right for you
If the world is not ready for you
Then so be it.
Just keep going.


Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Toni – as always, I’m interested in your take on this. I wonder if maybe this issue looks a little different in the jazz world to the rock world. I’m not sure.

One thing I didn’t really get into this time is the need to love what you can play. It’s so important and something I only recently started to think about.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Yamabuki – thank you for what you have written and how you have written it! I agree that timing (the right ideas in the right season) is so important.

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