Practice Resurrection

 In Culture, Fred's Blog

Last week I attended the annual meeting of the Wedgwood Circle. Wedgwood seeks out and convenes people who are committed to creating and supporting art and entertainment that is “good, true and beautiful.”

It’s hard work being an artist. Jack Kerouac said, “Genius gives birth, talent delivers.” It’s oftentimes discouraging and unrewarding work spending years turning inspiration and imagination into something tangible for others to appreciate or value. However, it is even harder if your desire is to create something not just commercially viable but also “good, true and beautiful for the common good.”

Consider the odds just in getting your film into the Sundance Film Festival. Over 12,000 independent feature films are submitted every year to the festival, and only 120 are selected.

Every single year there are 650 films released into theaters, and half (about $30 billion) of the global revenues are generated by the top 50 films.

Writers may have it even harder. Over one million books were published in the United States last year with more than two-thirds of those being self-published. Ten percent of the self-published authors generate 75 percent of the royalties. In case you are curious, the biggest earning category is romantic fiction writers – by a wide margin.

And musicians. While there were more than 75,000 new releases last year, the average album sells only 13 copies. In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, “The Shazam Effect,” Derek Thompson writes that the top one percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music.

The world of “culture shaping” is a world dominated by a few at the top, and the role of technology in predicting (and deciding) who will make it there is becoming the real story. It’s no longer about writing a good song but about writing a song that will be picked up by the data gatherers and identified as a likely success.

Shazam began as a service to help people quickly identify a song’s artist and title when they heard it somewhere, like in a restaurant or bar. All you need is a cell phone. It has been downloaded more than 500 million times and used to find some 30 million songs, making it one of the most popular apps of all time.

But Shazam’s real contribution goes much deeper, and the effect of what they are doing is far broader. It is more than the exhaustive analysis. It is also defining reality. It is telling us what the world around us values, and because we are shaped by that – either in fashion, ideas, music or film – we make our own choices to conform to others.

Thompson writes, “By studying 20 million searches every day, Shazam can identify which songs are catching on and where, before just about everyone else.” They can detect the smallest ripple and determine with remarkable accuracy whether it will be hit. Similar to an exit poll sample on election night, they can extrapolate a few plays of a song in a small town into a national “breakout.”

Concert promoters use Spotify and Pandora for some of the same reasons – and to see listening patterns to choose which songs should be on the playlist for each venue. One service, Next Big Sound, uses an algorithm to create a list of 100 most likely to be successful in the next year. They are highly accurate — and for a six-figure annual subscription, they can help you mine social media to identify future stars.

By discovering not only what songs we like, but the fact that we “want to listen to the same songs over and over again,” music executives are capitalizing on the human tendency to stick with what’s comfortable. Popular songs are being played more often, stay on the charts longer, and sound more and more alike.

Thompson writes, “That’s because familiar songs are easier to process, and the less effort needed to think through something — whether a song, a painting, or an idea—the more we tend to like it.”

We resist what is new and unfamiliar. That’s why we call it “comfort food.”  Our leaning is toward what we know and what does not challenge or tax us. Our brains actually do choose the path of least resistance.

In Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” he writes of people who have allowed others to put a “window in your head.”

 

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

 

Then he goes on to say:

 

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

….

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

 

I think that may be the credo for the Wedgwood artists and perhaps all of us. Do something that does not compute and makes it impossible — or at least less likely — that anyone can predict with any certainty the motions of our minds. Do something new and unfamiliar that may not become a “hit” or a “breakout,” but it will be your unique genius delivered by your talent. Allow yourself to grow and change.

For both of us – artist and consumer – we can resist the easy bent toward sameness and, instead, aim for and appreciate what is genuinely creative. After all, what could be more good, true and beautiful than that?

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Showing 12 comments
  • Avatar
    Steve Haas
    Reply

    One of your best blogs! Needed this today in “living” outside the box.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Steve, you’ve never been inside the box! You would be hard-pressed to describe the box to anyone. You’ve only heard rumors about there being a box. Still, anything I can do to encourage you and others like you is enough for me.

  • Avatar
    Mark Petersen
    Reply

    This is what it means to be counter-cultural. Thanks Fred, a wonderful post and reminder today.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Be sure to watch the Wendell Berry interview with Bill Moyers that is linked. There are some people we would like to meet and that’s enough. We can put them on the list of people we have met. There are people we would like to know for twenty years. He’s in the second category for me. Of course, you are as well.

  • Avatar
    Scott Hillstrom
    Reply

    Fred, My friend, David Pierce, is an evangelist. Starting with WYAM nearly 40 years ago he now leads Steiger Internation ( http://www.steiger.org ). He’s been living and preaching in ways that “don’t compute” for nearly 40 years. Because he does not fit the mold expected by everyone from Soviet Military officials, to anarchists, and now to Muslims in the Mideast he and his message about Jesus are embraced by all. About right now he’s in Turkey at the invitation of very conservative Muslims who asked him to come an share Jesus with their community. Steiger runs an evangelism school in dresden teaching artists to connect with seemingly unreachable people teaching their messages to large number of people around the world.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Well, just the word YWAM means “out of the box”. Art flies under the radar – or maybe above the stars.

  • Avatar
    Bryan Martin
    Reply

    Splendid! Thanks for writing this.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Bryan, for reading it.

  • Avatar
    Tom Lowery
    Reply

    Wonderful post; I forwarded it to Chris as he’s in the middle of a significant production job.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tom. I would be interested in what Chris has to say about this since he’s in the business.

  • Avatar
    adella
    Reply

    Yayyy!!… Practice resurrection. The only one who predicted resurrection and believed it to happen was The Lord Himself. He told “them,” He warned “them,” He alerted “them.” They missed it, and then disbelieved. Oh, that I would have the courage and innocence to believe He alone empties tombs and brings life out of death a.l.l. t.h.e. t.i.m.e…! Creatives are always attempting to bring things to life which have never been experienced before. Oh, that I would always seek to breathe by the Breath of the One who always creates….always.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Adella – I don’t know where to begin in a response! All I can say is practicing a resurrected life makes a difference, doesn’t it? Instead of trying (and failing) to practice an improved, enhanced, significant life, practicing a changed life makes all the sense in the world – this one and the next.

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