I just got home from three weeks back home in California, spending Christmas with the family and spending New Year's Eve with friends. It was mostly good - that is, the same as always - apart from my grandmother suffering some health scares (pretty serious stuff, to be honest, but it always is when you're 95, as she is).
The thing about this year's Christmas get-together that was a little different from the usual was the presence of my sister's boyfriend (a friend of mine also came to visit just before New Year's Eve, but that's by the bye). My sis's boyfriend is a composer of avant garde music, and he's not shy about sharing his opinions about stuff, particularly in the creative arts. Perhaps not surprisingly, the word "sell-out" was thrown around a couple of times.
This is a term I've been thinking about a bit recently; not in connection with myself, of course, as nobody's throwing giant piles of cash at me to prostitute my art for. But it occurred to me that maybe I already have sold out, even before I started.
Not in a bad way, I hasten to add. I'm not crafting things cynically designed to appeal to the greatest number of readers as possible, I just write what I think would be cool; it happens that this probably falls more on the commercial end of the scale. Again, no big surprise, as my chosen subjects are science fiction and fantasy; while there are examples of SF authors working with more difficult material, there's probably not that much in the way of avant garde SF literature. The most avant garde SF authors I can think of are Samuel Delany, Philip K Dick and JG Ballard, but it's not like their works are on the same level of (say it, Francis) weirdness as Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake.
It's also not to say that I don't like the avant garde - I particularly like it in music, though I've rarely encountered it in film and have no desire to explore it in fiction. But I sometimes feel like avant garde music is more concerned with talking to a small group - those in the know - than in illuminating something that everyone can relate to.
Both approaches are more appropriate in certain situations than in others; both approaches are also obnoxious in certain situations. Art that's nakedly aimed at the consumer's wallet is just as annoying as art that wants to say nothing more than, "No, you just don't get it, because you're too [whatever]." On the other hand, there are times when it's fun to get your head around something a little more difficult, just as it's sometimes fun to zone out watching Terminator 2 or an early Adam Sandler movie (come on, you know you loved Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore).
I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
I guess this comes back to an earlier post, where I looked at Neil Gaiman's advice on the Nerdist Podcast to read outside your chosen genre. Here, however, I'm expanding his advice (which I nitpicked over possibly a little unfairly, as I discovered listening to it again last night) to the rest of your life. I think in our culture we have an image of modern art or contemporary music that's informed heavily by parodies (think the Simpsons or South Park); what I'd like to see more of is people stretching their boundaries by going and listening to the originals. Pieces like Terry Riley's In C or Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians are pretty listenable (I'd even put Karlheinz Stockhausen's Mikrophonie in this list, but that's me), and I think the average person might appreciate them if he or she heard them in a store or wherever (although I accept they might not be so enthused to hear Mikrophonie at the Gap).
This goes both ways, of course - those who only consume "high" art as it's practiced today should listen to some pop or hip hop or rock, and should be able to do so without embarrassment. Good music is good music, no matter the genre; this holds true for movies, books, paintings, whatever. Let's just allow ourselves to like the things that move us somehow, without worrying about how it's perceived.