I mentioned some weeks ago that I saw Les Contes d'Hoffmann, an opera by Offenbach, in the theater thanks to the Met summer encore series. The opera is structured in three acts, each of which has a central female role: Olympia, a mechanical doll, Antonia, a melodramatic singer, and Giulietta, a scheming courtesan. There is also a prologue and an epilogue. The main character, Hoffmann, is a poet who fell in love with these three women, and the structure of the opera is that he's telling the stories of these loves to a bar full of drunken Frenchmen. The styles of each act are quite different. The first act is comic and quick-witted; the second is practically a parody of itself, with the weepy diva and her mysterious illness; the third is a sort of supernatural femme fatale story.
The music and the thematic elements of this opera double back on themselves here and there, and there are two characters (chaotic neutral and lawful evil) that appear consistently throughout each of the acts in an odd, novel way. The story, such as it is, rambles off into three completely different directions and you really have no idea where Offenbach is going with all this until he gets there. Some of its ideas seem utterly bizarre for their time to this 21st-century resident. Each of the three central female parts was intended by Offenbach to be sung by the same soprano. (Having seen the opera, I can tell you this is madness. The role of Olympia alone is unbelievably demanding, even though she only has one major aria. (But it's a stunner.))
Plainly, to me, Offenbach wrote this opera exactly as he wanted, without much thought as to who would be able to sing it and who would want to see it. Okay, exhibit one.
Exhibit two is the White Album, which I'm going to admit candidly I have never really liked. I've always thought it lacked discipline and failed at coherency too often to be a successful experiment. Of course there are amazing masterpieces of songs on it which I don't need to name, but the balance of the album, the songs that weren't singles, always dragged it down to unlistenable for me. "Yer Blues" came up on my randomizer the other day, though. I realized that even though my opinion of the White Album as not much fun to listen to probably won't change, it's still an artifact of some of the best musicians on earth operating at the top of their game with a clear intent to push artistic boundaries.
The White Album is legendary for a reason. It does what it wants to do, presents the songs and musicianship exactly as intended by the band. There may have been better bands operating in 1968, but not many, and no one in such a stratosphere of fame forged ahead so deliberately and fearlessly as the Beatles did with that album.
Exhibit three: Infinite Jest. 1,079 pages of unparalleled genius and, I'd argue, unparalleled difficulty, except for probably Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu. I can't imagine what it must have been like to write it, but I know what it was like to read it - like being hit in the face with an overwhelmingly brilliant sun for page after page of incredible intention. Exhausting. Punishing. Full of light. Wallace had to know that it was insane to write a book like this, absurdly long and obsessively detailed and jammed with dozens of characters and so full of its own vernacular that it makes the reader live in two worlds for its length. But he wrote it anyway.
These three works epitomize uncompromising art. Each of these creators had a vision for what they wanted their art to be and say and do, and they went forth and created it, without regard for how it would be received in the world.
I've read enough experimental fiction to know that you can have this attitude and wind up with a big ol' mess. The temptation for me when I'm writing is constantly to temper and fiddle until I feel like what I've produced is right for an audience, not just for myself. If I go too far in the direction of uncompromising art, I feel like I'm letting my ego get the better of me, thinking I'm a lot more talented than I am.
Where's the line? How do you be secure enough that you've created a terrific piece of art that suggestions to make it "better" may be interpreted as compromising the art, and you rightly refuse to take them?
I had a very hard time writing this post. I could overindulge on this topic and write paragraphs upon paragraphs about writer insecurity vs. writer arrogance, the demands of the market vs. the demands of art and whether there's any way to balance the two without losing your damn mind, and a question that I find particularly enduring: how you create art that's uncompromising while still creating art that's excellent or even comprehensible. The simple answer is that you're just that good, but that's not enough of an answer for me. What compels people to sit through the first weird act of Les Contes d'Hoffmann or keep on reading after page three of Infinite Jest, other than perverse curiosity? How did those items get accepted in the marketplace - how did some gatekeeper see promise and decide to take a chance on them?
All of this applies to me only in the most rudimentary way. I have not written Infinite Jest. But I wonder whether the compromises I'm planning for certain pieces of art are entirely the wrong thing to do, whether I'm bowing to the market in ways that lessen the impact and excellence of the art. Whether I should hold out and try to sell what I have, instead of trying to fold it up and fit it in a specific box. Or is it just a big ol' mess, what I have, and I need to tamp it down for it to be good art at all?