I’m a big fan of the Graham Norton talk show (or as they call them in England, “chat shows”). He brings all his guests on together, gives them drinks, and they make each other funnier and wittier as they tell stories, mostly having to do with some stupid or embarrassing thing they themselves have done. Here’s a part of one story from the American comedian Kevin Hart, about one of his early-career stand-up gigs:
I remember hearing a woman’s voice, an older lady, I tell a joke, and the joke doesn’t work. And I remember this lady just going, “Oh, no…” And I would much rather be booed than hear the disappointment from her voice. I remember, she said, “Oh, no, baby…” Like I had made a mistake with my whole choice of life.
Nora and I spent the day yesterday out of town at a craft center—I won’t tell you where, so as to not cast aspersions on perfectly lovely people doing their best. But…
You know how you can just tell when it’s not right? How you can spot the hobbyist acrylic painting, the church-supper poem, the crocheted pillow cover that won’t ever be displayed? How you can hear the tin ear, the stiff piano player, the story that might never end?
What do you say when you see the bad taxidermy, the tuna-noodle casserole, the birch branch jigsawed into a rough crucifix? What do you say to the rock polishers, the potholder-makers, the person who makes refrigerator magnets of tiny photos inside bottle caps?
And what if they’re me?
I live in perpetual fear that my work is just… precious, a nice hobby, like an endless series of knitted baby caps foisted upon every distant relative.
There’s an internet meme that says, “Being stupid is like being dead… you’ll never know it, but everyone around you will.” And that’s the fate of the artist, putting our work out in public, and having the public walk past, trying not to notice you… or having them pick it up, consider it silently for a few seconds, and set it back down.
Short of the National Book Award, the glowing review in the London Review of Books, the Booker or the Grand Prix… anything less than that leaves us to wonder, really, whether the work has mattered. The doing of the work matters, and matters enormously. To us. But the work itself, and its worth to others… it’s impossible to say.
And sometimes, when I’m in the galleries of ill-proportioned still life drawings, or undrinkable home-brewed beer, or yet another lumpy ceramic pot… the question feels awfully close to home.