What are we, the creators of our shared culture, being asked to be good at?
Soccer players are chosen by being graded according to their ability on a playing field. This decision is made entirely on what the statistics say about their ability. It’s a great example of a meritocracy. The enrollment process is highly democratic - anyone from any background can try out for the team. But the selection process is highly undemocratic - only the best will progress. The rest will be excluded.
Culture-benders, on the other hand, face a different set of challenges. Because art, unlike soccer, is subjectively judged. We don’t have metrics like ‘number of goals scored per season’ or ‘average heart rate’ to help us make our decision on what is intrinsically good. So art has this very interesting problem. How do we know what’s good?
The artists that we do select as ambassadors for our cultural movements are the already-influential ones. They’re the ones who are able to rally troops to a cause that’s impacting people now. This is the predominant measure by which artists succeed and are able to leverage their reputation into opportunity and earning. We look to public figures like artists for our inspiration, but also to draw our attention to what’s worth fighting against, or for.
Being a reputable artist has less to do with art and more to do with the scale of the shadow you cast over society’s problems.
The behavior of the audience you want to attract doesn’t change. They’re all looking for inspiration, a voice, a message and meaning. They look to the artist to provide that. So as a servant of your audience, you’re being asked to be good at something other than your work.
As a musician, you’re not just being asked to make music that permits people to feel upliftment, inspiration, emotional depth, happy memories or any of the other reasons we listen. You’re being asked to be good at communicating that. At signaling it.
A soccer player might use their image to earn from product endorsements and in other ways that are external to their game. But a player’s ability to influence a product marketplace has nothing to do with why they made the team. But unlike a soccer player, it has everything to do with why you as an artist are required to make your own team.