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Alan Greenspan recently proposed a constitutional amendment: “Anyone willing to do what is required to become president of the United States is thereby barred from taking that office.” In a similar spirit — with tongue partway in cheek — I’d like to put forward Teachout’s First Law of Artistic Dynamics: “The best way to make a bad work of art is to try to make a great one…”

Voltaire said it: The best is the enemy of the good. Ralph Ellison, like Bernstein and Welles, learned that lesson all too well. In 1952 he published “Invisible Man” and was acclaimed as a major novelist. The well-deserved praise that was heaped on him gave Ellison a fatal case of importantitis, and though he spent the rest of his life trying to finish a second novel, he piled up thousands of manuscript pages without ever bringing it to fruition. Why did he dry up? Because, as Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ellison made agonizingly clear, he was trying to write a great book. That was his mistake. Strangled by self-consciousness, he never even managed to finish a good one.

Contrast Ellison’s creative paralysis with the lifelong fecundity of the great choreographer George Balanchine, who went about his business efficiently and unpretentiously, turning out a ballet or two every season. Most were brilliant, a few were duds, but no matter what the one he’d just finished was like, and no matter what the critics thought of it, he moved on to the next one with the utmost dispatch, never looking back. “In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse,” he said. “Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time.” That was the way Balanchine saw himself: as an artistic craftsman whose job was to make ballets. Yet the 20th century never saw a more important artist, or one less prone to importantitis.

Yes, it’s important to shoot high, but there’s a big difference between striving to do your best day after day and deliberately setting out to make a masterpiece. What if Welles had gone back to Broadway after “Citizen Kane” and directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on a bare stage, with no expensive bells and whistles? Or if Bernstein had followed “West Side Story” with a fizzy musical comedy that sought only to please? Or if Ellison had gritted his teeth, published his second novel, taken his critical lumps, ignored the reviews, and gone back to work the very next day? Then all of those gifted, frustrated men might have spared themselves great grief — and perhaps even gone on to make more great art.

Terry Teachout
The Wall Street Journal

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