Photo Credit: Marco Muñoz
I have found that all work, including the so called professional and creative work of teaching at a university, boils down to certain false indicators which we must endure. In point of fact, the factory may be a little more accurate: you can’t fake a spec. Doing a plate within two tenths of a thousandth run out over eight feet of stainless steel edge cannot be faked. It’s a spec. It is not wholly accurate but it’s within a range of accuracy far more precise than any sort of academic measure. But even with the finest technology, there is no such thing as zero tolerance. There is ever closer proximity to zero run out, but no complete absence of deviation. All measurement is approximate. As my teacher, the great tool maker, Joe Pilot, told me, “It’s just as easy to say everything is wrong as it is to say nothing is perfect. Error is the only reality we know, and the one thing we are least likely to forgive or admit.”
When universities only brag about their award winning students, they show themselves to be the same sort of collective idiot who preferred the operas of Meyerbeer over Wagner, or Rosini over Mozart. The measure of greatness is awards. By this measure, Pearl Buck was a far greater writer than Eudora Welty, and equal to Faulkner because, hey, she won the Nobel prize. The measurement of greatness is: 1. Awards 2. The word of mouth of one’s peers. 3. Posterity and duration. If one wins big enough awards, one’s peers side whisper that one has have gone down the crapper (awards seem to raise envy and lower estimates of talent). If one wins no awards, one is consigned to career hell. If one is still known after death, so what? You’re dead. I don’t think Mozart enjoyed his fame after death. Wagner was lucky enough to be embraced in his later life, but for a good 20 years, he was in the shadow of Meyerbeer who was considered Europe’s top opera composer. Wagner spent most of his time running from his creditors (literally). In a writing world controlled by academics, only awards matter, because it is the pathology of measurement known since the first grade. After all, these are A student types. I would define an A student as fitting the standard idea of a good mold almost perfectly. Originality, true originality, is not what A students are about. A students uphold the standard. In short, when university people say they want great writers, they are lying. What they want are writers who fit the mean of the highest standard mold.
Greatness is a an error that becomes the new standard. As my teacher, Joe Pilot told me, “you can’t see anything new that comes down the pike because your eyes have no frame of reference for it. You can only see it when it first starts to get turned into a standard mold, when its newness has already begun to wear off. You can only see it when it resembles something you have already seen. A truly original piece has got to resemble something in the past, or people can’t see it. The Greeks accidently invented the steam engine in 400 BC, but had no frame of reference for it, made a couple toys powered by it, and then forgot it. We didn’t see a steam engine again for over a thousand years–when the age of mechanics and Newton made that kind of thing imaginable. All genius, all originality is an error, kid. The world does not progress by excellence or correctness. An error that has an advantage to it is how the world goes forward. An error with an advantage, a fortunate sin, is how we always get to the next base. We move by a series of errors. We call them truth, or perfection after the fact. We are full of shit. It’s like a guy who trips on a stair, but is smart in his error, and turns it into a new dance step.”
I made an argument against award pathology. I brought up students who were not award winners, but who were making a true living in the arts (or almost a living) ten years after they were my students. I brought up those who are doing excellent work, who may not be winning the big prizes. I said a university must not base its reputation on award winners alone. It ought to rest more importantly on building a population of students and alumni who have the ability to see what is not readily visible, and who can create a milieu in which true greatness is likely to transpire–the holy accident which confounds all professional expectation because it is, after all, outside the schema of awards.
Universities should serve the fortunate accident, the judicious error, the mutation. They should do this by teaching students how to achieve the standard without believing it is a true measure. They should instigate and agitate for the “perhaps.” Creativity is founded on the perhaps. Perhaps this pratfall is not a stumbling, but a new form of ballet. Let us see what we can do. It is impossible to explain this to functionaries. For them the proof is always in the pudding. They never think that the pudding was some sort of deviation from the norm that the cook turned into a favorite dish.