On Quality
My uncle, a choral conductor, once did a TV programme called 'The Spirit Of Scotland'. He talked rather piously about 'quality' and came out sounding like a snob. I'm afraid in this column I'm going to sound just as priggish. But there are some truths I've been hiding from you, my dear readers.

A lot of these columns have been optimistic. I've raved about the talent of artists I admire, spoken with barely contained excitement about the possibilities offered by the digital revolution, sung the creative joys of having a multimedia computer...

But there is a harsh, simple truth I've been avoiding. Most people don't give a shit.

Most people don't feel patronised and limited by conventional media the way I do. They are waiting for the internet to become patronising and limited before embracing it. Their governments are censoring the internet as you read these lines, making sure it offers only unstartling, acceptable thoughts, thoughts already thought, thoughts an infant might think. (Scratch that, infants are ogres).

I read an article in Wired about the Voyager company. I'm putting a lot of man-hours into a Momus ROM at the moment, so I wanted to know what the publishing situation was like. Run by an ex-Maoist called Bob Stein, Voyager publishes quality multimedia titles like The Residents' 'Gingerbread Man' and Laurie Anderson's 'Puppet Motel'. 'We want to be able to make money without doing Jackie Collins,' says Stein. But they're not. They're losing millions of dollars. Laurie Anderson's (great) ROM only sold 10 000 copies, despite a heavily subsidised world tour to support it.

So what does turn the 'great public' on? Books with silver or gold lettering on the front boasting plots revolving around suitcases of money? Rock records by tubby fortysomethings called things like 'Waking Up The Neighbours'? Cars instead of multimedia computers?

This week I turned down a concert in Belgium. (Oh, the sacrifice!) I've never really enjoyed doing concerts unless they were a way of seeing a new country and getting paid for it. But mostly I dislike touring (especially being a support act) because it gets my head out of the clouds and shows me how basic people's requirements are. All the complication, all the difficulty and ambiguity in my work sometimes seems like so much wasted breath. Only a few journalists and my fellow artists seem to value qualities like boldness and originality at all.

How would I ever be able to explain the magical freshness, the pure uncut cocaine rush of originality I get off a few lines of Bertolt Brecht to John Carey, whose new book 'Intellectuals' tries to demolish the cult of the personality Brecht (as well as Ibsen, Marx, Bertrand Russell, Hemingway and Tolstoy) enjoyed?

After detailing Brecht's manipulation of the women who surrounded him (his collaborative writing style was plain stealing, apparently), his political double standards (he checked into a West German clinic instead of a communist one, the cad) and denigrating his political poetry, Carey concludes smugly 'I have tried to find a single redeeming quality in Brecht without success.'

Carey, who's being very English here, seems to believe that men who can't look you in the eye over a pint of beer or a pair of gardening shears are not worth listening to.

Yet many highly original people were bastards. They had every right to their smelly armpits and their hypocrisy (and why on earth can't you live in an expensive house and write things that help the poor?) if they left behind a single idea that allowed us, even for a moment, to construe and interpret our lives in a fresh way.

Robert Lowell used to say that being a poet was a bit like being a scientist: your discoveries might be some of the most important being made at the time, but they're only appreciated by a handful of specialists and colleagues.

And then quite out of the blue the atom splits, or there's a cure for AIDS, or somebody comes up with a new way of thinking about a peach.


Momus, Paris, July 1996
momus@world-net.sct.fr

Previous Columns:On Columns, On Flatness, On The Couch, On The ROM and On Image.
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