Someone did an exercise with the latest generation of e-fit technology on what British people consider beautiful the other week. Basically, you have some (fairly impressive, these days) software that can manipulate realistic-looking (well, a bit better than contemporary computer games, anyway) face images in response to feedback. So normally you do this with witness memories of a criminal: keep adjusting jawline, hair colour and shape, skin tone, lip size, whatever you can think of, till it looks as much like what they can remember as possible. And you can do the good old optician ‘better with one? or with two? with? or without?’ routine while flipping one feature back and forth. In this instance, you go with what people say is attractive, use a much larger sample pool, and probably do a lot more trying of alternatives to gauge trends.
There were some interesting bits of slicing and dicing in the data, chiefly to do with gender – men thought an attractive man would be more ‘rugged’ than women did, with sharper jawlines and more liking for facial hair; women thought an attractive woman would have more traditionally exaggerated features than men did, pulling towards bigger eyes and fuller lips. But the most interesting bit to me was simply that the eventual two images produced looked fairly convincingly human, and certainly had no perceptible flaws as such, but were utterly unremarkable. I doubt anyone would give them a second look in the street; they seemed less epitomes of beauty than of blandness.
I think this is what happens when you average out too wide a spectrum of people’s tastes and preferences in any sense, medium, art form or sphere. Nothing is universally appealing, however much its proponents want to believe it is. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries recorded that the only one of his plays that pleased everyone in its own time was Romeo and Juliet; I think anyone who has taught or can remember being taught the latter at GCSE or Key Stage 3 level will testify that it does not please everyone today!
This creates one of the major planks of my argument for calling what I do musically (maybe my poetry is different but that doesn’t have to pay any bills!) craft, not art. Artists create what they must and because, driven by some kind of categorical creative imperative and producing a distinctive and coherent style and body of work almost whether they wish to or not, and gain satisfaction in self-expression, originality or reflection of and comment upon the world (runs the post-Romantic myth of artistic creation still essentially current in the whole Western society). Craftspeople do what the client requests, as well as their technique and knowledge will enable them, and gain satisfaction from matching the requirements as thoroughly and fluently as possible, not from turning a brief into an opportunity to produce something of ‘their own’.
Sadly for my musical career and my financial security, I can’t be all things to all men. I’m not going to be a virtuoso soloist ever, never mind any time soon, and I wouldn’t say I’m cut out for glitzy amplified pop-classical groups playing over backing tracks with snazzy choreography either. But I can seek to match the context as far as possible, and not bother trying to break into contexts I won’t manage to fit; and that is a far more important skill at my ‘blue-collar’ jobbing musician level than developing a style or sound of my own, let alone a distinctive or original one. At least this way I please most of the people most of the time – which is enough to get paid more than pleasing a handful people all of the time and putting the rest off.