Early in my first painting class at Parsons, our teacher, Regina Granne, said something that looms in my memory as “Art is a specialized activity practiced and appreciated by an elite group of people who have the education and refinement to understand it.” Probably she said something more like, “Your parents will never understand what you do.”
Whatever she said, it crystallized for me at that moment and forever a feeling I’ve had at least since high school and still feel, a pull between wanting to make art that everyone will love and wanting to pursue something more esoteric.
Part of that latter impulse is defensiveness brought on by the sense of grievance creative people feel toward a world they think misunderstands and underappreciates them. “I don’t care if you don’t understand me. It’s not my fault you’re a philistine.” And I think a milder, more mature and less emotional, version of that is the realization that there will always be people who get your work and people who don’t and you can’t please everyone. I like to think the reason I don’t like superhero movies has more to do with taste and cultural differences than whether they’re good or bad.
Still, it does have something to do with education and refinement. I don’t think it’s just a matter of taste that there is a group of people who love a Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA and a much larger group who think it tastes nasty and would prefer a Bud Lite. I won’t apologize for having done the work necessary to appreciate art or ideas or food or whatever that is sophisticated, complex, dense. Does that make me a snob? Can someone who loves Neil Diamond and Hello Kitty be a snob? Maybe.
Always these two impulses that seem contradictory and zero sum. I want to make work that straddles the divide, and sometimes I’ve been successful, other times not. Y’all was almost the very definition of populist art. But we were trying from the beginning to subvert what it looked like on the surface. (At first … eventually we just gave in to the fact that the simplest way to be subversive was to be sincere.). And we won over audiences -- sometimes -- in the very highbrowest and lowbrowest of venues (art museums and grocery stores, experimental theater festivals and elementary schools). Rural conservative folks knew we were just aping the Grand Ole Opry, and kids love a toe-tapper. And I guess because we were queer and undermining stereotypes and fucking with unreliable narratives there was enough for the theory-prone arty types to chew on. (Little did they know that country entertainment had been queer and undermining stereotypes and fucking with unreliable narratives at least since the Carter Family.)
And LIZZIE, the other work that’s occupied an outsize portion of my life and career, I think exists somewhere in between, too. It has lots of big accessible catchy songs but it’s emotionally complex, layered with meaning, deals with history in ways that I think are incisive but open-ended, and rewards close attention. Sorry to brag, but I’m not going to say all that stuff isn’t in there. We spent a lot of years working to make it so.
I’m not sure what I really have to say about the Oscars. I’m not too outraged that lots of small indie films get attention. Some films are not for everyone. It doesn’t make them any better or worse than the blockbusters. I didn’t get much out of Birdman. I was deeply moved by Boyhood. It didn’t just make me cry. (It did, but so did Theory of Everything which I thought was a pretty good movie but nothing special really.) It got under my skin, rearranged my brain, made me see art and life differently forever. Like Terrance Mallick’s films (the other Austin filmmaker), Boyhood left me sort of gasping, puzzled, full of love, afraid and thrilled. As I’ve discovered many times when I try to describe what it is about Mallick that I think is so great, it’s not a feeling that I can really put into words.