Wednesday, 1 August 2012

If a thing's worth doing ...

... it's worth doing badly. That at least was the opinion of G. K. Chesterton. This is no wilfully perverse paradox, although it is a paradox. I think what he meant was that even if you do something badly, it's still worth doing it. I suppose it is Chesterton's slogan for amateurism.

I have to confess to a lot of bad amateurism lately. We have various vegetable patches, but none of them are especially successful. The rocket is dying where our neighbourhood fox peed on them. I have recently picked up my guitar again after years of neglect. The sounds are painful, though not as painful as the sounds coming from my keyboard. Still, I'm determined to do these things: to garden badly, to stutter through pieces I used to play blindfold, and to labour away at the ivories in the hope that something vaguely musical emerges.

Should I bother? I admit that in an age of specialisation, in which we can buy so many professionalised products off the shelf, such an attitude looks rather eccentric. Why bother doing it badly if you can buy the finished, perfect product? I suppose the answer has something to do the failed promises of consumer power. We live in a context which lectures us constantly about the customer's prerogatives. Nevertheless, in this context, we undoubtedly have less space to contemplate what we lose by standing in the shop queue. There are some things money cannot buy, and that is a fact that most of us would readily agree with. And yet if we find something readily on sale, we are so often tempted into buying it, rather than doing / making it ourselves. In other words, we automatically assume that we can buy stuff: any stuff! Okay, I admit it - I have no shame in confessing to having a large collection of CDs and a fridge regularly stocked from Sainsbury's. And yet ... and yet...

Glenn Gould
... what do we lose thereby? It depends what we are talking about. Take the example of music (since we have already done so). It's a lot easier to have music by putting a CD on the stereo. You can have a near-perfect performance by the greatest musicians in your living room any time you like. A bit of nice music over dinner? Who could question that for a second? And yet, if our only contact with music consists in such practices, then our experience is in someways always narrower and poorer. We bypass the difficulties of mastering a score. We never find ourselves in the mysterious presence of an instrument. We never taste that odd sort of kinship that arises from barging through a tune in the company of a friend. Instead, we are forced to hear the same performance again and again, rather than listening to something which can change, mutate, and challenge us in different ways. Few recordings offer us the groanings and ramblings of a performer like Glenn Gould; most are sanatized for universal export. Those regular, identical bell peppers that we all complain about in the supermarket ... we have had the musical equivalent of those for many a year.

I'm not saying I enjoy bad music! I'm just saying that sometimes it's worth struggling. Beyond the convenience, is it not possible we're missing something that's worth the inconvenience? Excuse me while I go and contemplate the fox's handiwork ...

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