On the importance of good promotion

Many have puzzled why French classical tragedy (Corneille and Racine) has not traveled abroad as well as the English Shakespeare has. Various fanciful explanations have been proposed for this problem1 – such as that French tragedy is cut off from archaic or vernacular roots (French poetry being “inward looking”), that it is too rhetorical (all talk and no action), too grandiloquent (pompous), too set in the political realities of the moment, and so forth.

These are classic historicist explanations (in the Karl Popper sense): they cannot be tested. Indeed, some can't even be understood. (From which it follows that the guys in literary studies do not read enough analytical philosophy).

But these theories have something else in common: they use the seed-and-soil model of culture – make a seed appropriate to the soil, then throw it and it will grow into a tree.

It's wrong. (And typical of an academic who has not sold a thing in the real world in his life).

The authors forget the parable of the seed -- the essential third element of agriculture -- agriculture itself: domesticated plants don’t grow unless someone tills, rakes and waters the ground. (The seed of wheat is not robust enough to break dry ground unaided). Similarly, culture does not succeed on its own: it requires cultivation. And it seems just possible that French drama has never had in England the sort of enthusiastic and influential promoters that Shakespeare has had in France.

The promotion, or its success, need not have much to do with the quality of the art itself.

Consider that perhaps the most enthusiastic and influential promoter of Shakespeare in France was Voltaire who was, he reported, just amazed by what he saw in London. But Voltaire hardly spoke any English, so it isn’t clear that he knew what he was talking about; and in any case in his Letters From England were chiefly written for the purpose of knocking things French. Voltaire needed things foreign to praise -- with which to club the French: for what he wanted to accomplish, he could as easily have written Letters From Peking. Indeed, practically every sentence he wrote about Shakespeare and his superiority over French drama is so abstract, vague and -- well, historicist -- that he might as well have written it about Kungqu.

Similarly, those who seek causes for the success of even mediocre American film in its qualities may also be mistaken: they simply do not realize the power of the distribution machinery or the mammoth size of the promotional budget with which American films go out into the world. Typically, a film's promotional budget is greater than its production budget, and usually is increased if the initial sales are promising.

Human beings being essentially mimicking machines, in order to make its mark, a work of art needs good promotion far more than it needs quality of design -- as the latterly success of ugly fixtures and uncomfortable furniture clearly shows.

(I'd say the analytical value of Steiner's Death of Tragedy has been about zero, so far).


1It is a pseudo problem anyway: English tragedy has not traveled; Shakespeare has.


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