Kona’s column 2: In defence of the amateur

November 16, 2009

elephant and giraffe

Elephant Runs - Lake Manyara. Used under creative commons license. Photo by Flickr user Mark Veraart

A while ago, I found myself acting as a marshal at the 9km mark of a local 10km running race.  Less than half an hour after the starting gun fired, the front-runners came through, leading a pack of lycra-wrapped humanity that variously pounded, loped and finally plodded past me during the next forty-five minutes.

My marshalling station was at the top of the course’s final hill, and the last few runners were clearly having a hard time of it.  A knot of spectators had built up, and applauded each runner as he or she passed, shouting encouragements:  “Well done!”  “Nearly there now.”  “Fantastic effort!”  “Keep it up!”  The last runner was an exhausted lady who was only just managing to stagger along,  and I’m almost certain I heard the distant cheering when she finally crossed the finish line a few minutes later.

Of course, none of this is at all unusual.  Spectators at this kind of event are generally very even-handed, and celebrate the efforts of the speedy and the straggler with equal enthusiasm.  This seems only fair – after all, it isn’t that the people at the back are necessarily trying any less hard.  Furthermore, as a society, we generally congratulate people who get off the sofa, turn off the TV and make the effort to do some exercise.  We think it positive, even admirable,  that people should go out and run in a race that will take them three times as long as the winners to complete.  We applaud them for their effort and determination, not their velocity.

I came away from the race feeling inspired, but wondering – not for the first time – why our attitude to the arts can be so different.  I once played violin in a run of shows put on by an amateur light opera company, where the company’s director had cast himself as the young-and-handsome male lead.  He was stumpy and middle-aged, and – to be honest – a somewhat idiosyncratic singer, with a vibrato wider than the M8 and a face that explored progressively deeper shades of beetroot as he sang.  Nonetheless, it was clear that he was giving it his all, night after night.  It was equally clear that some of the audience had come along chiefly to laugh at him, which they did, unrestrainedly and sometimes to the point of tears, during his impassioned solos.

Certainly, the man’s mis-casting of himself in the lead role was a little vain, and his overblown delivery did have a certain inadvertent comedy.  Nonetheless, I was progressively more offended by the audience reaction as the performances went on.  Here was a man so passionate about his artform that he’d brought together a group of ordinary people and put on a successful show.  Why was that any less of a “fantastic effort” than the challenge of running a 10k race?  He was no Placido Domingo, but should that really make him the butt of mass ridicule?

Whether it’s mocking sniggers at a local art show or knowingly raised eyebrows at an open mic poetry event, the put-downs applied to “amateur” creative output do nothing but harm.  Contrary to stereotype, not every weekend painter riles about her masterpieces being neglected by the Tate, and not every unpublished poet wages hate mail campaigns against the editors who’ve rejected his work;  in other words, putting people down for their heartfelt and determined creative effort can’t always be justified as the rightful swatting of hubris.   On the contrary, it’s frequently an attack on something precious – namely, the vibrant but eminently crushable bloom of genuine enthusiasm.

Let’s be blunt:  plenty of amateur creative output can be assessed, not unreasonably, as “not very good”.  Poor technique, imitative execution and inadequate self-editing are genuine faults that cause real flaws.  Fair and cogent criticism of poorly-done work is not fundamentally objectionable, and can be both helpful and positively received.  Scoffing at such work, however, is not criticism;  rather, it is the dismissal of the creative act behind the work as having been not worth doing.  That worth – the intrinsic worth of the creative activity – is rightfully assessed only by the person who bothered to get off the sofa, or out of the shopping mall, and do it.

We live in a culture that floods us with passive entertainment opportunities, from the asinine titillations of reality TV to the fat Sunday broadsheets whose contents are forgotten before we’ve finished that second cup of coffee.  In an age where it’s all too easy to spend every hour of leisure being just another consumer, it’s inspiring when anyone bothers to produce:  to engage effortfully in an activity that’s creative or expressive, and to do it for no greater gain than the joy of the doing and the satisfaction of the completed artefact.  To stand by and mock the fruits of that effort is no less boorish – and certainly no less ignorant – than to jeer at the weary last finishers in a public running race.

By all means, let’s celebrate the Olympian glories of our creative professionals and the celestial work they produce – but let’s not demean the outputs of the rest of us in the process.  I certainly know what I’ll say the next time I encounter somebody who’s bothered to get up and have a go at something creative – even if the end result happens to be the artistic equivalent of a twenty minute mile.  “Fantastic effort! Keep it up!”

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland. This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be a second batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 27 January 2010. You can now hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’ and  follow her on Twitter.

Also! Kona’s Poem of the Week blog at Thingwright is 100 poems old! To celebrate, she is giving away a signed copy of Tails and one other mystery book… Visit Kona’s website and be in it to win it! Closing date: 11 December.

4 Responses to “Kona’s column 2: In defence of the amateur”

  1. Dave Proctor Says:

    That was fantastic and quite insightful. I’d like to post a link to it on my site, if you don’t mind.

  2. Lúcháir Says:

    As GK Chesterton used to say, on the same theme, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly!”


  3. […] …and Kona Macphee wrote us another encouraging column. […]


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