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Vincent van Gogh: Self-Portrait or Portrait of Theo van Gogh (Paris, Summer 1887)

"[I] never learned to trust popularity."

I might fairly characterize modern life as a search for relevance. Certainly media, public as well as social, a prominent presence in our Damned Pandemic-separated lives, operates under a strict perversion of the Democratic process, where the number of views/likes/shares/comments determines relevance. I'm uncertain who first proposed simply voting as a means for determining relevance, but majorities have since voted in favor of the most remarkable and remarkably stupid things. It seems rather rare that a number one-rated program comes anywhere near being the best program produced that year. Same with recordings. Same with films. Same, too, with seemingly almost everything. Popularity in the polls has become the new relevance, a condition to which I'll assign a potentially more telling term, Refelance, meaning 'referred relevance.'

How does an artist, a creator, any producer determine relevance?
Only those uninterested in generating impact aren't interested in this question. When Van Gogh, for instance, sat down to determine what he'd paint next, how did he choose from the myriad of subjects available to him? He, of course, could not have known in that moment how others might receive his work, it not yet having been conceived, but how did he choose? I might ask an irrelevant question in this instance because it might be significant to remember that in his lifetime, Van Gogh was never considered to be a terribly relevant artist. He was certainly never popular. He was forced to mooch off his brother. His sister-in-law tried to promote his work. Nothing worked. He was generally pitied and ignored, so it might be that he never once successfully determined a relevant theme for any of his work.

The democrat might insist that relevance remains a function of audience, its preference. This opens up a dandy paradox because if audience preference determines relevance, then relevance could only emerge later, after creation. But then after a success, an artist might choose to produce replicas of their prior work with an eye to satisfying their particular identified niche, and thereby become a derivative of them self, feeding their masses.

It seems to me, out here Reconning, that relevance must have little to do with Refelance, the number of votes cast in favor or against. Creating's not a democratic process, or, I insist, should not be one. Of course history has irrevocably rendered this opinion meaningless, because voting's precisely how we determine relevance, that Refelance and relevance have become one and the same. So much for the paperback with the broken spine which I discovered when I was performing a lateral slide through a moldy smelling used book store. So much for that book that changed my life. So much for one of the most relevant reads I ever hope to experience. I guess the critics found the work unreadable. They might not have understood it. It probably needed dumbing down for more popular consumption. If the author had only thought to end each chapter with a short list of his most relevant points. If only it had included a coloring book supplement to draw attention and stand out from the crowd. If only a Connector had recommended it on her feed.

I wake each morning, Reconning again, trying once again to determine where my rambling might take me. I wonder what might prove relevant that morning and also what might prove relevant for the ages. I expect each essay to have a life span of at least twenty-four hours, perhaps a little more, like maybe enough life to last until my end-of-the-week summary of it. Little more. The ages at the scale I operate stretch almost but only very rarely beyond the end of the week. I maintain my audience, those who have chosen to follow my ramblings, however irreverent or relevant, or they maintain themselves. They don't get to choose what they get, but thanks to modern technology, they get to vote. It wouldn't be democratic if they didn't get to vote. And I count up those votes at each week's end. When I've posted what I consider to be a really good one, I anticipate the voting will mirror my assessment. This almost never proves to be the case. More often, I post what I think to be a dog and its popularity goes off the charts. I have not yet proven clever enough to be able to discern the relevant patterns to enable me to produce a chart topper each morning. I have to choose what's relevant some other way than relying upon Refelance. There must be some other way.

There is! It works like this. I don't try to write for the ages. I write for the moment. Writing for the moment seems to be the way to write for the ages. This must be done without a whole lot of self-consciousness. It must not try to become popular. It must be done for its own purposes, not to please anybody but the author, who should be exacting and insistent. Does it make his heart sing? Nobody else gets to vote during the time before the piece gets posted, and after that, there's no second-guessing allowed. There is, unfortunately, no 'I Really Hate This' button, so most of the voting never appears in the tally. I can calculate, though, the percent of the audience who voted, and interpolate just what percentage of my audience hated what I posted or worse, how many were moved to indifference.

Van Gogh eventually became, posthumously, perhaps the most relevant painter in history. He became a cultural icon, a magnet, a traveling circus of Refelance. I can't help but wonder what he would have though of all that fuss, for in his time, no social media provided instant feedback and sisters-in-law still had to promote in deep background. Artists depended upon agents, like Van Gogh's brother Theo, to promote their work, a practice which never managed to work in either Van Gogh's or Theo's cases. I sincerely appreciate your likes and comments, and I recognize that they have nothing to do with the relevance of my work. Every morning, when I finally feel that I can hit 'send' and post my work, I silently pray that the piece won't go viral. I'm more of the moldy paperback sort of guy who never learned to trust popularity,
Irrefelant, I guess.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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