The reaction to David Bowie’s death exposed the dangers of overestimating the innovator

Are we inclined to overestimate the innovator – the first, the forerunner, the anticipator of the zeitgeist – and correspondingly underestimate the artist who brilliantly masters existing forms?

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A friend has just put me on to the poems of John Betjeman. I was shocked. Not just at my own ignorance, but at how easily I had accepted the modernist caricature of Betjeman. I’d anticipated something derivative, middlebrow and social-climby; what I read was surprising, emotionally direct and undated.

I had swallowed the critical mood without first engaging with the work. A consciousness that Betjeman was judged not to have changed anything, and the absence of the shock factor, cast an undeserved shadow over his work.

I wonder if the same criterion influenced the reaction to David Bowie’s death. The reputation here was being inflated rather than deflated but the lever was the same: the perception of being “influential”. Bowie was, Betjeman wasn’t – and that has shaped the way their achievements have been judged, especially in the media.

Bowie mastered the art of reinvention and repositioning himself, perhaps an accidental by-product of trying not to repeat himself, perhaps more consciously derived. Either way, an ephemeral restlessness made his career great copy. Yet that’s not quite the same thing as creative genius, though he might have possessed that, too.

Reflecting on all this made me revisit a question I have been asking myself for a long time: are we inclined to overestimate the innovator – the first, the forerunner, the anticipator of the zeitgeist – and correspondingly underestimate the artist who brilliantly masters existing forms, leaving them quietly enhanced rather than revolutionised? After all, if reputation relies too heavily on influencing what follows, then “mere” excellence risks being relegated to the second rank.

A connected question is whether we sometimes relish the stance of being seen to like something more than we like the thing itself. This is only my view, but I think Bruce Springsteen has always had more to say about the human condition than Bowie. Yet Springsteen says it in such a disarmingly plain way that you can easily miss the depth. And his “influence” has been felt most at a private level, by listeners engaged with their own emotions. I can’t think of a higher compliment.

Springsteen writes about real people and personal situations – aspiration, shame and compromise. Beneath the superficial differences, Springsteen’s interpretation of blue-collar America has much in common with Betjeman’s take on Anglican England. Instead of continual reinvention, both of them found their voice early on and stuck with it. Form, rather than becoming an end in itself, was made to serve meaning.

It’s a push to argue that Springsteen is underrated. But Springsteen-type careers, across the arts, certainly are. Hilary Mantel, before the outpouring of praise that greeted the publication of Wolf Hall, had long been a superb novelist with a devoted following. She had to wait too long for public recognition, partly because “historical fiction” sounded fatally conservative.

Robert Harris’s thrillers are loved by readers but often dismissed by the literary elite. Last autumn, having pre-ordered Dictator, the third of Harris’s Cicero novels, only to discover that it wouldn’t arrive for a whole week, I felt irritation bordering on a sense of loss. That is quite a compliment to a writer. Harris’s novels are not only bestsellers, they are also – and this is not an insignificant point – actually read, in contrast to many highly “rated” books that are bought and displayed, pristine and unopened, for their assumed cultural kudos.

To some extent, sport suffers from the same critical biases. Athletes who catch some wider social movement, making them seem fresh and innovative, often overshadow the merits of players shaped in an old mould. Sachin Tendulkar, for example, became the emblem of a newly confident and aspirational India. As the first superstar of an emerging great power, he was revered as a god. Yet if you think in terms of winning Test matches, Tendulkar’s team-mate Rahul Dravid was arguably the more significant player. When statisticians measured contribution relative to the performance of others in the same match, Dravid emerged as India’s most valuable cricketer. He won matches yet evaded celebrity – a champion, but not quite of his time.

With his classical technique and understated manner, Dravid seemed too modest and deferential to represent larger forces. (Lucky him, you might say.) Above all, he didn’t do anything new. He didn’t evolve cricket or advance the fame game. Instead, he took existing tools (craft, a commitment to self-improvement, awareness of tradition) and took them to higher levels of dedication – new wine in old bottles.

It is revealing that one constituency, serious fans of the Indian Test team, did intuitively grasp Dravid’s immense value: the actual readers, to extend the sport-literature parallel. Occasional supporters and the populist media didn’t get him; people who followed the story closely certainly did.

Do we allow the headlines about who is “significant” to creep into our assessment of unparalleled achievement? I don’t doubt their sincerity when people say that they love an artist because he or she was daring or innovative, that they “defined an era”, but I do question if those criteria ought to be pre-eminent.

Ironically, there is something limiting about experiencing the arts through the mediated prism of what is “influential”. Unless you are writing a history of the art form’s evolution, isn’t the ultimate test how you feel: what is enjoyable, fully realised and, above all, moving? You might hope, eventually, to reach a very simple way of judging what matters: to be surrounded by the books and songs that engage and move you most, that say the truest things. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war