On Quality and Excellence and What Does It Really Matter?

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I think it’s about time for another of my old fashioned diatribes on high quality. It's been a while since I picked up the old saw, and I found this today on my local classical music station and couldn't wait to share it. 

 

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was a contemporary of Bach’s who has nearly disappeared for even classical music lovers and admirers of 17th century music. Yet in his day, Telemann was apparently more famous and respected that Bach ever was. And according to the several websites Google brought me, he was chosen as cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig (a position Bach held as well) and out-produced Bach’s weekly cantata output 2-to-1. Bach’s music was considered overly artful, laborious and too complicated by then-modern culture and critics. It didn’t give enough space for “proper” reflection and respect for natural melody, whatever that meant to 17th century musical tastes.

 

So now those times are long gone and people grew different ears. I won’t even speculate how that happens (a journey for another day perhaps), but the lasting quality of Bach’s work compared to his simpler, less labored, and proficient contemporaries is unmatched. So why? Who knows Telemann, Graun, Hasse? Even Bach’s own idol Handel isn’t as recognized. And there are many reasons for this, but it’s not a matter of opinion that Bach’s music has remained because of its superiority in form, style, beauty, and originality. As one site puts it, “In some aspects, he has no equal, and in all aspects, his music is unique.” 

 

But so what? How does it help him now? He gets no bonus points, no enjoyment or benefit from posthumous praise. What if he had tried to be more productive and efficient, to churn them out more? Why didn’t he? Sure he still produced a major body of work, but he never enjoyed the fame his music would eventually produce. What’s his payoff for pursuing quality over quantity? A legacy? What could that matter to him while he was alive? Respect of people he’d never meet?

 

Why commit to excellence? Practice and sacrifice is hard! It’s takes too much time and energy, especially if the struggle isn’t practical or doesn’t produce a better life. Why push so hard for so little? After all, more people will experience it if you produce quick and disposable. You'll have more chance for fame, money and immediate benefit. Less lasting, but so what? Who wants to pay and wait for visionary/beauty/quality in our world anymore?

 

This great destruction going on throughout the world is of course, nothing new. Yet it does seem to be getting worse, doesn't it? Our food, our products, our cars, our writing, our music, our culture, our idols, pundits, and politicians—and inescapably our opinions, ideas, relationships, and every other form of “output”—each exhibit the short-sighted self-focused decisions we’re forced to accept today, dispensing with high quality in favor of necessarily-immediate results (we might call it the McDonald's Effect or Wal-Martization), even when those results are vastly inferior in quality. But why should we care if the food/work/product/image does its job? It won’t last anyway? Nothing lasts! Why should we waste time and effort when there’s no benefit but some uncertain effect in the far future?

 

Everyone must make the pragmatic choice to push for higher quality or not, which may not become Bach's choice to forfeit keeping up with his contemporaries, suffer to produce far less, and miss his chance for greater recognition and prosperity. Indeed, for novelists, the choice seems ludicrous. Produce slowly? Less? That can mean poverty. It can mean unfulfillment too when others get the contract for producing quickly and we're forced to survive doing what we’d rather not have to.

 

So why strive for high quality? Why care about developing good taste? What is a superior work or product really worth and why not appreciate the compromises that enable our hyperspeed world to exist? Why make our goal one of dogged faithful service to a higher cause and not production, fame, survival, or even a lasting legacy? Disposable life is important now; it's how we've come to survive. A return to quality is what's short-sighted and selfish.

 

And still, some people can’t stop pointing at the beauty for the thought of one person stopping long enough to look up at what he’s missed and be captured by the idea of something greater.

 

Refined art! It sits and languishes, waiting to be noticed. It says, “Here is your lost dignity! Here’s your roots! Here’s solidarity with the real humanity and strength you possess! Here is a sacrifice for a creator and creation we’ve forgotten.” Inspired work reminds us of the incredible value of life before conveyor belts and utilitarian necessity and mass production forced our souls into exile.

 

Art is the truth of life in a microcosm—an object, a work, a piece fashioned from creation!—a chance to wonder at the reminder that all is to the glory of God reflecting his holiness. All is for this. Commit to pursuing the height of your potential and you will find your purpose.

 

Give of your best. Sacrifice your chance to pander to the masses. Sacrifice your lesser life and you will find the greater.

 

Can we get off the conveyor? Do our lives really depend on it? And can you really influence those several others around you for this?

 

If we are made in the image of the creator, then every day is a choice to reflect that or to slowly die.

 

Do you agree? Do you think this is an important topic or not? Leave a comment; let’s discuss.

 

 

Incidentally, classical music is one of the arts the Obamas strongly support. Michelle Obama went way up in my book when I watched this, from a White House classical music workshop for middle and high school students she recently hosted (check out the kids at 33:45—why does that make me so happy?).

 

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8 thoughts on “On Quality and Excellence and What Does It Really Matter?”

  1. Yes, Mick, yes.
    Your writing makes a heart pound fast… and say yes to paying the price.
    I know so little… but yes.

  2. Thanks for the reminder. The pressure to churn out a story for the industry sure does make it difficult to focus on excellence, but I do think it is worth striving for. I think I would rather pursue excellence than be published, but there is that little thing Mary mentioned about making a living that always distracts.

  3. Hi Mick,
    I thought you’d appreciate this quote from Dorothy Sayers, in her essay “Why Work?”, in which she insists that quality work is central to Christian faith:
    The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement certainly—but what use is all that if in the very centre of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry?
    This is as true for Christian writers as it is for Christian carpenters: what is the use of all our piety if in the center of our lives we are writing bad books? Or even mediocre ones?
    Thanks for this post: it’s so nice to know others are asking the same questions I am!

  4. A few years ago I had an opportunity to work with you, Mick, on refining the book I was writing. I’d been working on it for two years and was ready to get it published so I opted out. The other day, I thought, “Are you nuts? Do you realize what you passed up?” It would have made all the difference in the world in that book’s readership, but I wasn’t willing to pay the price. My loss! And who knows who else’s!

  5. Cathee, your book was strong enough to catch mine and my mom’s attention. And I understood your reasons for moving quickly. Sometimes quality is worth compromising for the right timing. You can always improve in the next book.
    Keep striving for God’s best!

  6. I have lots of questions about this topic because my favorite authors are, frankly, guilty of run on sentences, fragments, and other cardinal sins. This is actually similar to Bach, who broke musical protocol and was thus marginalized. I sometimes wonder if the lens of sales doesn’t help create a less creative author?

Discuss...