“My philosophy has always been that I believe that art is not an elitist gift for a few select people. Art is for everyone.” — Richard Attenborough
Recently, Juxtapoz featured a video by Stefan Sagmeister in which he proudly proclaimed, “No fuckhead, you are not a storyteller” to, well essentially anyone who isn’t a novel writer or a feature film director.
(The tl:dr version of this post? “Yes, Stefan. People are storytellers. And despite making some good points, you’re an idiot.”)
Stefan (can I call you Stefan? I mean, after watching your video and tearing it apart so many times, I feel there’s a certain kinship here) makes some interesting points, some of which even make sense. I understand the need to say outrageous things. After all, if you don’t then how will you convince people to show up to your next TED talk, or get picked up by Juxtapoz?
But, and I hate to have to to be the one to tell you this, you’re wrong Stefan. People are storytellers at heart. Storytelling is one of the most egalitarian forms of communications there is. Anyone can do it. Yes, Stefan, anyone. And for great storytellers, they know that the story isn’t about them — they remove their ego from the equation when they realize that they are the conduit to tell a story.
Stories are how we communicate at one of our most basic levels. There are some who have honed this ability to a razor’s edge and are great at it. Ironically, many of them are the same people defending Sagmeister’s statement, without remembering the hard work it took to sharpen their abilities. To dismiss them with a wave of your hand does a disservice to the many people out there who, while not being novel writer or art house filmmakers, are still “storytellers.”
Why are we seeing this backlash from self-approved “storytellers?”
Many of them are successful at what they do — they’ve honed their craft over years of hard work, they understand the power of storytelling and why it’s important. Are they threatened because what used to be ensconced in the world of the elite — the ability to create and share stories — is now available to almost anyone? Are they afraid of neophytes coming into their world, and trying to build new barriers to keep them out?
This is the same kind of mentality that tells us that “stories matter, only as long as they are the right kind of story.” Sagmeister and his ilk are defending a status quo that brought us “Transformers 19.”
But what they’re missing in their rush to judge is that most of us aren’t interested in making movies to compete with $200 million blockbusters, or trying to score a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, but to simply take part in the process of creating and sharing our own stories with an audience.
These gatekeepers are suffering from the same myopic worldview that the gatekeepers of the film and music industries suffered from in the last decade. Technology has advanced beyond their ability to control who is an “artiste.” Digital SLR cameras have revolutionized the movie making industry, people are self-publishing a new generation of creative and cutting edge stories, podcasts are the new radio shows and audiobooks, and social networks have circumvented the need for a curator to tell you what’s “art” and what’s not. Smartphones are the new guerrilla storytelling tools.
I think that’s what galls me the most about this argument. The idea that storytelling is somehow the realm of a specialized class — the “cyber-bard” of the 21st century. I detest so many forms of elitism, and this strikes me as one of the most elitist arguments I’ve seen in a while. The idea that *you* aren’t good enough to meet the exacting standards of Sagmeister and his supporters pisses me off. If this were true, we would have lost so many stories in recent years.
We’d be poorer as a society if we were forced to only read or view the stories that the “cyber-bards” decided were “stories.” It’s as if, in their rush to anoint themselves the “High Priests of True Storytelling,” these same people forgot that storytelling connects us from society to society, from person to person. It’s a true, open-source way to communicate, to move people — to action, to tears, to stir their souls and help them achieve more than they thought they could ever achieve.
It’s this same point of view that we are seeing in the battle over whether or not Amazon will carry a certain publisher’s e-books, for the price the publisher demands.
The phrase “River of Shit” is being bandied about by “legitimate” authors, those who have been minted and approved by the major publishing houses. And while the e-book publishing phenomena might be providing thousands of stories that people aren’t interested in, it’s also provided unique and gripping stories like William Reichard’s “This Album Full of Angles,” Geoff Livingston’s “Exodus” series, and Scott Phillips’ “Pete: Drinker of Blood.” Stories that the major publishers missed out on, and far better than the majority of recycled story lines we see today’s popular authors giving us.
And let’s not mention Sagmeister’s statement that people who have seen a lot of films must then erroneously think they can make films to Robert Rodriguez. According to Sagmeister’s way of thinking, we’d have never seen the incredible growth of cutting edge movies in the last 22 years. And what happened 22 years ago to inspire this? A small, next-to-no budget movie graced the silver screen. A story (yes, Stefan, a STORY) about a mariachi, a guitar case full of guns, and mistaken identity.
Robert Rodriguez started watching films as a kid, and then started practicing making his own short films (inspired in part based on what he saw). He then went on to shoot El Mariachi, a film shot for $7,000 (originally, Paramount eventually refined the video to the tune of a quarter-million dollars).
El Mariachi, and Rodriguez’s one-person, “Mariachi style” of filmmaking, empowered a new generation of moviemakers to make films — from cheesy horror movies to gripping documentaries — in their own unique ways, without the permission of the status quo. The gatekeepers, like Sagmeister, were being bypassed.
“If you’re creative and technical, you’re unstoppable.” – Robert Rodriguez
Yes, it takes practice and curiosity, and falling on your face with bad work sometimes, but it can be done. (The importance of practice to get better is a point that Sagmeister missed repeatedly in his Juxtapoz article.)
It doesn’t matter if it starts out, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times…” Or, “Once upon a midnight dreary. While I pondered, weak and weary,” or “I never thought something like this would happen to me.” Because at this point, all you’re doing is arguing a matter of degrees. “How much of a writer are you?” “How visually stimulating is your movie?” vs. “What are you trying to tell us?”
And woe be to you if you aren’t a “pure storyteller.”
One more aside. Can a social media campaign, “tell a story?” Can it move people to action? Stir their emotions?