Much human activity can be considered to be self-medication. We have needs and we attend to them. Many activities can also be seen, in this light, as addictions. The young man in the movie Whiplash appears to suffer from a sort of obsessive-compulsion disorder that he treats with incessant jazz drumming practice. This is one way to see the movie. The other way, of course, is to see it as yet another remake of Rocky or Breaking Away. He wants to be great, we are told. “One of the greats” in his own words, and to be “great” requires endless sacrifice, hard work, persistence, dedication and above all “passion”. With those tools in hand, how can one not become “great”?
But “greatness” is a cultural artifact, not an objective achievement on a scale of one to ten. At one point in the movie the bully/teacher Fletcher intones that there are no more Charlie Parkers because everyone says “good job” and no one pushes hard enough, but the reason there are no more Charlie Parkers is that Jazz is not a thing and hasn’t been a thing that produces cultural greatness since the 1950’s. There are no more Mozarts, either. Why did Jazz die? Because all things die, not because nobody bloodied there fingers enough.
The movie seems to believe in the myth of the Great Artist more than it believes in the psychology of fucked-up people, but the young man (Andrew) is a fucked-up person, incapable of meaningful relationships, uninterested in the world for the most part, a youth who doesn’t have anything to say and doesn’t listen to anything outside of that one narrow band of acoustics. The movie doesn’t go there, except for a gesture towards a pop-babble notion that he drums compulsively because he never had a mother.
The Great Artist suffers for his art and thank God for that because otherwise we wouldn’t have Great Art. This is the myth, but the truth is that we ALWAYS have Great Art, because our societies demand that we have it, because as societies we need it, because it is a major component of our self-medication requirements. Therefore, we will always be declaring some Art to be Great, and that which is declared Great IS Great, ipso facto.
Some Great Artists suffer and some do not. Some get lucky in their time and place and some do not. Some make money and some do not. Some become famous in their lifetimes, and some do not. Having a passion is not enough. Talent, hard work, practice and perpetual improvement are not enough. You had better be aligned with your time and your place, and you had better hit all the right bells and beepers on your pinball voyage through the world. Failure is always an option, and the odds are in its favor.
The final scene of Whiplash reminded me of the rock concerts I went to in the 1970’s which for some reason always featured extensive drum solos. Nobody seemed to enjoy those sets. They were boring and obnoxious and went on far too long and eventually the whole concept was booed off the historical stage. What happens when the Great Artist’s Great Art is something nobody ends up wanting? It might be Great Art in another time and place, and art, more than most other human endeavors, does have the ability to time travel, but in that case the Great Artist is like a tree that falls in the forest. He didn’t make a sound, at least not then and there