Comparatively Speaking….

We seem, as a species, to have a nearly pathological obsession with making comparisons. For some reason, we seem unable to evaluate something on its own merits. The extent to which we seem to do it today is disturbing and it is disrespectful to the parties being compared.

Some comparisons are good. When we make an analogy for effect or descriptive purposes, it can be meaningful and help illustrate, or explain, a point. These are less specific and less personal comparisons. Very often; however, we are comparing one version of something to another that came before it.

Most often, we are comparing something current to something older and that older thing is a ‘standard’, or viewed as a more superior version. When these types of comparisons are made, it serves as a vehicle for denigrating the current version of a thing and giving the impression that the newer is inferior.

Case in point. This article appeared in The Globe and Mail. The piece is about a new book, The Canadians that has been published based on a photography exhibit of Globe and Mail photos that have appeared in the paper. Throughout the piece, the writer continuously makes comparisons to a book entitled The AmericansThe Americans is a book of photos produced by legendary street photographer Robert Frank. He travelled thousands of miles across the United States over a period of months and the result of those travels is a book that, for the time, was supposed to show what it was to be ‘American’. It is considered one of the most important books in the history of photography.

The writer really never assesses The Canadians on its own merits. Nearly all of his commentary is as a relative comparison to The Americans. Why? Why do we have this compelling need to compare one thing to another? When we make these comparisons, as noted above, we are often comparing to an ‘ideal’, or something that is considered the pinnacle of a particular undertaking. Given that, the comparison will rarely make the newer item appear favourable. But why can we not simply evaluate this new thing, in this case the book The Canadians, on its own merits? Is it successful? Does it give us insight into what it is to be ‘Canadian’? Either now, or in the past? Are the images in the book evocative? Are they technically sound? Does the book achieve the goals the creators had for it? That is really all that is necessary in terms of evaluation.

In the case of this book, the creators appear to have made conscious effort to mimic The Americans which, of course, invites comparison. The writer of the article notes that the book “might best be described as a parody of The Americans, albeit minus the ridicule or broad comic effect associated with the term.” Now, bad writing aside – if it’s minus the ridicule, or broad comic effect then, by definition, it isn’t a parody – the article states that there are no references to The Americans in The Canadians. Perhaps, then, the creators weren’t trying to overtly mimic the Frank tome. Yet the writer feels the need to make the comparison.

Nor should we continually try to compare ourselves and our efforts to those who are considered to be living, or dead, eminent in our field. We will rarely match up to what is considered the zenith of any particular endeavour. That is not to say we should not aspire to be better. We should. We can, and should, take inspiration from those who came before us and whose work we admire. But that is not the same as saying we should aspire to be better than them. When we try to compare ourselves with others and the comparison is unkind it can, over time, lead to frustration and a desire to stop, rather than serve as an impetus to continue to try to improve. The only person I need to be better than is who I was yesterday. And the day before. I only need to get better than myself. And I hope that my efforts are judged on their own merits.

That is also not to say that we cannot have preferences. Of course we can. A band called The Brandos did a song on their debut album back in the ’80s called Strychnine.  Most people wouldn’t likely know it was a cover of a song recorded by The Sonics in the 60s. I don’t like the original all that much. I do, very much, like the later cover version. But not as a result of directly comparing one to the other. I like The Brandos’ version because it’s a heavy, bluesy, raunchy guitar mix and the vocals are grittier. The song has been done by others – The Fuzztones and The Cramps. I don’t like those versions because the guitar and vocals are too thin. But note that I’m not comparing one to the others. I’m evaluating each on its merits.

And on the merits is how we should strive to evaluate both our efforts as well as those of others, and not resort to the drive to compare in an attempt; whether conscious, or subconscious, to demean and reduce those efforts.




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