Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Art and the Artist

Over on the Arts and Faith forum, I'm in the middle of an interesting discussion about artists and the art they create. At question is the degree to which the life of the artist and his or her personal convictions should influence our understanding/interpretation of the art he or she creates. It's an ancient question, but it's also fun to revisit it. And my take is that although we cannot totally separate the artist from art, we should make every effort to view the art on its own terms. Although the artist is reflected to some degree in what he or she creates, it is not nearly to the extent that a presuppositional approach to art would have us believe. Presuppositional approach to art, you say? Er, what's that? It's pretty simple.

Here's where I'm coming from: good people can create bad art, and bad people can create good art. It doesn't always work that way, but sometimes it does. And to the extent that we confuse the person with what he or she has created, or somehow try to project the person into what he or she has created, we misinterpret art.

I also find that most of the time it's a moot point. I write about popular music, and I deal in three-to-five minute bursts of noise where it's often difficult if not impossible to discern an overarching worldview. Most of the time I have no idea what a particular songwriter believes, at least in terms of the Big Questions. Nor do I know how that songwriter lives his or her life, or what deep, dark secrets and sins he or she may be harboring. I simply don't know. And when I do know, the scenario usually goes something like this: "Hey, man, I'm 22 years old, and we formed a band and now we're out on the road, livin' out of a van, and we sit around in a crappy hotel room and drink beer until it's time to play a show, and then we play a show, and we pack up our gear, and get in the van and drive off to do it again the next day." There's not a lot of deeply intellectual, philosophical material to work with.

So I'm probably approaching this from a different standpoint than someone would who is studying a well known, renowned artist such as Van Gogh or Gauguin. Obviously there's a great deal of historical/biographical material available about those artists, and I can see why knowing that information could add depth and insight to a critical understanding of their work.

But I still balk at the idea of making critical judgments about art based on one's moral take on the life of the artist. Whenever possible, I believe these two things should be held far apart. Why? Because good people can create bad art, and bad people can create good art.

I have a friend, a wonderful writer who knows a staggering amount about jazz, who can't write objectively about Miles Davis because she strongly dislikes his exploitation of women and his mack daddy pimp image. Okay, I understand that and respect that. But in this case she's made the right decision not to write about his music, because his music is still great. A bad person created great art. And if you can't get past the person and write about the art on its own terms, then you shouldn't write about it. We're talking about instrumental jazz, a genre that, by definition, could not possibly communicate a worldview which supports the exploitation and abuse of women. So yes, I do fully appreciate how one's distaste for an artist could influence how one interprets his or her art. But the solution, in that case, is to step aside as my friend has done, and let somebody else review the finished product, which has nothing to do with her moral objections.

The entire CCM industry is based on the notion that because people are good (i.e., Christian), then the music they create is worth buying. It's a false assumption. It's equally false to believe that because an artist is bad (immoral), his or her art is somehow negatively impacted. And that's what I'm reacting to in this discussion. It's not always possible to check our moral judgments at the door, but whenevever possible we should do so, unless the art itself reflects the moral/ethical/philosophical beliefs of the artist. Then those beliefs are fair game for the discussion. But in popular music, I believe this happens far less frequently than is commonly advertised. "I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now entertain us/A mulatto an albino/A mosquito my libido Yea" tells me precious little about the most deeply held convictions of the artist. And that's far from atypical. But it's still great rock 'n roll.


Julie Zickefoose said...

To watch "Let's Get Lost," a documentary that peeks into Chet Baker's life, is to have your heart broken. "The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" also sticks in my mind as a portrait of the artist as a crappy husband and father. You're right--we have to gather the pearls they're able to throw us, and not entertain any illusions that the beauty and soul they project in their music shines into every corner of their lives. Maybe C.B. was a jazz angel at the expense of his humanity--the old deal at the crossroads.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Julie. The old deal at the crossroads indeed. I sometimes wonder if it's a fair trade, particularly for the unfortunate family members who are saddled with the self-destructive, gifted people they live with.

Most people are broken in some significant areas of their lives. I used to be shocked by it; now I view it as the norm, and not because I've become cynical, I don't think. Celebrities are just a little more public with their brokenness, where it can end up on places like "Entertainment Tonight" and MTV News.

I love Chet Baker, by the way, and I know what you mean about "Let's Get Lost." It is heartbreaking. I know a lot of people like Chet. And I've been there myself. A lot of people want to get lost. I'm becoming more and more convinced that part of my role on the planet is to go find them, and try to love them, and not pretend that they don't exist.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I really enjoyed the post. Nice work, and I echo your sentiments.

daniel fox said...

this reminds me of our discussion last week. If an artist were given 5 words to describe their value system (tags), and those tags were searchable, would people jive with that or not.

It's one way of classifying music in a meta-audible way. And there's so much about music that transcends sound. It's style, community, expression-by-proxy, sub-culture-definition, etc etc.

Something in me doesn't want to neccesarily seperate the art from the artist, as knowing the artist can give a tremendous amount of insight into their creation.

When i listen to sufjan, my ears are paying attention to his metaphor more than say, van halen, because i know, to some degree, we share a similar value system.

its been too long since i started writing this comment, and i forgot where my point was, so i'll stop.

Mark K. said...


I agree with your point, "good people can create bad art, and bad people can create good art." But I think that this is a different issue from understanding/interpreting an artist's art. I think the quality of a work of art should be judged apart from the moral stature of the artist, but to fully understand a work of art, understanding the artist is needed. An artist can only make art from themselves - you cannot create art without yourself being involved. (Have you ever written anything without yourself being involved?) A holocaust survivor and a KKK grand dragon could produce a similar work of art, but knowing the artist's background could make a big difference on the interpretation of that art.

Andy Whitman said...

Mark, I understand what you're saying, and I think it's true in some cases, but I think the value of the whole presuppositional approach has been greatly exaggerated, at least in terms of understanding popular music.

How much do I need to know and understand about the lives and worldviews of John Lennon and Paul McCartney to fully plumb the depths of "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah"? Or, to move into more modern times, how deeply must I delve into the finely nuanced background, influences, and psyche of the poetic Nelly's "It's gettin' hot in here/So take off all your clothes/Unh Unh"?

It's not that tough. So I would suggest that it depends somewhat on the medium that we're dealing with. Sure, some popular music actually has depth and substance. But even when we're swimming in the deep end of the pool -- listening to, say, Bob Dylan -- I don't think I need to know much about his life and his worldview in order to understand his songs, because he makes his worldview clear in the songs themselves.

At least in terms of popular music, most of the time I find that the music itself is sufficient. No critical, in-depth study required. I suppose I could really try to learn as much about Nelly as I could. But I'm not sure I want to.

Anonymous said...

Joel Oliphint here, you're Columbus RiverWired cohort. I came across your blog recently, and just have to tell you much I enjoy your insights, music-related and otherwise.

I have to say I'm torn on this issue and can't quite make up my mind yet. Maybe part of the problem is that "art" is so broad, with so many subcategories and such a range of quality (as evidenced by a discussion that includes Bob Dylan, Nelly and Gauguin).

Your comment about Dylan, though, seems to fall into the presuppositional camp: "I don't think I need to know much about his life and his worldview in order to understand his songs, because he makes his worldview clear in the songs themselves." Couldn't one then argue that Dylan's art and Dylan himself are in fact inseparable, that we can't possibly separate the art from the artist b/c Dylan's art will inevitably portray Dylan as a person?

Anonymous said...

Andy I do agree that bad people can make good music/art and the reverse. But isn't there enough good people making good art/music to take up our time?

I guess people do liek to know about an artists personal life, why else would we have music magazines with interviews?

So, If I have only $16 and there are two cds in front of me, both with "good" music and rave reviews at Paste etc. One of the artists is a nasty person and the other is a decent christian family man/woman. I am going to give my money to the second.

I can't buy unlimited amounts of music so I'd like to buy good art/music by good(not perfect) people.