Too Much Art?




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Today, it’s not only authors and philosophers who go through a process of self-examination as they do their jobs. Artists and musicians, too, often working in their claustrophobic vacuums of creative inspiration, feel the (oft-times destructive) need to judge their own works in relation to the societies that they were born into, and in which they create.
Has there ever been a writer or musician born that hasn’t at one time said about his or her work… “What’s the point?” “What does it all matter?,” or “Who-so shall tell a tale aftere a man1 and, furthermore, who frikkin’ cares?”
What is that purpose? Renaissance author Ben Jonson believed the function of poets (and some might say artists in general) was to attack corruption and power in the political establishment. Others like Willy Shakespeare’s cousin Robert Southwell claimed the only valid reason to create was to honor God. Shakespeare (or was it Christopher Marlowe…?) countered that the job of a poet was only… “to speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” never giving up on love as both a source of inspiration, nor as a goal itself.2
Since monkey-man has walked the earth, the artist was a revered part of society. The traveling news-bringers, storytellers, and minstrels were as necessary as the food gatherers, the homebuilders, and the medicine men.

In the not-so-distant past, artists, even musical artists, were welcomed outsiders – keen observers, watchdogs, but more importantly definers of political and social culture. Artists and writers were that blessed, designated class of individuals who kept businessmen and politician’s feet to the fire, calling attention to class injustice and the Great Impoverished Ignored.
In that same past, journalism’s role was also specifically defined and embraced: to dig up stories and to call attention to what’s happening “behind the curtain.” To question authority and its methods and to pass these stories among the community.

White Painting – Robert Rauschenberg, 1951


Something happened. Something bad happened. Perhaps it was just another case of capitalism inherent nature to bulldozer anything in its path. Perhaps it’s the evolution of popular culture which fostered art as sexual and celebrity currency to such a degree that we’ve found ourselves in a disturbing society of, surprisingly, Too Much Art? When MySpace can host a haystack of over 4 million bands and artists, is it any wonder anyone would be overwhelmed in trying to find a few valuable needles?
Today, art, music, and journalism are not only capitalist commodities, but worse – a three-headed Ouroboros of triviality and self-indulgence that beyond eating its own tail, is climbing up its own ass to die. (Witness the defunding of the NEA and the recent attacks on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.) Perhaps it’s just a case of Too Little Meaningful Art.
Today, musicians, actors, fine-artists and yes, journalists are seen merely as overpopulations of worker-bees, in socially-defined hives.
Their purpose is to entertain us, and to serve as escapes from our busy, confusing, and overwhelmed lives. When a celebrity feels impelled to speak out on a topic of personal or potential global significance or social concern he or she is drowned out by hateful shouts of “shut the fuck up and sing,” “shut the fuck up and act,” or simply: “shut the fuck up.” How dare these people speak their individual minds! Boycott, boycott!

Dixie Chicks – “Shut Up And Sing”


To be fair, art and particularly music are supposed to be fun and entertaining. We have a human need to sing and dance, and to celebrate our lives in a blissful euphoria – perhaps a need as powerful as those of eating, sleeping, and reproducing more of ourselves. The melodies and beats of music can be as deeply inspiring as the words that sometimes accompany them. What seems to be lost in this cacophony of entertainment is the individual artistic voice: the artists’ granted right and duty to expose and share his or her viewpoints and perspectives. To travel from village to village, passing along the stories and pointing out if the emperor is not wearing clothes.
We’re in the age of the internet, and of celebrity. A 140-word tweet can serve as our manifestos, our tomes, our poetry. Mini-media can organize millions in protest halfway around the world, or locate the best consumer bargain. Amid this change and distillation process there still is, however, opportunity.
Celebrities now not only have power, but simple and wide-reaching access. If the great unwashed get their news and opinions from their phones and facebook pages, so be it. For many, their only view into corporate boardrooms, the halls of government and courts, and the ability to witness the ignored sins and injustices of the world, are through their artists and mobile devices. Let the messengers embrace the media, and at least be thankful someone is listening.
As inheritors and disseminators of our cultural heritage, artists should seek out platforms to share their talents, perspectives, and voices. They owe it to us, and we need again to listen to them as advisors, because that is what they do.
Expressing one’s individual voice does not come without risks. An artist today may suffer not only a public stoning of ridicule, but boycotts, record-burnings, and consequent attacks on their material livelihood. I would contrast that with the suffering of their tribal ancestry: how many artists, philosophers, authors and thinkers were hanged, drawn and quartered, decapitated or burned at the stake for their opinions and convictions? How many still today? For our artists, personal sacrifice is part of the job description.
We must again allow artists to not only observe and reflect the culture in which they live, but to be accepted as active, loud-mouthed, creative leaders.
1 Geoffrey Chaucer “Canterbury Tales” (Without his i-Phone’s auto-correct feature turned on.)
2 Check out Michael Wood’s “In Search of Shakespeare.” PBS Documentary, paperback by BBC Publishing.


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