24 March 2007

Art & The Price of Success

One Hundred Fifty-Nine A.V. Club Commentators Are Wrong

Steve Hyden of The Onion A.V. Club asks the perennial indie rock question of artistic merit vs. mainstream success. To wit:

"Do you really want your favorite cult indie artist to be commercially successful?"

Below the fold: why this is really more than one question, Hazlitt on the pleasures of hating, and how upwards of a dozen dozen commentators are missing a central point, Hyden included.

Like I just said: Hyden's one question implies several - whether obscurity and the instant community of fellow listeners is as important to the medium of indie rock as the music itself; whether commercial success = overexposure, crowding (that is, whether a fan base is like a common pasture that can be overgrazed); whether it is possible to debase good art by stripping it of context and attaching it to something deplorable - like a commercial or an American Idol cover. (Theodor Adorno, that dialectic philosopher and dour Frankfurt School media theorist, argued a half century ago that art is only art - as opposed to kitsch - if it is autonomous, indigestible to mainstream society; anything else is false consciousness. Of course, Adorno hated jazz, and died before rock n' roll supposedly brought the revolutionary and the popular together in the 60s).

Meanwhile, the comments thread erupted in tangential debates - what music snobs are, or how much people hate hipsters. Capitalist boosters of the smug sort (I know; I was one of them in middle school) asked sardonically why anybody would begrudge indie rockers money when money was the entire point of popular music, and whether anybody could possibly be unhappy with that much green. Society was accused of not really listening to music, of being 'music likers' who just need a backbeat to work out to. The Arcade Fire had been mentioned, and so devotees lept to the defense of Neon Bible, which after four or five listens I'm suspecting is good-but-not-great. A lone voice deplored all of this as posturing and listed a series of avant-garde artists and composers that were 'truly original' - a la Adorno, who would have sympathized.

Before we go on to question some basic assumptions of the debate itself, here's a passage from William Hazlitt's c. 1826 essay "On the Pleasures of Hating":

The popularity of the most successful writers operates to wean us from them, by the cant and fuss that is made about them, by hearing their names everlastingly repeated, and by the number of ignorant and indiscriminate admirers they draw after them: - we as little like to have to drag others from their unmerited obscurity, lest we should be exposed to the charge of affectation and singularity of taste.

In some respects, this worry may be universal, as Hazlitt illustrates; certainly, it predates scruffy base-drums-guitar foursomes.

In others, though, it's very new. The iron-clad divide that indie rock posits between popularity and integrity - unquestioned in Hyden's essay - may be characteristic of fringe groups anywhere, but indie rock isn't a fringe group. To steal a term from Robert Christgau, it's 'semipopular music': certainly not highbrow or esoteric, but not mainstream the way $300 million blockbusters or multiplatinum big-voiced pop is mainstream. I keep referring in a kind of offhand way to a fragmentation of culture; this is what I mean. There's no longer a universal listening experience like there was briefly in the late 60s, when every bestselling artist seemed important to boot (or maybe that's a utopian fallacy).

Curiously, the beginning assumption of most unreflective indie rockers is that widespread popular culture is pap, and the assumption itself is common enough to have created an entire alternative popular culture: music joins movies, internet applications, video games (and boutique stores). Niche is everything today, perhaps in part because of population growth - there are enough people in each niche to market to - or perhaps because of the way in which identity has transformed over the last century, from something shared in common to something defined against the common.

All that said, the second thing overlooked in all this palaver about creative genius and commercial success and cult groups and indie snobs might be the price, not of wealth, but of fame. To go back, as Hazlitt does, to writing: read Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up" or Lillian Ross' unintentionally damning portrait of a drunk, monosyllabic Hemingway. The problem of wide success, I think - and in all the 159 comments I found not one mention of it - isn't listeners no longer being able to use a certain band name as a surefire pick-up line, or crowded Superdomes, but the toll widespread public recognition and the surreal airtight world of the famous takes on artistic endevour.

Hyden worries from the perspective of a fan; perhaps a little egotistically, I'm worrying about the artist. Sure, you can snot that they had it coming, that they all want fame - hell, everybody today wants fame more than money; the things people say unprompted when they know cameras are present are unbelievable, and maybe that's the consequence of a culture (cf. Facebook) that trains us to preen in the public eye and pay special attention to appearences (blogs?).

But I don't think that excuses us. The weight of meaning and expectation we put onto our public artists - writers, painters, filmmakers, actors, musicians - corrodes. People collapse after they make it 'big' for a reason. Entertainers are held to the stage by the press of the crowd.

These are unformed thoughts. Comments - though I doubt I'll get 159 of them - welcome.


John B. said...

Entertainers are held to the stage by the press of the crowd.

This reminds me--by way of how to avoid being pressed by the crowd--of something I read in an interview with Joe Ely this past week. He's 60 now, and the interviewer asked him, basically, why he keeps on keeping on. His response: "I have absolutely no reason at all for doing this." Of course, one could say that that's because Ely does not have nearly the audience now that he had during his heyday of the early '80s, but the more accurate response, to his mind, would be that he's following his muse rather than producing product--hence his starting his own record label because he wants to produce more material than, apparently, any record company thinks will sell. Now: whether the music Ely produces now will be as good as or better than his work on Musta Notta Gotta Lotta because he is following his muse instead of placating a record label or the masses is an open question. The maintaining of artistic integrity does not inevitably lead to the production of good art. One follows one's muse with the tools that one is given/cultivates.

By definition, artists create. It is (or should be) the act of creating that matters to the artist. Of course, artists hope their creations will find a sympathetic audience--even better would be one large enough to part with its money that it could help pay the bills. But if they focus too much on that hope, that way pandering (potentially) lies--something other than creating.

Jim Sligh said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, John.

First, I agree that it's a fine line between looking for a sympathetic reception and pandering. Having fumbled with the idea of audience (or readership) a few posts ago, I'll admit I feel the conflict: I'm suspicious of the claim that artists follow a muse so separate from society that it's unchangeable, independent from considerations of posterity or reception - but then, the Artist as concieved by turn-of-the-century modernism is precisely that. And audience, patronage, art v. craft, separation - all of this gets too hairy for the small space of a comment box, especially when I remember the Renaissance and have to square masterpieces with the venal and horrifically corrupt audiences of one who commissioned them.

Second: there's a distinction I might have made but didn't, mostly so I could shoehorn that Hazlitt quotation in - it's the pithiest encapsulation of disdain for popularity I've come across.

Writing and music, at least if it's ever to be performed live, are fundamentally different in the the way they audiences interact. A writer can pull a Pynchon and be invisible to the public eye while continuing to put out work; he becomes a celebrity, and you have the Hemingway effect - trying to reconcile a performative identity that's always on 'stage' (a kind of art of its own) with the work.

But live musicians, particularly rock musicians, are living the Hemingway effect all the time; it's the rare person working in popular music who can afford not to do live shows. With music, there's a literal stage in a way that there's not with writing, and the genre cultivates performative identity as much as it does performing the music itself - more, maybe, since the advent of the music video.

Maybe that's why in another A.V. Club Crosstalk, the assertion that musicians burn out young can be so ironclad (prominant exceptions aside) - it rubbed me the wrong way as somebody who was always taught you needed to be writing for ten years or so before you started to produce acceptable work (still working through that apprenticeship!). But maybe that's the nature of the mediums - the pressures for an inherently performative (and sexy! young people love music!) art are different than the sedate world of print, Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, and authors who give good readings aside.

There's a long, long paper waiting to be written (already written?) about alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms in the face of a split identity (always on stage, never 'truly' yourself) caused by Fame across the board, whether you're Charlie Parker or Jackson Pollack or Raymond Carver.