The following is an experiment in absurdity. I’m not interested here in aesthetically judging the quality of either musician’s work nor ethically judging their artistic intentions, but merely examining what it means for an individual to decide they wish to become or that they already are an artist.
I first read about a feud between two rappers I’d never head of, Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea, on Facebook. During a radio interview Ms. Banks had accused Ms. Azalea of exploiting racial biases to construct her musical career. Ms. Azalea responded on Twitter by calling Ms. Banks a whiny jealous idiot. My inner pretentious caveman growled, “Grumble, grumble, grumble. Pop music reflects everything that’s wrong with this country. Grumble, grumble.” The inner pretentious caveman is a cranky fellow.
But the argument was more interesting than it had appeared. Behind the celebrity gossip was a fundamental question: How does an artist decide what their responsibilities are to their audience and to society at-large?
In an ideal world, art would be pure and could be judged solely on its aesthetic qualities. In this artistic utopia, only the individual artist would exist. He or she should would sell their own art to themselves, write their own reviews, send themselves letters expressing gratitude for the enormous impact they had on their own lives, give themselves big contracts to keep making art, present themselves with important awards and take up posts at universities they had founded to pass on their legacy of great art to themselves.
Tragically this world does not exist. The artist isn’t alone. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an individual artist in possession of reasonable taste must be in want of an audience. However, sharing space with this monstrous quasi-human judgmental abstraction changes one’s priorities. It isn’t enough to make beautiful art. The artist desires that their efforts be recognized and validated by the monster, not to mention they need it to help them pay their bills!
This means that, aside from producing aesthetically-pleasing art, the artist must commit themselves to two additional tasks: attracting the quasi-human abstraction’s attention and leaving a positive mark on this abstraction for posterity, both requiring a heroic degree of vanity! By necessity artists are simultaneously politicians, marketing strategists, preachers and saviors, and it is up to the individual to mentally keeps these roles separate.
When they fail to do so, things get messy. Since the artist is also a marketing strategist and a politician, it becomes easy to confuse popularity with artistic achievement. At the extreme the individual creates merely to increase audience size. Because the artist is also a preacher and a savior, it becomes difficult to decide whether to act based on aesthetic or ethical priorities. At the extreme the individual creates merely to encourage the audience to take specific political action. In both cases the individual risks ceasing to be an artist altogether.
On the other hand, the artist may piously claim out of deception, denial or naivety that they are only interested in art for its own sake, but the monster smirking in the corner gives them away. It is indeed a troublemaker.
There is a great line in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being that goes, “…Living in truth, lying neither to ourselves nor to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.” An artist must possess enormous self-awareness to preserve their own artistic identity, sanity and general well-being, for once they expose themselves to the audience there is no turning back. They are changed forever.
We could easily imagine our mischievous friend causing an argument between two hypothetical musicians, something like this:
Musician One: I deserve the favor of The Audience monster because I worked hard to get here. The quality of what I’ve produced demonstrates this fact. The proof is in the monster’s unwavering gaze. If the monster hasn’t been kind to Musician Two then they must not have put enough effort into their work. They should stop complaining and do something about it.
Musician Two: It’s completely unjust the way the Audience Monster rewards individuals for trivialities that have nothing to do with artistic ability such as physical appearance and ethnic origins. That’s the only way to explain Musician One’s success. It’s not as though they possesses any artistic merits. I’m sick of the monster’s bullshit and of the would-be trainers who enable it. How many individuals must it have scared away from becoming artists? There ought to be safe arenas where its shenanigans can be reined in.
The monster’s central role in art means that misunderstandings are inevitable. As outsiders we can never be sure how much of an artist’s decisions were based on aesthetic, commercial or political concerns, but the monster isn’t interested in these distinctions. Its memory is too short, and its love of pungent odors is too strong. What does it matter to the monster whether it listens to an artistic masterpiece, war-time propaganda or a cereal jingle?
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard tackled the problems of this abstract beast in the work Two Ages: A Literary Review where he says, “…A public is something anyone can pick up, even a drunken-sailor exhibiting a peep show… [it] is all and nothing, the most dangerous of all powers and the most meaningless… That sluggish crowd which understands nothing itself and is unwilling to do anything, that gallery-public, now seeks to be entertained and indulges in the notion that everything anyone does is done so that it may have something to gossip about.”
So then how does the artist keep their various roles straight and avoid being consumed by the monster? How does the artist regain artistic purity?
Purity starts not with rejecting the monster, but with placing it in its proper context. The monster is a means to an end. Who is the artist’s true target during their long hours of effort? Who does the artist mean when they cry out ‘beloved’ in the middle of the night? Whom do they desire with all the longing their little souls can muster? The individual artistic consumer, of course!
Only a person in the singular, with a name and a face, is cable of being influenced by art. That’s clear enough. But the artist wishes for too much. They hope to witness their art’s influence on the individual with their own eyes, an impossibility and a sacrilege at best. The act of artistic consumption is a moment of complete intimacy to which the artist has no access or rights. They can never be sure whom their work influenced and whom it did not, or even if they reached a single individual. It has to be taken on faith.
Once the artist realizes and accepts the individual as the legitimate object of their affections, they must commit themselves to the never-ending task of separating the individual from the monster. This is necessary because of the artist’s blindness at the moment of artistic consumption. Indeed art’s single greatest dilemma is that the individual can only be reached by first going through the monster.
This task involves recognizing the monster’s gaze for what it is, a conservative reflection of society’s present values. For this reason the monster looks to art only for gentle creative reminders that what it already knows of life is sufficient. The individual on the other hand has an aesthetic and spiritual need for more. No individual ever feels entirely represented by the oft-stated ideals of a collective abstraction. As such art can serve as a more perfect expression of ideals which the individual had previously been incapable of vocalizing, ideals which subvert the monster’s claim to universal appeal. The best artists are constant students and masters of deception, who exploit the monster’s confidence to pervert it and reform it in the name of the individual.
The preoccupation with influencing the individual artistic consumer also betrays an underlying interest in the individual’s wellbeing. The clear-headed artist cannot escape this fact in spite of all their self-righteous clamoring for aesthetic freedom. They too live in society.
The artist, in their concern for the wellbeing of others, may wish to use their stature as an artist to achieve genuine political change: encouraging their fans to donate money or lend support to a cause, to vote for a candidate, to support or reject a fellow artist, to write a letter, to come to a rally, to denounce an individual, action or systemic problem, etc. Sometimes nothing is more appropriate. Nonetheless they should know it is not the individual to whom they have directly appealed but the monster.
Likewise the artist can make a direct appeal to action within a work of art. This is fine because direct action can also improve the wellbeing of the individual. However, the artist should accept that in this case that their work would be rightfully criticized on aesthetic grounds. While direct artistic appeals are always intended for the monster, art’s true interest is the individual. It is a fine line between promotion of societal wellbeing and loss of artistic identity.
The battle to separate aesthetic, commercial and ethical needs continues as long as the individual persists as an artist. Artistic salvation lies in purity. And the individual who merely desires the monster’s attention desires nothing at all. For the monster isn’t real.