Friday, August 21, 2015

“I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Every aspect of art has gone through a modernist era where brilliant artists challenged the old school and created ingenious works that are as relevant today as they were when they were first revealed. Literature had Joyce, painting had Picasso, sculpture had Rodin, music had Debussy, and architecture had Gaudi. These artists and their contemporaries were inspired by the times they lived in, as technology was changing everything around them and the world seemed to be spinning faster. (Sound familiar?) Advances in transportation, communication, and the media they used shaped their art.

In creating their works, they succeeded in destroying their fields. Maybe art.

By no means am I saying that good works haven’t been created in the last 100-150 years. But post-modernism followed the modernists as a “movement,” focusing on style over substance, and we’ve been suffering ever since.

There’s this pretentious question that gets thrown around a lot by people who think they are smarter than they are, a question that wasn’t really thought about until the nineteenth century, at least not in the way we think of it. “What is art?” I liken someone who asks that question to Pontius Pilate asking Christ in his trial, “What is truth?” and people who think everything is art are the Pharisees who are further from the truth than most.

Let me pause to ask you this: would you be happy with a baseball player being hired to play on your team simply because he wanted to be a baseball player, though he hadn’t spent years training to be a Major League Baseball player, or a quarterback in that same scenario, or a goalkeeper, or whatever is your sport of preference?

So why do you think it’s ok when an untrained person does this for art?

You can see when a baseball player is bad at his job because you can see that he can’t get a hit. You can see that he shouldn’t be playing the game at the Major League level. But you can’t see that a pop musician is bad at his job because you don’t know anything about music and you can't see the result of his playing.

Music may be the only industry in the history of the world where the best at their jobs are often scorned and they aren’t paid the most or even at all for being the best. In fact, they can’t even make a living from it. They work for the EPA or the local hardware store or any restaurant or office in America. They should be revered. But – style over substance.

Here’s the thing – the modernists and those who came before them captured the spirit of their times. They are as indispensable to history as an actual history book. If someone from the future looks at these works, they are a good indication of how life was like and what people valued. If someone listens to Irish music, they’d understand the history of Irish hardship. If someone looks at Picasso’s Guernica, they understand the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. Even if someone from the future looks at the Beatles, they would understand the sixties.

The post-modernists weren’t defined by what they represented but by what they were against. It’s like the negative space of a picture, that which surrounds the subject rather than the subject itself. But at least the post-modernists were defined. If someone from the future looked back at Taylor Swift, would they think everyone was walking around crying because their boyfriends broke up with them? What does she represent? Nothing. She stands for nothing. She is no artist. She’s simply an employee in a consumer industry.

This stuff is garbage and the more prevalent it becomes, the less I get it. Taylor Swift didn’t spend years training to be a singer. She was barely even an adult when she became popular. And I use her as an example. This is not a “kids-these-days” issue. There are scientific studies of algorithms that prove today’s music is dumber and simpler and the songs sound the same than in the past. (Google them. It takes me long enough to write anything these days.)

There’s this Radiohead song on their first album Pablo Honey – “Anyone can play guitar.” By sounding like any generic rock song, it mocked the people who think they can pick up a guitar and become a musician. It mocked people who think anyone can be an artist just by singing or drawing or coloring. (As an adult coloring book ad claims in current late night commercials.) Radiohead has since become a mockery of itself after putting out one of the most defining albums of the nineties, one that succeeded in capturing the spirit of the times. It was a bleak spirit, but at least it lived.

Today’s pop, country, rap, even classical (movie soundtracks) are peas in a pod, but what’s funny is that fans of any of them would go ballistic if you said that to them. Style over substance. Anyone can play guitar. Ask a fan of any which album from 10 years ago they still regularly listen to and they won’t be able to answer. Songs are seasonal and then they go away. Show me a participant in any of these genres who has years of musical training. LOL. You may find a couple, but for the most part, it’s paint-by-numbers music. (And spare me the Lady-Gaga-can-sing thing. Yeah, she’s actually a decent singer. Decent. But she chooses mindless pop. Meanwhile, fans of all forms of pop music will agree that they hate opera, an art that takes years of training to succeed, because they know nothing about music and are just marketing tools for music corporations who stopped investing in real musicians years ago because it took too long to develop them and they just want the quick buck. But I digress.)

Now look, there’s nothing wrong with a good pop song. Sing it. Play it. Write it. Think about it. Think. Make art, not profits. Art has soul. Truth has soul. What would Jesus do? He sure as hell wouldn’t listen to today’s vapid popular music.

Style over substance. It has taken over all aspects of our culture. It explains why Apple products became so popular, why American Idol controls the radiowaves, why people will stand in line a block long to go to a trendy restaurant. We don’t like the best things. We like the flashy things. We like things that don’t last. We throw things away. And then we wonder why we are depressed in midlife.

This was supposed to be a post about the morons who stand in a block-long line outside Rosa’s Luxury, a restaurant in Eastern Market, because it’s the place to be at the moment. These are the same people like the hipsters in that Sam Adams commercial who are blown away when they find out that the beer they raved about in a blind taste test was Sam, a beer they’d claim was bad prior to the test because it’s too “mainstream.” I’ve talked to people who said the food at Rosa’s is nothing special. Too many restaurants spend more time on décor than food. But this post turned into an art thing because, well, because. Because I’m tired of the vapidness, the oblivion, the ignorance. Actions have consequences. We have a clown running for POTUS who is using the same language against Latinos as Hitler did against Jews, and his fans are beating up Latinos now. We have a new euphemism for racism, “passionate,” which is used to describe the candidate’s fanbase. This is no accident. We live in times when people with no skills become famous simply for being assholes on television. We live in times when our stories are just retold rather than written anew, resulting in classic movie remakes and not many new ones. We live in vapid times. Something something Weimer something something.

Someone once said “Art imitates life.” (Ok, it was Oscar Wilde, a brilliant writer but one who probably focused on style over substance in everything but his art. And he knew it. That’s why he wrote “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.”) It does. And it’s a very interesting thing that there is so little meaningful art in today’s American culture. It says volumes about our insipid lives.

I hope the internet destroys the music industry and that real musicians take music back. But the music industry seems to be winning in the courts.

Btw, the title of this post is Pilate’s declaration after Christ’s trial. The Pharisees, the corporations of their time, furious that Christ threw the merchants out of the Temple, called for his death anyway. Pilate could have changed everything. He simply didn’t care. It was too much of a headache for him to get involved. And the rest, as they say…

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