Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Thoughts on the Vulnerability of Art

I was on Spotify the other day listening to the Bon Iver radio station, you know, as all we aging hipsters do. I came across this song that just stunned me. It was called “I Was Broken” by Marcus Foster. This song was beautiful, so I decided to listen to the album and look up a review or two as I read. The first and only review I read said something like this: This album is self-important, but even worse you can tell that Foster played it safe.

First of all, the fact that we pay people money to review albums, movies, food, etc., is kind of ridiculous isn’t it? Before we can even begin to know if the reviewer is trustworthy is to have a baseline to know if that man or woman has the same kind of palette we do. It could be that person really only likes nerd core music with heavy synth. (I am sure there is someone out there like that.) There are just so many variables when it comes to listening to a stranger’s opinion on something as varied as music.
It would be quite different than listening to your best friend’s opinion, or that of your aunt. Sure, you listen to what they say, but in the back of your mind you can think, “Tilman is really artsy. He likes TheFountain and I just don’t get that film. So, when he says this is a great art house pic, I need to take that in consideration,” or, “Sure, Aunt Sue hated that, but what country album has she liked since Dolly and Porter split?” We have the context and know how to interpret things…plus, studios aren’t groveling to get good reviews from Tilman and Aunt Sue.
So, back to this review of Foster’s Nameless Path, sure this reviewer may think that the album is self-important. I think that can be a fair assumption about many artists or their albums. Some artists are consumed by their craft. Some think they have created the next Rhapsody in Blue, and that is fine. Artists take a while to find their place in their scene and deserve to be proud of what they do. Assuming Foster is a reasonably young artist, it is probably even accurate. (I don’t know Foster or his music history, so if you somehow read this Marcus, I’m not saying you’re a prideful git. Still friends, eh?)
Where I take issue with the reviewer is this: how is releasing an album in any way, shape or form safe? Really, how can releasing part of yourself for public consumption and judgment ever be safe?
Art by its very nature is vulnerable and aesthetic. Let’s start with aesthetic first. According to trusty dictionary.com aesthetic means: “The philosophical theory or set of principles governing the idea of beauty at a given time and place.” So, aesthetics concerns what is beautiful. Robert Pirsig deals with this idea and adds that it also concerns quality in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We hear adages about beauty from the time we are kids: “Beauty is skin deep,” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” “She’s beautiful on the inside.” Just from these three we see that beauty is superficial, personal and hard to gauge from the outside. Interesting when you stop to look at what we are taught.
I think most of us would agree that there are personal, local and universal beauties. I love The Royal Tenebaums, a lot of my close friends hate it…personal beauty. I grew up in Florence, Texas. Most of us would argue there is something beautiful about The Cotton Gin that most people on the outside just don’t get…local beauty. Most people, no matter what they think of classical music, can agree that Aaron Copland’s Rodeo is a great, defining piece of music…universal beauty.
There are certain things that somehow transcend nationality, race, culture, age, religion, sex or any other demographic you want to add to that list. For instance, I think we can all agree China’s 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony was beautiful. You may go into human rights violations and all sorts of other things that from the back end would detract from that beauty, but, the product presented was pretty. And that is the first part of the arts.
The second part is vulnerability. I think even Weird Al Yankovic would agree that any piece of art you submit is an extension of yourself. It is vulnerable to offer part of yourself for public consumption. Rejection of a song that you wrote and carefully crafted can be nerve-wrecking. It is just the nature of something is intimately personal as art, music, food and the like.
My contention with the reviewer is that by Foster writing, recording, mixing the album presents a part of who he is to the public. Foster also has to contend with record execs, producers, mixers and even other musicians in creating the album. If an executive says something is too much, guess what, Foster has to scale back. There are so many things that go into the process of creating an album that an assessment that it is too safe just seems invalid, especially for a younger artist.
And, because of my context I think of how this relates to things done via the Church. There are probably many great songwriters across the Church that either have no outlet to create, or are afraid of the general response across their congregations. I know; I feel that. I have written a few songs in my day, and am scared to death to ever play a song in service, because extending something so precious to me is frightening. What if my song is rejected? What if that in turn makes me doubt the validity of experience that went into creating it? There are so many questions that go along with that. Because at that point the critics are no longer nameless and faceless…they are your friends and family. They are elders and church staff. And that rejection is hard.
But to conclude, we haven’t seen a lot of risk demonstrated on the local level. We like our Bethel, Hillsong, Passion, Vineyard, Stephen Curtis Chapman, Carmen or whatever niche it is that the Church latches onto this month. And so, we say, “Do that new Chris Tomlin song,” instead of saying, “Is there anything emerging locally? Is there something that is coming out of the ground right here, right now?” And I think that is because it is riskier to pursue something unique and original than to continue promoting what is currently established. And it also says to the creative members of community, “It’s time to do your part. Give us that new song.”
So, I guess there comes a place and time where the mutual vulnerability of artist and church meet. And it will be raw, risky, emotive, vulnerable by the nature of even giving it a go. But I think the risk of beauty will always outweigh the risk of safety.

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