Friday, June 24, 2005

Kinda like Swimming Lessons (First Draft)

I'm starting to realize that to most artists outside the corporate web, the word 'pop' is quite frankly a dirty word. I doubt that the divide between these different cultural camps (the 'pop' and the not 'pop') can be easily darned together. In fact, both camps are quite content to exclude the other. After typing those sentences out and rereading, I'm surprised that such a thought would require any time to really sink in to my brain. But while trying to stand on the shoulders of a giant, I overheard him speak and have been caught unawares and confused by what he said.

I heard the phrase "pop culture", "pop artist", "pop song". Usually these words translated into into sugary smiles or discontent glances. Then I came across this phrase, "pop audience", and I couldn't get it out of my head.

No audience is more critical than the pop audience; unlike the more cultivated and hip they don't go on listening because they are "supposed to," past the point when they are being reached. When it no longer works for them they turn it off.-Arthur Miller

What is the 'pop audience' aside from the simplest definition: those who consume 'pop culture'? For me 'pop' was always the adjective applied to the thing that was being consumed. Where as I may have had preconceived notions about those who did the consuming, I never thought to designate them as 'pop'. For the sake of discussion, lets call the 'pop audience' the masses. Lets assume that they are not the 'pop audience' becuase of what they digest, becuase at any given time all Americans will digest pop culture. Let us assume that they are an audience, a mass audience which is available, but whom the mass media market via saturation has more successfully marketed to than any other body, organization, or individual. Hence, they regularly tune into the alternative that is most available : 'pop culture'.

While It's possible I may be making a mountain out of mole hill by analysizing Miller's statement well beyond the author's intent, I can not ignore the call I feel to greater understand the 'pop audience', to greater understand my fellow man, the everyman in it's entirety, not just the academic man, but the subject of my own personal academia, the betterment of my specie.

The majority of friends and collegues I've shared this quote with focus on the verb 'critical'. Considering who my friends and collegues are (artists, intellectuals, writers) it is understandable how they themselves would be 'critical' of the use of the word 'critical' when describing the behavior of an audience that seems to not want to engage anything other that the most simplified expressions or the most visceral experiences. For them 'pop' represents something in opposition to that which some of them have spent a lifetime trying to achieve.

When the creations of a genius collide with the mind of a layman, and produce an empty sound, there is little doubt as to which is at fault. - Salvador Dali

Now, who knows exactly what Dali meant by this? It's possible that this also has been translated from Spanish or French into English. But when considering the personality of Salvador Dali, his thoughts and pursuit of 'genius' (i.e. the obvious value which he attached to it) I'm moving forward with the assumption that this statement is a clever, evasive way of claiming that the 'layman' is responsible for the empty sound. And when that 'pop audience' or 'layman' rejects a highbrow, more complicated artistic endeavor for a simplifed 'pop culture' alternative, The non pop artist might see this 'pop audience/layman' not as a victim subjected to and controlled by mass media manipulation, but rather as an accessory to that 'pop culture' the way in which one might be an accessory to a crime. The crime might be the intentional dumbing down of America, a sort of parital suicide. Rather than killing themselves entirely, perhaps they are just killing one certain part of themselves, their ability for intellectual reflection and abstraction. Hence, the 'pop audience' turns off the high brow art that they dont understand. At the same time, the artist might stop caring or even trying to reach the 'pop audience' convinced that in order to communicate with them, he or she would have to sacrifice their artistic intgerity, indentity, sacrifice their own personal genius. What we are left with is a sort of 'Who dumped who first/final' sort of scenario. For some artists that is enough, it does not matter, for others it does matter, and here is why...

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. - Marcel Duchamp

I'm almost positive that Duchamp would not necessarily agree with my ultimate conclusions. But, we are in agreement with the above statement.

If the 'pop audience' is the 'mass audience' then I think we as artists must find a way to communicate with them. If we are to teach or enable them (granted we may in the end only be self appointed teachers who constantly must weather the scorn of our students) we have to speak in their vernacular. Why is our responsibliity to speak in their vernacular? Simply put, becuase the majority of them can not decipher ours.

So many of us who have become artists, who willingly define ourselves by those creative aspirations rather than economic aspirations, are inspired by the most intelligent, though provoking, abstract, progressive artist expressions of the past century. We encountered the artistic 'isms' and in them we found subversion, variety, paradigms for utopian thought and action. We found diversity, novelty, invention. The palate of artistic endeavour drastically expanded. Every artistic 'ism' became a catalyst for creativity, artistic freedom, and self actualization.

We became enabled to speak in voice outside the venacular, and we found this to be ultimately freeing. We discovered wonderful venues of virtuosity, and undoubtably we are improved becuase of that. At the risk of sounding arrogant, we have chartered into waters that few others ever will. We swim at depths that most men, whether by essential design or condition of their environment, simply can not fathom. Regardless of what ever fashionable worth to economics (the corporate mass media) we may or may not have any given season, we are special. Those in the know understand that we not only can read the the keys in the treasure map, but that we are a kind of treasure in of ourselves.

Some artists are able to reject the "pop". They find it to be a false idoltry. They yearned for something spectacular, pure, dare I say spiritual and were able to dedicate their waking moments to it, to surrender to it, to achieve some sort of sainthood/martydom for the art. Their life became about this thing, this creation, this singular expression(Henry Darger, Vincent Van Gogh, Michelangelo).

However, there is a level/degree of abstraction in each given historical moment that feeds and inspires the highest of intellectuals but ignores the remainder of humanity. If we choose to rise to this level of abstraction, we must realize that we are only speaking to each other among the artistic elite. This is what some might call 'art for art's sake'. I perfer to call it 'art as an individual creative freedom' or 'art as freedom'. It is an art that hestiates to consider the mass audience's vernacular. An art that feels assured that by accepting communication on the audience's terms, it becomes censored by the audiences' limited intellect, taste, or social/environmental conditioning. If this is something that we as artists do in order to see how high the human mind can soar when it is unfettered by a society or dogma, that is interesting and inspiring. But, in leaving behind the society we also risk leaving behind the specie as well.

Even as our elitism, our abstraction can result in an expansion of the realm which is human, there is also an equal danger in discriminating against the majority of mankind itself. Where artistic 'ism's can serve as a creative enabler to the artist, to the uninitiated it may become a disabler, an obstacle.

If we all, both the artists and audience are not speaking the same language, then in end whatever heights to which the individual soars risk becoming meaningless to the universe around him becuase the tower from which his spectators, his breathen, his specie would view such an achievement will crumble under the weight of confusion.

Duchamp would suggest that this risk should be irrelevant to the artist.

The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from the bipolar action gives birth to something - like electricity. But the onlooker has the last word, and it is always posterity that makes the masterpiece. The artist should not concern himself with this, because it has nothing to do with him.

If we pursue 'art as freedom' you can't argue with Duchamp's assessment. But, there is another kind of artistic pursuit 'art as communication'. Art as a form a civic activism (directly or indirectly), as a communicative critic of one's society meant as a call to change. In order to pursue this form of artistic endevour we must keep in mind the audience's vernacular. We must not disregard the mass audience as ignorant of the 'genius' path. We must learn what their language is and speak to them in that language or at the very least translate our language into something they can comprehend.

Can we ignore ignorance? Can we destroy ignorance? Or can the elite and the ignorant find a third path? Is it enough to say, "So long as the ignorant remain ignorant, they are not worth the effort?" If we say this, then we also already say good bye to this world. Then all our artistic endeavor is merely our own personal form of distraction until nothingness consumes us individually. Are the words we weave meant to bring people together, or are they meant to set us as artists apart? Are we relishing our own individuality or are we declaring our intelliectual and moral superiority?

As it is ultimately the parent's responsiblity to care for and nuture and communicate with the child, so to is it the artists' responibility to care for and nuture and communicate with the audience. The audience might cring at this notion, the same way in which the toddler sitting the car seat thinks it knows how to drive the automobile becuase it watches it's parents hands. The audience might despise this notion in the manner in which the teenage despises his parents. But the parents hopefully continue in their duty to the child even when the child is not appreciative, even when the child is hostile, combative, dismissive. It is the parents' act of love.

Can the artists not also love in a similiar way, their audience?

I believe that there is room enough for both kinds of art, both 'art as freedom' and 'art as communication'. But, if we aspire to the later then we must beware of and balance our own malice towards those who may dismissively reject the art we offer. That is not say our disappointments and malice aren't justified, but if we endulge them we risk alienating those whom ultimately we wish to serve.

One of my favorite screenwriter/directors of film noir, Samuel Fuller, said the following of computers and technology, but the same could be expressed regarding art and culture.

The real worth of all our newfangled, high-speed communication made possible by computers will be judged by one thing and one thing only: their contributions to democracy.

If we use this as the barometer of our artistic endeavour, then we must consider the mass audience's vernacular, even if we disagree with their tastes, their dismissals, their choices. If we hope to provide them with alternatives to the mass media corporate machine, we have to acknowledge that alternatives offered the audience that they can not decipher are not alternatives at all.

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.-Winston Churchill

1 comment:

Don R. Hall said...

The’pop audience’ is merely another, shortened way of describing the audience that, by embracing a specific artist or artistic trend, makes that artist or trend ‘popular’ or appreciated by the simple majority of artistic consumers. This does not engender one specific and inflexible group but a constantly morphing conglomeration of tastes and demographics. Therefore, to deem the ‘pop audience’ as ignorant or unable to decipher more complex modes of thought is in error. Mass appeal is as difficult to predict as the wind.

While I believe no artist sets out to avoid this grouping; many attempt to embrace it, to shape their artistic content to meet the tastes of this ever changing, non-exclusive group. These are the artists that tend to jump on the bandwagon (when it seems apparent that musicals are the most financially successful type of theater, these artists naturally create musicals) to catch the wave of popular opinion. If the art they create manages to catch the tail of the kite and achieve commercial success, the artists are rewarded by the perception that they, indeed, have the pulse of popular opinion. If the art they create is discarded, it is determined that they tried to cash in a bit too late – the tsunami had passed. The skill required to consistently create what appeals to the popular audience is separate from the skills involved in creating meaningful art; it is not, however, necessarily a mutually exclusive skill. In other words, while the ability to consistently create popular art is different than the ability to create great art, there are artists who possess both skills – John Lennon/Paul McCartney being a fine example of this.

When it comes to the differences between ‘art for freedom’ and ‘art for communication’, I see very little difference in the process of creation. No artist creates for an audience of one; the art in that instance is simply masturbation – art without an audience is not art. All art is for communication if the expectation at its end is that anyone other than the artist will view it.

The question asked here is not ‘what kind of art?’ but ‘how to communicate to the mass audience?’. DevilVet theorizes that to speak to the popular audience the utilization of the ‘pop audience’s’ vernacular is necessary. Use of specific vernacular is certainly a technique to use, but when considering that the popular audience changes membership regularly, pinning down what that language is a guessing game (even the Beatles began losing their audience once they put out ‘Magical Mystery Tour’.). It is unknown what is a guarantee to capture the popular audience (in fact, I would suggest, due to its constantly changing nature, it can never be known) and therefore the attempt to ‘channel’ your voice to accommodate the popular audience is fruitless.

Be true to what you want to say and how you say it. Then decide for yourself if the effort was worth the reward.