Post from January, 2022

When Arts Intersects Politics

Sunday, 30. January 2022 21:29

Art and politics sometimes intersect, but usually those intersections are not highly publicized. The opposite was true this week with a great deal of publicity going to not one, but two incidents of intersecting art and politics. These instances are different, but both deserve examination.

One instance involves singer/songwriter Neil Young and the media platform Spotify. Young became aware of COVID-19 misinformation being spread by “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, also carried on Spotify. Young essentially gave Spotify an ultimatum to remove Rogan’s podcast or lose Young’s music. Spotify chose to keep Rogan and began to remove Young’s music.

It was then that things began to happen: Joni Mitchell said that in solidarity with Young she would remove her music from Spotify. Mitchell was joined by rock musician Nils Lofgren while others voiced support. Not only are artists pulling their music from Spotify, but subscribers are cancelling subscriptions to the streaming service, even some who are using the free version, and, perhaps more significantly, Spotify stocks fell 12% during the week. At this writing, things are not looking great for Spotify.

The other incident involved Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. On January 10, the McMinn County, Tennessee, Board of Education removed Maus from an eighth-grade English language arts curriculum, citing concerns about “’rough, objectionable language’ and a drawing of a nude woman.” Spiegelman called the decision “myopic,” noting that he could believe that the word “damn” “would get the book jettisoned out of the school on its own. Regarding the nudity, he said the image in question was “tiny.” He went on to say, ”you have to really , like, want to get your sexual kicks by projecting on it.”

There was, of course, and immediate backlash, and not only in the local area, where a book giveaway is in progress, a church plans discussion on the book’s themes, and a professor plans to offer free classes. A comic-book store in Knoxville is giving away copies of the book to interested students. The story of the ban and the backlash went international.

Naturally, interest in Maus has shot up around the world. Many outlets sold out. Before this week neither Maus nor The Complete Maus, which includes a second volume was in the top 1,000 books on Amazon. By Friday Maus was No. 12 on Amazon and shipping in mid-February. By Sunday, it was a “#1 Bestseller” and shipping in late February to early March. So by “protecting” eighth-graders, the McMinn County Board of Education has almost guaranteed those students would read one of the free copies which suddenly became available, and has rekindled world-wide interest in a classic book about the Holocaust, which, in turn, will raise Holocaust awareness.

The final outcome in both of these instances is yet to be determined. Indeed, there may be no “final outcome.” But both incidents have already raised awareness that has both political and artistic implications. (I know that I have a sudden yen to revisit both Neil Young’s music and my copy of Maus.) Artists in both incidents have publically stated their opinions and have garnered significant public support. And that is enough to give one hope.

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Art Can Provide Respite

Monday, 17. January 2022 23:58

Sometime it gets to be too much: the world, the increasingly disturbing political landscape, the equally disturbing growth of social injustice, and so on. It weighs on us; it unsettles us; it depresses us. And perhapsthose are appropriate responses. Even if we’ve already done all that we can do and contributed all that our budget will allow, it still becomes a lot to handle and continue our day-to-day existence, particularly if we are empathetic people who believe in rights and democracy. But what should we do?

One choice is to ignore the politics and the current social climate all together. Don’t listen to the news, don’t subscribe to political/social feeds. Cover our heads and let the world go by. That is indeed a solution for the individual, but it has the downside of political and social ignorance. Admittedly, what we don’t know can’t bother us—until it does, until laws change, and the behavior of those around us changes so that it finally impacts us. Unfortunately, if we didn’t see it coming, we will have done little to protect ourselves or others. Ignorance may be bliss, but only for a short time.

Another way of avoiding the world is to occupy our minds with non-news activity so there is no time left to pay attention to ugly side of things. We spend our time scrolling TikTok, Instagram, Twitter feeds that are carefully curated to present us with nothing more challenging than cute cat pictures. And our minds relax. Again, until something actually impacts us; then we feel blindsided, because, well, we have been.

Some take refuge in art, either making it or enjoying it—or both. Those who completely lose themselves in either activity are no better off than those hiding their heads, but this approach seems more rewarding than mindless scrolling.

Perhaps a more balanced approach is called for. Stay aware of the current state of affairs, but when it becomes too much, turn up our interest/participation in art. We can immerse ourselves in art, either in making our own or appreciating another’s for a time to restore our sanity.

One caution: we might do well to avoid that art which serves social justice. As Joseph Horowitz, writing for American Purpose, says in his article “The Arts and Social Justice: Bedfellows?”:

Does art serve social justice? Does social justice serve art? My own impression is that much of what today passes for politically aroused art fails to transcend journalistic agitation. It does not linger in the mind and heart. It does not furnish the ballast associated with great literature and music, paintings and sculpture. That equation is traditional. It may also be indispensable.

If we take some time to indulge in either making or enjoying art that is not relevant in any sort of political or social sense, but rather “lingers in the mind and heart” if only for a brief period of time, we might find respite from the grim insanity of the world today. And we could all use the rest.

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Get Back: Persistence and Collaboration

Sunday, 2. January 2022 21:50

By now, almost everyone has heard of The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary created from Michael Lindsey-Hogg’s nearly 60 hours of film and over 100 hours of audio, which is currently streaming on Disney plus. Some of us have actually seen it—or at least parts of it. Opinions vary widely: some say it was too long, with many slow parts. At least one writer wanted it to be longer. Then there were the wildly varying interpretations of what we were viewing. Some pundits saw Yoko’s presence as intrusive; others said it was anything but. Some saw magic in the song-writing; others saw tedium in a group of musicians on the verge of breaking up.

What I saw was a group of very talented musicians at, or near, the top of their game creating and shaping their work. And in doing this they used two primary techniques, one of which is familiar to all who do any type of art. The other may only be familiar to those in the performing arts. The first is persistence, and the second is collaboration.

All who work in the arts know about the persistence that is required. Even those whom the world calls geniuses are required to be persistent to bring a finished work of art into existence. We try this path, and when that path dead-ends, or doesn’t lead to a solution that works, we try something else. This applies equally to a phrase in a song, the details in a photograph, the structure of a sentence, or the reading of a line in a film. Almost every work of art requires this sort of determined diligence. In Get Back we see over and over again the band work on a song trying to find the right phrase, or musical piece to fit into the puzzle of what they are making, and each time they go through a song, it seems to be with the genuine commitment to get it right. There are very few, if any, half-hearted attempts at the music, no matter how many times they go over the same song. That willingness to put everything into each effort is a mark of successful artistry.

The second technique that was in evidence is collaboration, which is also a mark of successful creating, particularly in the performing arts. No matter how many movies we see about dictatorial directors or choreographers—and there certainly have been demanding real-life examples of both—it still takes contributions by a great number of people to create a performance of any kind. And in this case collaboration was much in evidence. One Beatle provided a phrase, another added a musical feature, and on it went. All made contributions, and all worked together in the creative process. And although some contributed more than others to this or that song, in the end it was the work of all four (and the occasional fifth, and here I’m thinking of Billy Preston on the electric piano or Mal Evans on the anvil) that made the creation successful.

According to leading “Beatleologist,” Mark Lewisohn, there is a great deal to be learned about the Beatles from Get Back. But there is also a great deal to be learned about group creativity. And mostly what we learned was that for the Beatles, the work was everything. As Adam Gopnik writing for The New Yorker, put it: “The Beatles work first, praise modestly or not at all…and move on.” The Beatles’ interactions and approach to creativity in Get Back provide us with an outstanding model of successful group creation, one we would do well to emulate.

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