Wow. You just never know what's going to be controversial, do you? Thanks to you people, Petey woke me up at 4:00 AM with a torrent of thoughts about music, art and society. Finally I had to just get up or risk losing all of the thoughts and be left empty-handed after my usual nine hour night-sea journey. Petey generally says something once, and that's it. You can ask "what?," but then he just gets evasive, sometimes even a little passive aggressive. So here I am at 4:30, trying to remember all of his talking points.
Something about art... What was it... Oh yes, what is art, anyway? Among other things, a work of art is timeless, it is universal, and it bears repeated viewing and listening--in other words, it has the quality of being "inexhaustible."
Now none of the originators of rock music--or even jazz, for that matter--thought for a minute that they were producing art, much less "great art." Remember, there was no such thing as rock criticism until the late 1960's. Up to that point, no one thought of it as anything other than ephemera--just disposable teenage music.
Of course, that all changed with the Beatles, who actually had self-conscious artistic pretensions from the beginning, even if the masses didn't notice it until the release of Sgt. Pepper in 1967. But even then, you will note that the Beatles were rarely heavy-handed and didactic in their approach. I don't believe that Paul wrote any overtly political songs, and George wrote maybe one: Taxman, which is actually a conservative rant about the exorbitant tax rates in Britain needed to support their welfare state--at the time, the Beatles were paying a ninety percent marginal rate!
And even Lennon, at least while in the Beatles, wrote only one overtly political song, Revolution. He became much more political in his solo career, which is precisely why most of that music is so lame, such as Imagine or Give Peace a Chance. These songs have the baleful and pretentious influence of the sinister Yoko written all over them.
In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce's alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, discusses the criteria for great art. He believed that it was the task of the true artist to record "epiphanies," that is, sudden spiritual manifestations. Following Aquinas, he says that the three things necessary for beauty are wholeness, harmony, and radiance, or claritas.
It is this third category that has to do with epiphanies, when the soul of the thing, its essential whatness, leaps through its outer appearance and reveals its true nature. This supreme quality of beauty captures light from another world, through which the artistic medium is but the shadow. In the "silent stasis" of aesthetic arrest, we are in a spiritual state in which we apprehend the luminous beyond.
Didactic art is the opposite of this--in fact, it is not art at all. That is, it takes the medium of an art form and tries to cram some merely worldly message into it. In other words, instead of transmitting radiance from another dimension--from the higher--it forces in a message or "lesson" from the lower, from this side of manifestation. This is why nazi or communist art is so tedious. It is also why a lot of contemporary art is so bad. It's not really art, but what Joyce called pornography.
Pornography has nothing to do with sex per se; rather, it occurs whenever we completely despiritualize anything and divest it of its otherworldly radiance. Therefore, there is much that is pornographic that is not sexual at all. By this definition, most contemporary music is indeed pornographic--obviously most rap and hip hop. Most TV is pornographic. Most literature is pornographic. Even most religion, I'm afraid, might well be pornographic! And certainly most politics. Dailykos is a porn site, pure and simple. I defy anyone to find a trace of radiance, of claritas, emanating from that infrahuman swamp.
Speaking of which, this is one of the real meanings of the culture war, the battle over the complete spiritual divestment of our culture. On the one side we have radical secularists who wish to erase any vestige of spirituality from the public square, on the other hand, evangelicals and conservative Christians who are trying to preserve it. Now, as I have said before, I am not a right wing Christian or evangelical. And yet, if I have to choose sides in this battle, I am certainly on the side of those who are trying to stand athwart this degenerative process yelling "stop!"
Where was I? Oh yes, back to music. Goesh, in full flashback mode, wrote of his "old fashioned reefer madness enhanced with Janis Joplin, full volume, ahh, the old molotov cocktail reverie of my youth and long hair--grass in the lungs and Janis in the brain," noting that these intoxicating "memories of narcissism and anarchy linger still and pull at me from time to time."
How very true. To a certain extent, rock music is adolescent music. It is the soundtrack to adolescent rebellion, to the surge of hormones, to the power of sexuality, to idealism, to the perception that the world is fake, phony, and hypocritical, and needs to be torn down. Now. And guess what? They're right. This stance, placed in ts proper context, is spiritual through and through--if you want it to be. Yes, it's a radical viewpoint, but all true spirituality is overtly radical. Institutions always try to tame and contain the spiritual impulse, but it cannot be contained or institutionalized. Jesus was nothing if not radical in his critique of existing society. Buddha dismissed it entirely. Petey says that "in the symbolic pyramid of culture, very few bricks touch the ground."
This is what Elvis was about. Again, he would have been the last person to know that he was engaging in an artistic endeavor, and yet, his music is nothing if not universal. It is as if he discovered one of the keys to the universe just lying around on the floor in a tiny studio in Memphis. Once people heard the message, they got it, both instantaneously and cross-culturally. If you have ears to hear, the message comes through loud and clear in the early material Presley recorded for Sun Records in 1954 and 1955. It is as if he pierced a hole between this world and another, and something refreshing, revolutionary, and liberating came flooding in. But also something that was just joyously fun.
Now Jodie d, whom I do not think should be dismissed as a sanctimonious church lady, expressed some very legitimate concerns about what came flooding in thereafter, writing, "EEGADS, aren't these the folks that led to the decline of western culture and fed the decadent lefty culture you attack so ably?" She noted that many of the musicians I mentioned "led us to surrender in Vietnam and those who haven't dropped dead from drugs are lined up behind Cindy Sheehan and Kos today. Add in the sexual libertinism and sexual ambiguity and you see just the kind of forces that have set the groundwork for the sick mass culture of today... Bruce Springsteen = Howard Dean." She also wrote that 60's musicians "were the role model for the pot smoking, LSD popping, sexually immoral millions, and a coarsening of our society."
From the other side of the cultural divide, Anonymous responded to Jodie, asking "If the left/Hollywood nexus is full of sloppy thought, self hate and low morals, how can one embrace their soundtrack as wonderful art ? Or could it be part of their art is (heaven forbid) breaking down societal barriers and opening up the world to new creative ways of looking at both art and society?"
Here I would simply reemphasize that great art, to the extent that it is great art, is about much more than the conscious intentions of the artist. If it is only about their conscious intentions, then it is likely not art at all, but simply the type of didactic pornography discussed above. The true artist is always a mouthpiece of the beyond, saying much more than he realizes.
I once heard it said that it must have been easy for Shakespeare to write his plays. That is, if it was difficult for him, then it would have been impossible, for it would have simply been too difficult for any human to do! Shakespeare wasn't siting around consciously thinking about all of the multiple meanings of Hamlet. Beethoven wasn't "trying" to carry back musical messages from the noumenal realm. Nor was Bob Dylan trying to convey any unambiguous messages in his songs, much less any worldly political agenda.
Anonymous cites the Dylan song, A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, asking "how can you divorce the societal views of Dylan, Beatles, the Clash, et al, from their music? It WAS (IS) their music.
And how can you decry artists whose politics and social views you oppose as decadent (Springsteen campaigning for Kerry, Jackson Browne against global warming). Is that the distant whisper of mom telling you to 'turn down that junk music' from 35 years ago the sound I hear in the background as you tell your kid not to go see Brokeback mountain or listen to Kanye West?"
I don't even have to hear it to know that a Jackson Browne song about global warming is pop porn. Bruce Springsteen has been reduced to a sad, didactic hack who has lost all contact with the pure spirit that animates the noble impulse to Rock. It is Springsteen who has bowed to the distant voice of his authoritarian father, as his music has fully embraced the conformist, constricted, humorless, anti-spiritual, anti-evolutionary bromides of the left. Kanye West? Not even infrahuman, for it is unnatural for a human being to be in his natural, animal state.
There is a hilarious moment in the new Dylan DVD, in which he is asked about A Hard Rain. Surely it is about nuclear fallout and about the need to end the arms race? No, said Dylan. What is it about then, asks the clueless interviewer? "It's about a hard rain," deadpans Dylan. Dylan refused to be categorized. For one thing, I truly believe he didn't understand where his songs came form. The words just came tumbling in. Like Shakespeare, if he had tried, he couldn't have done it. And when he did try, it likely wasn't art, such as The Times They are A-Changing or Masters of War.
In point of fact, Dylan wrote only a handful of overtly political songs, and most of those on a single early album. Moreover, he quickly saw through the intellectually and spiritually bankrupt left--who had embraced him as the "spokesman for a generation"--and ran away as fast as he could. The left tried to co-opt Dylan, but by 1964 he had left them far behind. They still haven't realized it, as Joan Baez remarks in the new DVD. Of his brief involvement with the humorless, stilted, narrow-minded leftists who tried to get him to dance to their grim tune, Dylan famously sang, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.
Today I can enjoy the Who's Won't Get Fooled Again without hearing any explicit or implicit leftist message. After all, it is a revolutionary song, and in the contemporary world, conservatives are the revolutionaries. I don't know about you, but I won't get fooled again by the Clintons, by Howard Dean, by Ted Kennedy, by Jesse Jackson, by the liberal media, by the New York Times... the list is endless.
And sometimes, dammit, even I can't get no satisfaction. And all last week, while watching the Alito hearings, I was wondering to myself, "what's goin' on?" with these Democratic buffoons. And when I hear the Clash proclaim London calling, to the zombies of death, I conjur up bloodthirsty one-eyed imams with hooks for hands preaching their death-cult theology. And one of my great spiritual heroes, Meister Eckhart, was trying to break on through to the other side during the summer of '67. 1267, that is.
Kahn made some excellent points--almost as if he's been in contact with Petey: "There is much more to a song than its social context, or the opinions and mindset of its composer. By this logic an atheist could dismiss Bach, braying that his music was sponsored by the church, and reinforced a religion that killed and plundered and enslaved and raped children. A true work of art stands on its own merits, independent of its creator; just as a child need not be a reflection of its parent."
He kahntinues: "A great song--like any great art--is open to many interpretations, and can resonate beyond its own time... Personally, I sometimes hear Blowing in the Wind as more a deterministic resignation than a revolutionary anthem. Perhaps we are still too close to the history to strip these songs of their accepted contexts."
Well, this has already gone on a bit long. I'll have to finish tomorrow, Petey willing. There I promise to talk about drugs. And more sex, pornography and rock & roll. I just hope he lets me sleep in.