Art: What’s the Point?

Somehow, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually become less cynical about art. To pursue a career, or even just a paying sideline in the arts requires a tremendous amount of self-confidence because if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you, in good faith, ask someone else to believe in you and hand over cash for something you made that doesn’t actually do anything? We’re not building garage door openers here, after all.

But, as American Idol has been kind/malicious enough to point out, a whole lot of self-confidence is utterly misguided. My wife used to work as a talent scout for a modeling agency, and a woman approached her one night asking if they repped models with disabilities, because she thought her daughter would make a great spokesperson for something. The woman then plopped onto the table in front of her a photo of a child with no eyes. No. Eyes. And the mother said, without even a trace of irony, “Now tell me that face couldn’t sell mustard!”

Anakin Skywalker. A face only a Jedi could love.
“One last thing, Luke. Be sure to stock up on Funyuns!”

So yes, there are sometimes clear and loud disconnects between one’s perceived and actual prospects when it comes to employment in entertainment and the arts. But these days, I’m much more inclined to say “So what? God bless ’em.”

The world is, I can say without hesitation, a better place because Modeste Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is in it. But it is also a better place for all of our terrible, awkward YouTube videos.

For myself, I have two artistic goals (or rules, or guidelines, or whatever) and I think they are good ones.  They are:

1. Tell the truth
2. Don’t be boring

Maybe the first is more important than the second, but if you’re not at least attempting to abide by those two ideas, maybe it’s not really art you’re making. Maybe it’s play. But that’s fine, too.

The fundamental question we might ask ourselves when we start working on a story, song, painting, film, etc., is, “Why bother?” What will it contribute to someone else’s life or the larger discourse? Are we tackling this project for ourselves, or for others? Does the idea burning to get out of us want to communicate something unique and honest to the world, or simply…escape? Personally, I try to look beyond myself. I don’t want somebody to pop in music I made because it’ll make me feel better, but because I fervently hope it will make them feel better. Because of that personal disposition, I used to think that I didn’t want to be bothered with anything other people made that wasn’t trying to tell me something. Not so much anymore. Because it turns out the answers to those questions aren’t as important as I used to think.

I realized something:

As terrible as the world can be — and is, somewhere, at any given time — it is a better place if we are pumping it full of creative energy, whatever the result. Creativity is how our souls communicate. So who the hell is anybody to tell us we should ever quit, or give up, or worse than that, not try in the first place?

Do your thing.

I used to hate this. Now I have better things to do.

How Important is Fidelity?

When Hi8 seemed like an impossible dream

I’m not talking about matrimony, here, but how well an audio or visual recording resembles the real-world phenomena it seeks to capture. High fidelity sounds and images used to be both a mark of professionalism and a barrier-to-entry for hobbyists in the temporal arts (film, video, music, etc.). I suppose the same discussion could have played out regarding the static arts a hundred and fifty years ago — and it probably did — but I’m not much of a painter, so I’ll stick to what I know.

If I wanted to make a movie in 1995 with my camcorder (VHS!), I could do it, but it would look and sound like hell. There would be an obvious and extreme fidelity difference between what I was able to do on my own and what somebody would pay money to go see in a theater. But now that’s gone. I can shoot a movie ON MY CELLPHONE that can play in a multiplex. I can (and have) record a song in my bedroom that will play on the radio.

Loplop Presents Loplop by Max Ernst.

Those are the facts, but my actual question is an emotional and experiential one. To use a food metaphor, has the sophistication of the listener/viewer changed to the point where we are now better able to taste the quality of the ingredients even if the presentation on the plate is lousy?  Or have aesthetic decisions eroded our ability to even tell what’s good or bad about how something looks or sounds anymore? Serious question. What do you think?

People call a lot of Elliott Smith’s and Iron & Wine’s recordings “lo-fi,” but how lo-fi are they, really? I mean, they were recorded on good equipment, you can certainly hear everything clearly, and they’ve got great dynamic range, so what else do you want? Sure, they’re not over-produced in the way that a Rhianna or Katy Perry song puts everything the producer can think of in a sonic pot, but they’re not actually low fidelity recordings. See, for me coming up on metal bands and hard-to-find import CDs from Scandanavia, I heard some stuff that was really, legitimately low fidelity (a lot of black metal comes to mind), where it’s honestly difficult to even make out what’s going on in the song.

The Tincanland blog has done a couple of good posts that touch on this topic, asking the question of whether or not a self-produced album can succeed commercially (sure, why not?), and how artists don’t get a second opportunity to impress someone if their stuff sounds like hell (unless they change their name).

This is a very personal question for me, because when Black Spiral released Defeat way back in the long, long ago, most of the reviews we got were really positive, but the ones that weren’t got hung up on the production. Some writers utterly crucified us for it…but the thing is, the production’s not bad. It doesn’t sound like it was made on a major label budget, but pop in a Darkthrone album from the same period, which  mostly sound like they were recorded on a cassette in somebody’s bathroom, and tell me we don’t win that battle.

A couple of years later, I shot a no-budget DV feature, and not even small film festivals would take it seriously. OPEN WATER hadn’t hit yet, and for most people the idea of exhibiting a film shot on DV was laughable. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the content of the movie — which, again, reviewers really, really liked — just the presentation.

For me, it remains an open question. Audio, video, and computer technology has come so, so far in the last ten years, that we shot our music video for “Broken World” on a camera that was in many ways superior to the f900s George Lucas used to shoot the first STAR WARS prequel. So people are able to make things that look better more quickly and more cost-effectively, and we may have gotten somewhat used to pixellation, compression, and a low signal-to-noise ration.

But I guess if I was handing out advice, it would be to take the time, and put in the craft, to make things look and sound as good as humanly possible. Because I’m not convinced that we’ve trained ourselves yet to look past the presentation and at the content underneath. Or even that we’ve trained ourselves to understand there’s a difference.