Cornell West fired off an interesting tweet today. It read: “The challenge artists face today is whether to be an underground, unheard genius, or to dilute their art for the marketplace.” I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit as an artist/musician and as a writer. Can we escape the commodification of dang-near everything? Case in point – West’s deconstruction was instantly published via twitter. The moment he did it became a sort of commodity. How can he maintain his iconoclastic pose when he can publish his every thought to thousands with one click of the button. Is there a point at which information/content becomes so ubiquitous that the most profound things will once again find us from our own neighborhood (the underground)? And even if that is all true, does that make what West said wrong? I don’t think so. I think he’s still right, and that we are all a part of the same hypocrisy.
I’ve always said when something is marketed, it dies a little bit. Does it die or just fundamentally change? And, is it ruined forever? One thing is for sure, the evaluation of art has certainly evolved – or perhaps devolved – into pure commerce. Most art now behaves much more like a commercial enterprise than an evocative force. Even indie-art is not impervious to the forces of commercial success. When Arcade Fire became the first indie band to win the Grammy for album of the year, you can be sure that hipsters everywhere felt validated. Will anything Arcade Fire does after that sort of recognition be the same? They were perennial underdogs – that’s over now. They are going to be millionaires several times over by the time it’s all said and done. Will that make it so they no longer struggle enough to produce something real?
Struggle is essential to good art. Artists are like mothers: they carry something inside them for months while it gestates. They birth their creations through intense pain. The end result is that they put something new into the world – something unique which the world has never seen before. And the world depends on them for its very survival. If mothers stop bearing children, that’s the end of the human race. The stakes are every bit as high for the artists. We must have people in our society who are set apart to consider the nature of our existence, and who have the courage to creep to the edge of the abyss on their bellies, come back and tell us what they saw. When we force artists to become good capitalists, then we ruin the artists and ourselves as well. When we tell ourselves its only valid when it sells a hundred thousand units… check that, when we first call them “units,” we have already derailed. We make it harder for them to provoke us to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light.
If you train this line of thinking in on Christian music, which is where I made my living for so long, you create an impossible ethical paradox. This paradox has been an important part of my journey for the past few years, and it’s still going on for me. I have not great wisdom, only the conviction that we are going to have to renegotiate the role of the artist and once again find room for them to practice their art for us…
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