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On Aesthetic Eclecticism, Art As Icon, and the Responsibility of the Artist.

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In a spring blog post at The Hurst Review,
music critic Josh Hurst compared the famously well received new Animal Collective album, Merriweather Post Pavilian, to “a compilation of tracks from pioneering hip-hop rabble-rouser Steinski,” called What Does It All Mean?: 1983-2006. In his review, Hurst discusses the way Steinski has, over the years, been so interested in exploring the relationships between genres, eras, and instruments. He says that, in Steinski’s music, these ideas and sounds are not just “disparate” and individual, but rather that they are constructed to interact and shine light upon one another. For example, he writes that:

“the song called “Jazz” isn’t just a random assortment of jazz, funk, and hip-hop sounds, but an exploration of how the three genres are related, how their historical evolution has been played out and continues to develop. Thus, though his idiom may be collage, it is not pastiche; though his sources may be far-reaching and at times confusing, they are meant to evoke meaning, not shun it.”

In other words, Steinski is focused on tradition, on the past, and on the intricate ways that influence and interpretation are related.

I have, of late, been engaged in an off-and-on, friendly – but spirited – argument about U2’s role in the evolution of modern music. My friend, who is a marine and thus capable of beating me down rather profoundly (and easily) insists that U2 is just an over-rated British band who only play three chords and whose lead singer gyrates about on stage in an unbecoming fashion (and who meddles unnecessarily in international affairs for a bit of free pub). Well, that’s my summation of his comments anyway. My friend is rather forceful in the delivery of his opinions and they usually conclude with him scoring some sort of basket on me in our pick-up basketball games.

Now, I am of the opinion that, whatever your opinions may be about Bono and whatever your qualms about his band’s sound, U2’s universal influence is undeniable and, as lovers of music or creators of music – whether pop, folk, hip-hop or blues – we would all be remiss to ignore the way that they have helped shape the world of 21st century music. From Coldplay to Kanye, from guitar riffs to live performance, from War to Zooropa to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the evolution of U2 has at least mirrored the evolution of modern music. Indeed, their influence may be more profound than that of any other artist still popular today.

It is important therefore, even essential, that we be willing to recognize and explore this truth, and others like it, if we desire to fully understand and appreciate the zeitgeist of modern music. We must not let our personal preferences or tastes inhibit our ability to think clearly and explore closely. To suggest that a band or artist is unworthy of my attention simply because I wouldn’t choose to pop it in the CD player on the way home from my nine-to-five or while I’m doing some laundry is to function in a fundamentally egocentric fashion that could ultimately damage our ability to further expand the horizons of musical exploration.

Just as you and I do not exist in static vacuums of individual and disparate tastes, beliefs and experiences, so too the art world neither exists nor functions in a static environment; it couldn’t possibly. Actually, it’s almost absurd to even consider the possibility. The arts evolve, as any part of any civilization does, upon a natural trial and error process founded and built upon change, influence and relationships.

For example, without the Greek legal system and philosophical ideals the Roman way of thought would never have come about, without which the Magna Carta and the “early modern” way of thought would never have evolved, without which, of course, the ideals upon which America was founded would never have existed. Even modern American thought itself is built upon ideologies, philosophies and religious systems conceived by the intertwining of many – often opposed – nations and castes.

In music, consider the evolution of the piano. Without the Persian santur there would have been no hammered dulcimer, without which there would have been no hurdy gurdy, without which there would likely have been no virginal, without which there would likely have been no pianoforte, etc. The evolution of the cinematic art form stems from the birth of the camera obscura in the 1600’s, the subsequent development of the photograph in the latter half of the 1800’s and the influence of the early silent filmmakers like D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein.

Now, on the other hand, Hurst claims, the elements of the music of Animal Collective are constructed in disparate relationship to one another and, perhaps more importantly, in disparate relationship to the musical traditions that preceded them and because of which they exist in the first place. You see, Hurst argues, it’s not that the members of AC are uninterested in making music that reflects the time and place in which it is created. On the contrary, like contemporary bands The Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio and, of course, U2, Animal Collective does address and, in their own “sentimental” ways, combat the issues that plague our modern times.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the modern zeitgeist – particularly what drives and describes the most hip acts and groups; artists like, of course, Animal Collective, but also, say, Grizzly Bear, Anathallo, Dirty Projectors, Decemberists, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens to name a few obvious examples. While these artists – and others like them – create music from different genres what binds them together is the fact they are, in fact, very nearly genre-less. Critics might refer to this as being “hard to categorize.” An artist doesn’t become “hard to categorize” because they are evasive, elusive or even rebellious but rather because they are influenced by artists whose own sounds and influences are seemingly disparate. That is, one zeitgeist necessarily gives birth to another.

Many of these artists and bands are influenced by a sort of beatnik ilk that is more concerned with cultural ethics and aesthetic accountability that one might identify more with late middle 1900’s music. Yet they are also children of the age of psychedelia. And so we find ourselves listening to psychedelic folk rock – three terms that once upon a time might have been the antithesis of one another. It shouldn’t be surpising, therefore, that much of this music takes on a wandering, dreamy, otherworldly aura, that is gravitates towards experimentation. I call this aesthetic eclecticism and it has the power to be both very beautiful and very dangerous.

On the one hand the varying sounds and disparate parts can, when properly joined, create fantastic, gorgeous, haunting, meaningful soundscapes that heighten and enlighten the senses, that can cast an alternative pallor on one’s personal lens of a fallen world. Perhaps the reason it has become beloved is that it reflects the zany, crazy world in which we live and die. Art imitating life, etc.

That said, this kind of music can also be dangerous. Structure is important in art, no matter how obscure the meaning or abstract the parts may be. And it is important that the viewer of a work of art be able to identify and apply that structure – and accompanying meaning(s) – to their own experience. One of the great, necessary, useful elements of aesthetic experience is in the identifying of said properties. I, like you, have spent many a blessed hour taking in and delighting in the at-times confusing structures of complicated works of art. This is certainly true of books, films, music, paintings, photography, architecture, athletics and so on. There few pleasures more fully exhilarating to a true art lover than discovering a hidden, deep meaning. Such pleasures occur, in part, because we are able to see and glory in the relationships between ideas, even paradoxical ones, and because our reflection on those relationships creates in us either a sensory pleasure due to the ways we experience art or a mental pleasure. We have been created to relate to one another and therefore relationships between images and ideas are meaningful; the context of the human condition creates the contexts in which human creativity has meaning. Art imitating life, again.

For for this reason it does neither artist nor viewer a lick of good to use aesthetic eclecticism simply for the purpose of creating something new, something different, something confusing. Art is not valuable because it is new, different or confusing except in as much as it offers a fulfilling experience in some way. So purposeful subversion of artistic structure – especially archetypal, traditional ones – for it’s own sake is dangerous in that it pollutes, desecrates and bastardizes that which art was created for. That is, such subversion flips upside down that which art was created for in the first place (it’s true nature), asserting the possibility of creating new purpose (and nature). We were not created to subvert the natural order of things, but rather to fulfill it. This is especially true of art and creativity.

It should be the goal of the artist to determine the nature of their artistry and attempt to fulfill it, to determine the purposes and nature of the varying genres of forms from which they are borrowing and attempt to work and create within their predetermine, natural, and necessary confines. The artist should attempt to create and present relationships, images, and ideas that are fundamentally iconic – that allow the view to more fully and completely see and experience the true relationships, images, and ideas contained in life, particular those most important to the forms or genres in which they are working. This, of course, is a profound job, and sometimes a profoundly difficult one. When done properly and with great care we have an aesthetic ethic of accountability, propriety, and purpose. When done poorly we have an aesthetic ethic of irresponsibility, a cliff from which our modern aesthetic eclecticism is dangerously close to falling.

On a basic level, there is nothing wrong with diverse and eclectic combinations of artistic elements. As I said, at times they can be overwhelmingly beautiful and useful. But modern artists would do well to remember the responsibility with which they have been endowed the moment they take up their instrument, set pen to paper, or point that lens. That final product is a window – our window, yours and mine and theirs – into the deeper meanings, the colors and subtleties and vast complications of living and dying and breathing along the way. That final product is an icon and he whose icon lies best beware, truth is truth and no man can make it otherwise.

For the artist who dabbles in aesthetic eclecticism this responsibility can be particularly difficult because the varying and sometimes disparate, and otherwise opposing elements, which he or she is employing have the potential to implode or crumble: it is difficult and complicated to work within the confines of varying natures. That is, the nature of one element may not relate properly with another element therefore making the usage of the two elements together improper and thus irresponsible. The artist must always keep in mind nature, the nature of artistic elements, of real life, of the experiencer-to-be, of the forms themselves. The artist should never let progress or creativity (for their own sakes), or anything distract them from the nature of things. Indeed, unless the artist understands the nature and purpose of the work of their forbears their own work cannot be truly successful. Simple examples: without understanding the virginal the piano couldn’t have been created, without understanding classical thought the American Republic couldn’t have been born, without understanding the camera obscura the Lumierres and others couldn’t have devised the film camera, without understanding the phenomenon that is U2 the modern rock critic or band or fan will not be as insightful, successful, or fulfilled as they could be. The same is true of artistic forms and thought, although on a much more metaphysical level.

Yes, the artist should look to the past, be influenced and inspired, be fed. But he or she should do so responsibly, with an understanding of why their forebears existed in the first place, making a conscious effort to understand how the efforts of said forbears apply today. In that way, the artist will not only pay homage but, more importantly, will also fulfill the nature of the form and in that fulfillment will create an iconic image more vivid and clear than any window pane, an image with the potential to be more real than those that came before.

As experiencers and critics of art is our job to keep in mind nature as well. We are just as responsible for the windows through which we look as the artist is for the window which he creates.

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