Art and Commerce by Mojo Rider

Here are some more ruminations on the nature of art. I'm sure there will be others who disagree with my viewpoints but I'm throwing this out there for discussion.

In our last discussion, we talked about defining art and what role the artist has. My last post was my groundwork and a frame of reference for this one in regards to using an art form as entertainment as opposed to creating a tangible piece of work designed to stir the human soul. Moreover, I wanted to pick up on the train of thought Alpha Asian raised about staying true to one’s work and not worrying so much about popularity or acceptance.

All art forms don’t have to achieve a high level of art. It’s great when it does, but these art forms don’t necessarily have to have that purpose. As previously stated, the art forms can be used merely for entertainment and that is fine. Life would be boring if we didn't have some form of entertainment. But even within that purpose of entertainment, you can still attain the level of art and show a mastery of the form.

But it raises some questions: just because something is popular, does it mean it’s necessarily good? And because something has commercial success, does it mean it's a sell out? A Tom Clancy novel might sell a lot of books, but is it considered better than, let’s say, the short stories of Raymond Carver? If an indie band gets signed by a major record label, are they considered sellouts by their fan base if their latest CD release goes platinum and has mainstream success? How is the artist supposed to earn a living? At some point, the artist has to sell the work or the performance. And there’s the conflict between an artist’s work, the ability to survive, and commercialization. Furthermore, with your indulgence, let me refer to the previous posting about being effective versus being popular. Explicit in that post is a “to thine own self be true” ethos, to maintain one’s integrity and credibility. I’ll use music as an example, since I know more about it than other areas like film and books.

Like Hollywood, record label executives who have a hit artist on their hands, want more of it because they're making money because they are a business entity. They want more of the same, attempting to catch lightning in a bottle over and over again. (Ever notice how many remakes Hollywood likes to churn out? The music industry is no different.) As soon as an artist has a hit single, the record label automatically says, “We want another hit.” This pressure from the label can happen while the band/artist is still on tour to promote their hit single! If the label doesn’t have a Kurt Cobain or Nirvana, they will try and hunt down the next one. That is why there were so many bands who had that grunge sound, but didn’t have much else, got signed. But where are they now? Where was the longevity? All style and flash but no substance. Fads and flavor of the month come and go, but really good work endures beyond the latest rage. The cream rises to the top.

Sometimes you get a band or artist whose popularity is waning buts wants to remain commercially viable and in the limelight and they will change what they do to meet what is supposedly the market demand or because the record label wants to market them in a different way. Some change from who they are for financial reward, others simply just to remain entertainers, celebrities in the limelight. Vanilla Ice comes to mind. Was that a true expression of himself? Or was it just because it was financially expedient and a gateway to being a celebrity? What does that say about the kind of projects they’re producing? To me, it’s an appeal to the broadest common denominator rather than letting the work speak for itself. Hit singles should be by accident and not by design. Once you get into design, you’re guilty of manipulating an audience for financial gain. And your motivation is about money, not your work and your artistic expression.

Some of my favorite artists are one’s who’ve had their moments of fame and rewards and some haven't. Some have reaped financial rewards, some have had lean times where they didn't know where the next paycheck was going to come from , some flirted with becoming more commercial to get the financial reward and realized it wasn’t worth being a clown or puppet of the record label. In the end, they decided to stay true to themselves. They might not be so visible anymore or be a household name but they are still worth following and still produce relevant work even if it doesn’t get any promotion or radio play (college radio always seems to be the exception!).

One of my favorite artists is Paul Westerberg, former front man, singer/songwriter for the now defunct Minneapolis band The Replacements. I saw him once back in 1993 when he became a solo artist after the Replacements disbanded. He had just been the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, with Charlton Heston as the host. And then a few days later I saw him playing in dumpy basketball gymnasium on the University of Maryland campus to his loyal followers. Talk about going from the highs to the lows. I love his interviews because he always has something interesting to say about his art, the business, and the nature of fame. Here are some quotes:

“You don’t go to L.A. to be an artist, you go there to be a star…”

Q: Does it ever bother you that bands who have appropriated the Replacement's sound are selling truckload's of records when you never have?

A: I think a lot of people who sell a lot of records would kill to have what I have. They don't necessarily have the guy who waits three years for you to come through town on tour just so they can get your autograph. They get a more fleeting, hollow kind of fan worship than I do. What I got is real. It's small, but it's real.

STARPOLISH: What future challenges do you feel you're facing? In a perfect world, would people hear the name "Paul Westerberg" and rush out and buy 10 million albums?

WESTERBERG: I'd rather have respect from my peers and those in the know than be a household name. I never wanted celebrity.... I wanted to make my mark and I have. I want to continue to write good songs and put on good shows. I'm just sticking to the basics....

STARPOLISH: What would advice would you give to someone who has their own rock 'n roll dream?

WESTERBERG: If you believe in your heart that you've got it, then go for it and let nothing stop you. But if you're going from your brain, then maybe you're better off being a manager. I wouldn't pay a dime to see you.

"I had to compromise myself so much that I reached a point where I was no longer enjoying anything. I wasn’t selling any records, I wasn’t hip anymore, and yet I was still compromising myself. I finally figured that I might as well just do exactly what I want to do. If nobody buys it, it’s irrelevant, because at least then I’ve done something that I wanted to do. I mean, working with producers like Don Was, I realized that in the end none of that matters because succeeding in music is just dumb luck. It ends up being a matter of whether they like you or not, or whether your song accidentally gets played at the right time or not. All I know is that right now I feel like I’ve got the most control I’ve ever had in my life over the thing that I do. And whether I’m truly happy or not, I’ve convinced myself that I am."

On doing the film score for Sony's animated film Open Season: “You take Hollywood’s money, you eat Hollywood’s shit.”

"I try to write for the highest common denominator. I don't write for dumb people. I figure if everybody doesn't get it, that's OK. Someone bright enough will get it, and that's who I write for. It's probably not the way to make million-sellers. What can I say? I won't apologize for trying to write for smart people."

“Let’s face it; if I were filthy rich, I wouldn’t be talking to you (giving an interview).”

So what's my point here with this post? I think it's a good reminder for Asian American artists to stick to their artistic visions even if the financial rewards aren't there. Don't dumb down your work to be accepted by Hollywood, the music industry, the book world, etc. You have important things to say and to contribute to society. I'm not saying this is easy to do in that we all have to pay the bills and eat, but the late singer songwriter Warren Zevon once said about his own fall from commercial success is that there was never a promise or guarantee that being an artist would bring financial rewards anyway. He cited all the great black blues musicians who were imitated by the white rock and rollers and never received the financial rewards reaped by bands like Elvis, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, etc.

Think about what it is you want to do. Do you want to be an artist or a star? A performing artist or an entertainer, celebrity? If you want to be an an entertainer, fine. But if you want to be an artist, do not stray from who you are and what your soul needs to express. As Westerberg said in another interview:

"Any musician who can stop (creating) may be a musician, but they're no artist. If it's in your blood, it can't stop flowing. Whether anyone wants to hear it or it makes you money, whether you gotta get a job to support yourself, whatever. I don't think there's anything that will make me stop doing it."


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