Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A long post on artists, critics, and idiots

When I was in college, I had a friend who owned a Beach Boys Anthology CD. The liner notes for the CD were written by a writer for a major music magazine. He used words such as Genius, Earth-shattering, and Groundbreaking to describe their music, and the work of Brian Wilson, composer of many of their tunes. The high point (or low point) of the introduction was this critic claiming that Brian Wilson was the 20th Century equivalent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He essentially made the claim that Brian Wilson was every bit the genius that Mozart ever was. That if Wilson has lived in the 18th Century, he would have written trio sonatas and requiem masses. And if Mozart lived in the 1960s, he would have written pop songs about beach life.

Of course, it is utterly ludicrous to make the comparison. There is no way you can equate Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, his Requiem Mass, his operas, his piano concertos, with such ditties as Good Vibrations and Surfin' USA. It ought to be impossible to equate The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute with lines such as "Gotta keep those lovin' good vibrations a-happenin- with her" and "If everybody had a notion across the USA, then everybody'd be surfin down in Californ-i-a. . ."

But this is the way popular music works. Watch any MTV retrospective about pop artists young and old, and you'll get the same language. "Britney's parents first noticed her genius when she was 5 years old." "Christina works the crowd in masterful fashion, the painter with her musical medium." "His drumming has been described as 'god-like,' pure artistic genius on display to adoring fans fortunate enough to be in his presence." The recent "diva" fling is an example, especially in naming of 19-year-old pop princesses as divas. I could understand using Diva to describe Kathleen Battle. Maybe Jane Monnheit. Even Sara Brigthman. But Mariah Carey? Celine Dion? Ladies who made it into the upper echelons of the music world by selling cheap trinkets to the uncritical masses don't deserve lofty titles.

Perhaps the language itself is the giveaway. Perhaps within pop culture there is a latent awareness that it is all so shallow, so pointless, to untalented, so. . .stupid. Thus, they gather around themselves writers and promoters who can use words like "genius" and "talent," and convince themselves that perhaps they actually are worthy of the accolades.

All of this is on my mind because we watched "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" Saturday night. It's a documentary about Daniel Johnston, a reclusive singer/songwriter/artist, who also happens to be mentally ill (read: completely insane) and maybe even possessed. The movie rightly focuses mostly on Mr. Johnston, but what I found fascinating was the following this man created. Because, to put it bluntly, the man is an idiot. He has no talent. At all. He can't sing, he can barely play an instrument, and his lyrics? They are about the equivalent of the prose of a high school freshman in English Class. Do you get my point? There is no talent at work here.

And yet, throughout the movie he is referred to as a genius. Multiple times. Hordes of people acclaim Mr. Johnston as the greatest musician of the 20th century. They talk about his "art." They exuberantly share their passion for his Amazing Work. Record producers. Singers in other bands. Masses of fans. Promoters. They all wax eloquently about this man and his genius.

And the whole time I wanted to shout "But the emperor has no clothes!" "The man has no talent!"

So the question becomes,
a) Have people's expectations dropped so low that this is truly considered genius?
b) Are people simply afraid to state the obvious, for fear of everybody else accusing them of 'being too commercial'?
c) is everybody else around him insane?
d) or is it just pop culture doing what it naturally does - picking the lowest-common-denominator and naming it as Great?

Interestingly enough, near the end of the movie, his parents speak of reading the biography of Brian Wilson, and taking comfort in his journey. As Wilson battled mental disease that crippled his "art," so too does their son battle infirmity of the mind. Of course, at this point they cue the critics and promoters who say "but Johnston's music is at a level above Brian Wilson's. Nothing Brian wrote can compare with Daniel Johnston." I wanted to throw something at the TV monitor.

And then last night I was reading Wendell Berry, and came across this line:

If a man finds it necessary to eat garbage, he should resist the temptation to call it a delicacy.

I think popular culture, and its consumers, would do well to heed Wendell's instruction. If you want to like Mariah Carey, who am I to judge you? If you want to listen to Hillary Duff's latest tripe, you are welcome to it. Just don't attempt to call it anything other than what it is. Cheap, quickly fading, disposable entertainment. If you think Daniel Johnston is attractive, then enjoy his stuff. Just don't try to convince anybody that it is genius or high art. You demean those words, and our world, when you do.


Kim said...

There are lots of naked emperors out there, my friend. LOL

Anonymous said...


Steve said...

The words "great" and "genius" are so loosely thrown around or many times used for the perverted thinking that goes against traditional values. The movie "Broke Back Mountain" was considered genius and ground breaking...so to "The Davinci Code"..."The Last Temptation of Christ"....and many others.
The world of sports is another venue where the words “great” and “genius” are used so easily.
As a teacher, I find it disturbing that my students want a reward for accomplishing what is expected...i.e. completing homework all week....behaving in class....even schools and little leagues get caught up in rewarding the mundane and mediocre accomplishments. My students quickly learn that I will not reward or give high praise for the expected….at first they don’t like that I just “pat them on the back” or just nod my head in approval. ….but when I do say “great job” or “wow” for an accomplishment hey truly worked hard for or they pushed themselves to do….they realize why I reserve my greatest praises. They come to realize what a great accomplishment is truly for them….for where they are at that moment. Dan, I whole heartily agree with you.