The tortured artist & “Art is a lie.”

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Being a response to some statements taken from interviews by notable alternative rock and pop musicians Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) and Lady Gaga, my commentary relies on a few of their words to make its points, so I will include the relevant quotations before discussing them.

The tortured artist & “Art is a lie.”

By Daniel Barkley:

This post is a slightly edited response to the blog post found here.

Thom Yorke, on the public’s misconceptions of him:

What really p**ses me off is this idea that I am this tortured artist. That is something based on flimsy evidence which is endlessly being projected back onto us. It is just reductive and dull. In order to be creative there has to be a distance from you and the thing itself. It is only when the distance gets confused that things go wrong.

Society tends to like something out of the ordinary – supernatural or superhuman – something to distract from the mundanity of everday life. You see that in a lot of things, possibly most currently the popularly discussed 2012 ‘end of an age’/apocalypse prediction.

People want a figure, ostensibly just a human, but with a capacity to overcome the adversities thrown at him by fate – this figure gives some kind of hope that life’s challenges are not insurmountable. The classic example of this is Beethoven – more later.

For the same reason, people want a superhuman Mozart – perhaps as some indication of the divine, or some evidence of a greater power. The true story is that Mozart was brought up in the perfect conditions for a musician to thrive, worked extremely hard all his life, including his childhood, and right up to the week he died. You can probably add to that a massive natural talent for music (completing both halves of the nature/nurture seesaw) and maybe a bit of that genius x-factor that so few are blessed with.

Even in Mozart’s day, he had some of this superhuman aura around him – Haydn said on Mozart’s death that another composer of his stature wouldn’t come for another hundred years (which Beethoven disproved of course). Then the Romantic era began to mythologise Mozart’s life, and, especially, his death. What we have today is a hangover from this period, where Mozart became a god-figure – a god of ‘light and grace’.

The tortured artist persona probably applies best to Beethoven out of all the composers, since he lost that faculty most indispensible to a musician – his hearing. He also began to lose it fairly early in his career – when he was in his early 30s, soon after he published his first opus. This, even more than Mozart’s extraordinary life and death, gave something for the romantic era to latch onto – his apparent struggle against fate, and ultimate triumph (the apotheosis of which is often seen as the 9th symphony).

To get to the point, not much of Beethoven’s life needs anything added to make it fit the romantic image (although much surely was). Beethoven’s stark individuality, deafness and overcoming of it, his towering symphonic output, etc. are all the plain truth. Beethoven suffered much for his art, as far as we can tell, and for my money, just about everything Beethoven wrote was a genuine outpouring of himself – a sincere representation of his inner being.

This is at odds with Yorke’s point that there must be a distance between the artist and the artwork. To be sure, not all art is about the artist’s life – and suggesting that would be childish and indeed ‘reductive’. That doesn’t preclude various different pieces of music in many different moods or styles all having an inherent truth for the composer.

There’s no reason to believe, even if Yorke is to be taken at his word, that he has the same working methods as, say, Beethoven, or the archetypal tortured artist. I believe that society will always create the tortured artist persona even if one doesn’t exist to begin with, but in Beethoven’s case, the facts and music speak for themselves.

Music is a lie. It is a lie. Art is a lie.

— Lady Gaga

The second point is much less straightforward, and one I’ll probably only try to discuss briefly and tangentially. I haven’t read the context of this quotation, since I want to treat the statement on its own merits. At first, this appears to be a shock statement with little thought behind it. It echoes Wilde’s “All art is quite useless” from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, but one suspects less thought was put behind Gaga’s words.

It could first be asked on what authority is Lady Gaga making this statement? Where does Gaga rank in the pantheon of artists, and what weight should be accorded her words? How seriously would we take this statement if, for example, Britney Spears had said it in her heyday a few years ago? I’m deliberately not answering any of these rhetorical questions since it’s not for me to decide; but it’s worth thinking about.

Let’s take a look at the first statement: “Music is a lie.” It’s hard to know what this even means. What music? What lie? For music to be lying, it has to be trying to tell something.

Stravinsky infamously said that:

Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to communicate anything at all.

And although he later partly recanted, and I don’t consider it to be true, it has a kernel of, if not truth, then sense. Absolute music is a series of tones – vibrations of air – put together in a way the composer likely thought was meaningful.

Due to its abstract nature it almost never tries to communicate anything extra-musical (which is possibly what Stravinsky was referring to). If it is lying, then, it must be contradicting some internal, purely musical truth.

This is far too intangible to be discussed within the scope I have here – also I don’t think that’s what Gaga referred to. Music with lyrics is another issue – a much more obvious one, which I don’t need to delve into.

The other possibility is that Gaga simply refers to music (and art) as being a construct – something created by humans which doesn’t exist otherwise, and can be somewhere to disappear into – a form of escapism. But that is just a butchering of English, whereby you could call your summer cottage a ‘lie’ because it was man-made and doesn’t affect your daily life.

I’m hoping this simplistic view isn’t what she meant, but it’s the most straightforward of the options. “Art is a lie” sounds controversial, gets us discussing Gaga (probably what she wanted to happen) and goes against the accepted notion that art contains an inner truth, or reflects the world in some inherently true way. Her going against this would be a childish stamping on well-trodden ground then, simply proclaiming art’s obvious, long-accepted nature of being an abstract man-made construct.

Apparently controversial statements like this tend to pop up every so often, as the Wilde example noted before (although his seems to be rather more meaningful and thought-provoking). When the first camera was invented, Paul Delaroche, a notable painter of the time (early 19th century), supposedly proclaimed

From today, painting is dead!

I find Gaga’s comments have about the same weight and bearing as this.

Statements like these are definitely good to provoke discussion, though – it’s the best way to define your own thoughts on such matters.

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