Musings on Artists as Political Commentators and Activists

(us.fotolia.com/ slavio2004)

This post began with a comment on an interesting thread in respond to Craig’s post titled “The Place of an Artist”. Frankly, I enjoy that Progarchy.com usually avoids getting into various political and social debates; I spend most of my real work (as editor of Catholic World Report and writer for other outlets) addressing controversies, disputes, and dogfights over a wide range of issues. At the end of a long day of apocalyptic, to-the-death scrapping, it’s fun and far more relaxing to debate “Yes vs. Genesis” and “Jazz vs. Blues” and so forth.

That said, the topic of artists as commentators and/or activists is both compelling and important. And prog rock, which is the dominant genre discussed here, is known (overall) for lots of commentary on political, social, and even religious matters.

Anyhow, I initially wrote, off the cuff, the following:

I have to say, I nearly go nuts whenever I–being a die-hard jazz nut (with some 8,000 jazz albums)–have to listen to jazz musicians pontificate about social and political issues. I’d say that 96% of them have clearly never studied or read a lick of political philosophy or anything related to a meaningful understanding of principles, movements, issues, and such. It’s almost all group think and parroting the usual faddish nonsense. Of course, that sort of thing happens on both the left and right, but the arts tend to be dominated (and I think that’s an accurate term) by those who grovel before the altar of secular, neo-socialist, chronologically-snobbish, relativistic statism. So it goes. I say that if a musician wants to subject me to his views, then perhaps he might want to listen a CD of me singing operatic arias and Black Sabbath tunes.

(I should note that I actually only have about 5,000 jazz albums. Lost my head there.) I then decided to follow up with a more thoughtful response, which is as follows:

First, I don’t have a problem, in general, with musicians sharing their thoughts and opinions about social, political, and religious issues. I certainly don’t have any interest in censorship, or in flatly saying, “Musicians should only talk about music!”

Second, I do have a problem with musicians who act as if they, because they are creative and artistic, have some special insight into such matters. Part of my reaction here is shaped from my time in art school and from being around artists (I’ve sold a lot of commercial and fine art, and attended art school for two years). Some (not all!) artistic folks confuse their knowledge of their feelings, which they sometimes mistake for reality, with authentic and objective truth. I recognize that certain jazz artists–Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, etc.–played integral roles in fighting racism and supporting the civil rights movement. Alas, many musicians now think they have to find new and cutting edge movements in order to validate themselves in some way. The problem is twofold: many of the movements they support are lacking in both moral worth and intellectual heft, and the stances made for them are not taken because of moral insight but due to reactionary group think and a sort of soft totalitarianism.

Third, I distinguish between an artist being asked a question in an interview, an artist making a statement in a lyric, an artist pontificating from the stage, and an artist being an overt activist. I have the most sympathy and patience with the artist as lyricist; in fact, some of my favorite music includes viewpoints that I directly disagree with regarding many different issues. That is, in part, because I think a good artist needs to pose and push difficult and even upsetting questions. For that same reason, I dislike music and literature that is didactic and lecturing in nature; it usually is not of good artistic quality. Thus, despite being a serious Catholic (and once a serious Evangelical Protestant), I think most “contemporary Christian music” is lousy, or worse. For the same reason, I tend to dislike “protest” music, or music that is obviously pushing an agenda, rather than trying to contemplate or reflect on issues and events.

Along those same lines, I’ve been at Christian concerts where the event was mostly ruined by a long and excruciating “testimony”; likewise, I’ve seen concerts in which left-wing artists have harangued and lectured the audience. I find both to be annoying or worse; they each suggest a sort of infantile insecurity and need to be “taken seriously” which, ironically, makes me not take them seriously at all. As for artists who wish to be activists and thus do boycotts and make grand statements, their stances and arguments (if they have any) should be taken up and examined as rigorously as anybody else’s. Yet some of these artists think they should be immune from criticism, and prove to be incredibly thin-skinned about such. They, again, feel (as oppose to think) they have some great insight due their incredible sensitivity and creativity. Sorry, I don’t buy it, and I never will.

Unfortunately, the cult of celebrity has so conflated politics and power and personal charisma, it’s difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff. Then there’s the strange fact that many artists very cleverly use an anti-establishment persona to actually advance themselves commercially. The bottom line for me is simple: just because I like and enjoy an artist’s music doesn’t mean I am going to swallow and unthinkingly embrace their stance on this, that, or the other thing. On the contrary, it probably makes me question it even more strenuously.

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