Idealism and cynicism in art

A few days ago I threw up a post on Facebook asking people what their most overrated album is. For me, it’s always been London Calling, which is a perfectly decent pop album but routinely shows up on Top Ten or even Top Five lists as one of the greatest albums ever. I honestly don’t get it. I’m not surprised that a lot of people like London Calling, but as one of their favorite albums? These are, presumably, people who have listened to a lot of music, and that’s what goes near the top of their lists? Anyway, “overrated” doesn’t mean bad, just, you know, rated more favorably than you’d think. I got some good answers – Thriller, any KISS album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (that’s Hatcher’s contribution), Exile on Main Street, Nevermind, and Bat Out of Hell (that’s FotB’s Tom Fitzpatrick’s suggestion). I also got Born to Run, and the post sidetracked into bashing Springsteen and The Clash. This is where I’d like to focus, although if you have some overrated albums (again, not necessarily bad, just not as good as everyone thinks), feel free to chime in.

FotOB Daniel Joyaux, whose opinions about music and movies are very well considered and I enjoy reading them, said he shouldn’t have waded into the discussion because two of his favorite acts are The Boss and The Clash, and people were just bashing them. Our old buddy Dan Apodaca wrote that “Thunder Road” has “one of the worst mismatches of lyrical content to musical tone” he’s ever heard, which Joyaux disagreed with, but it’s an interesting take. I disagree with Joyaux that everyone was shitting on two of his favorite acts, because I still like The Clash and while I’ve never really liked Springsteen, I certainly wasn’t bashing him. I can’t even really comment on whether Born to Run is overrated because I’ve never heard the entire thing. But then Daniel wrote something interesting:

I think the biggest reason that Bruce and The Clash have become the two biggest targets for this question is the same reason that I love them so much–because they represent a heightened passion, conviction, and urgency in music, and we’ve become far too cynical a society for most people to buy into anyone treating their message and their art with that much romanticism and clear belief that it could matter to people.

When my friend Jeff noted that Springsteen and The Clash don’t have a monopoly on this kind of attitude, Daniel expounded:

I never remotely claimed they had a monopoly. But those are traits widely believed to define Bruce and The Clash far more than they do for other artists (beyond, perhaps, U2, who are subjected to the same kind of hatred). … Bruce and The Clash were artists who, first and foremost, believed rock and roll had the power to save people’s lives. So I get why it’s cool in our contemporary mode of rampant cynicism to hate on that. But it still makes me sad.

It’s this that I want to write about, as you can probably tell from the title of the post.

Daniel’s comments got me thinking about how I approach art. You might have noticed that I’m a bit cynical at times, something I get from my father, who’s wildly cynical (he calls himself “skeptical” rather than cynical, but he can be both). I know I’m cynical about a lot, but I’m also idealistic about a lot, as well. I don’t think one precludes the other, although many seem to think it does. I can be cynical about the apparatus of society and art and sports and anything else while still recognizing the creative impulse and the love of the game and even a yearning to serve the greater good. I don’t know if you believe me, but here I am, trying to convince you.

Let’s consider the statements from my Facebook post. Springsteen and The Clash represent a heightened passion, conviction, and urgency in music, and they treat their music with romanticism and clear belief. Springsteen and The Clash believed rock and roll had the power to save people’s lives. That’s what Daniel wrote, and I have an issue with that. First of all, I think a lot of art has passion, conviction, urgency, romanticism, and the belief that it can save people’s lives (whatever that last bit means – I think that’s a bit hyperbolic, but let’s move on). I listen to a lot of musicians like that. When someone is singing a great song or making a great movie or creating a great comic or writing a great book, I have no doubt they feel passionate and urgent about it. I will never not get choked up at certain moments in movies (particularly) but even in certain songs, because they reach something in me emotionally that the artist probably feels as well. This scene always – ALWAYS – gets to me, even though I know it’s fucking coming and I steel myself for it:

GodDAMNit, Emma Thompson.

Now, Emma Thompson is just an actor. She played Nanny McPhee, for crying out loud. That scene isn’t real, although it’s “based on a true story.” But that scene kills me. And it’s not just that, and it’s not just movies. The end of Morrison’s Doom Patrol guts me. Every. Single. Fucking. Time.

Sorry, I know it’s a lot, but GodDAMNit, Grant Morrison.

I get this way about music, too, when I believe that the singer is singing from the very depths of their souls. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. But I believe it in many songs, and I believe it more in hundreds of other songs than I do when Paul Simonon sings “You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you’d have to answer to … the guns of Brixton,” to use a completely random example. So I tend to reject Daniel’s assertion that Springsteen and The Clash are defined by these traits far more than other bands. Tell me you can’t hear the resignation, despair, and ultimate triumph in the vocals of this song, another one I chose completely at random:

One reason why art is so wonderful is because it touches our souls. It entertains us, sure, but it also lifts us up, it inspires us, it soothes us, it challenges us, it disturbs us, it amazes us, and it makes us believe there are better things in this world than the mundane shit of existence. The Boss and The Clash do not have a monopoly on that, and they are far from the only bands defined like that. I don’t even know if they are defined like that, at least not all the time. How is this rather mundane yearning song more passionate and urgent than any other random yearning song I could play?

Man, that poor girl at the end. This was really the highlight of her life, wasn’t it? Even the only Springsteen song I really like, “She’s the One” (which is on Born to Run!), as good as it is, isn’t more heart-rending than my favorite Marillion song:

(Fish’s lyrics are better, too.)

My point is that good bands, even bad bands occasionally, can reach into you and make you feel something. Springsteen and The Clash are not the only ones who sing as if their entire worlds are ending and they desperately need to get their message out. They’re not remotely the only ones who can sing with an anger that makes you angry, a yearning that makes you yearn, a sadness that makes you sad, or a euphoria that makes you euphoric. Bands you’ve never heard of can do this:

My point, of course, is not to bash Springsteen and The Clash or Daniel for feeling the way he does. As always, I do not care what you listen to, read, watch, or enjoy in your popular culture, and if it brings you joy, more power to you. But Daniel’s invocation made me think about more than just this, because in his statement is implicit something else – that Bruce and The Clash make music for idealistic reasons, and this is where it all breaks down for me.

I might enjoy art, but I’m not naïve about it, either. Do you know why all of the things in art that you love or I love exist? Because the artist wants to make money. Yes, there are many reasons to create art, and I know them all. But the artist wants to make money. Does Springsteen give his albums away for free? Of course he doesn’t. Do creators give away their comics for free? Well, occasionally, I get them for free, but that’s because I have a tiny reputation as a reviewer, and they want me to review their books so … people buy them! I know, shocking. This sounds cynical, but I don’t think it is. I can love the emotion behind a song or a movie and still recognize that the person is doing it for money. Maybe Springsteen wanted to be a singer because he had a burning desire to tell the world about growing up in a shitty state1 or because his girl ripped his heart out or because being a kid in Eisenhower’s America sucked. I don’t know. But I do know he also wanted to make money, and if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have remained a singer for long. How do I know? Because there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of artists giving up to take more lucrative jobs. Some of them had to be as passionate about their art as Bruce is, right? But they couldn’t put food on the table, and so they did what they had to do. This is perhaps most prominent in the field of comics, because it’s such a small field and it’s hard to make money, but maybe it’s just because I know more about comics than I do about other endeavors. But do you think Bernard Krigstein said to himself, “Sure, I can create masterpieces like ‘Master Race’ and other brilliant works of art, but my real passion is advertising!!!!” when he quit comics? Of course he didn’t – he did it because after the Comics Code came into existence, companies were forced to lower their page rates. Krigstein himself said so, and he couldn’t continue in a job he obviously loved, instead going off to tell corporate robots how to sell more Pall Malls.2 The comics world is littered with people who go into advertising or animation to make ends meet. Yes, those businesses allow them to use their skills, but they’re also far more lucrative than comics. Even if they remain in comics, they go where the money is. I own a lot of comics series that ended abruptly, simply because it wasn’t financially viable for the creators to continue. They went to Marvel or DC because that’s where the money is, even if the money isn’t that great. One of the best comics creators of the 21st century, Ken Krekeler, does hardly any comics because they don’t sell. In the larger artistic world, we have one-hit wonders who have to live for the rest of their lives, so what do they do? If they could continue to make money doing art, they would. But they still need to eat. Maybe they become the parent of an obnoxious teen and a far-too-precocious tween:

This is where I’m cynical. I get the creative impulse, I really do. I love writing, and although I’ve only been published once – in a tiny, barely-there magazine – I still love to do it, because I’m a creative person. But I get why people do it, and I’m sure, when they start, they want to “keep it pure” and do it for high-falutin’ reasons. I’m sure Springsteen would still say he does it for high-falutin’ reasons, but he’s able to say that, because he’s made a crap-ton of money over the years. This isn’t a new phenomenon, either – in the book I read recently about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, it was funny to see that whenever he wasn’t working on the ceiling, our dude was bugging the Pope for money. Like, all the time. So it’s not like olde-tyme artists were any less concerned about putting quail on the table and a nice thatch over their heads. And we can’t forget the ego boost, either. Performing is a rush, and if you’ve ever been applauded by a large group of people, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s a great feeling, and a lot of these performers don’t want to give it up. These are cynical ideas about artists, but they’re not less relevant than the desire to elevate the human spirit. Acknowledging that fact doesn’t make the art less emotional, and while it’s working its magic on you or me, we don’t have to think about it. But it’s still there.

1 Sorry, Pennsylvania bias there. New Jersey is mostly quite lovely. Now, the people …

2 I have no idea what Krigstein worked on, but Pall Malls seem like such a 1950s brand.

He wouldn’t be doing that if he had to pay for a new one!

You might disagree with me, and that’s cool. You may agree with Daniel, and that’s cool, too. Daniel, from what I know about him, is passionate about art himself, and that’s great. I’m passionate about art, but not, I think, to the extent that he is. I’m always trying to discover the reasons why choices are made, what extenuating circumstances play into the creation of art, and how the art was created. I’ve been this way for a long time, and maybe it is the influence of my father. I’m not terribly analytical in terms of figuring out how things work, but I am in terms of figuring out how art works. It’s fun. I love watching television and trying to figure out why a certain character has appeared or why that scene was in there, because, as I tell my daughter, film costs money, so they’re not going to put something in just for the fun of it. I love all of that, and I don’t think it hinders my enjoyment of art in any way. So while I’m cynical, I also get emotionally affected by art. While I love what art brings to my life, I recognize the realities behind it. And to me, there’s nothing wrong with that.

What do you guys think? Or do you just want to throw some overrated albums at me?

9 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    Whoooo! Lengthy article there Mr. B.

    Music, art, comics, it’s all relative to the eye (or ear) of the beholder, eh?

    I do so agree with you that the end of Morrison’s Doom Patrol was brutally and devastatingly gut-wrenching.

  2. I like Springsteen, but I’m unlikely to go to the mat for him or anyone. Music doesn’t inspire the passion in me it does in other people.
    I didn’t like the end of Doom Patrol at all, the whole psychiatric hospital set up rubbed me raw both times I’ve read it (I also hated the reveal with the Chief) though i don’t remember why.
    I think you’re partially right about money and art, but only partially. Lots of people create art with little hope of commercial gain. Community theater groups. Poets (poetry is not a cash cow in this century). A lot of people who write fanfic. Writers who simply post stories online to share.
    Personally I have a sort-of hope of making money off fiction, but at this point I honestly don’t see it happening. But I keep writing it.
    There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing for a paycheck (subject to what you’re writing. If someone’s selling fiction to the Daily Stormer, I have objections). But there’s nothing wrong with approaching it as a hobby either — the kind of hobby one puts a lot of hours and effort into without hope of compensation (e.g., golf, bird-watching). I might have been less stressed at times in my life if I’d thought of fiction writing that way.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Fraser: Boooooo for not liking the end of Doom Patrol!!!! 🙂

      You’re right about that kind of art, of course, and I love that kind of thing. Most of those people, I would think, have jobs – as you put it, they approach art as a hobby – and that’s because, for whatever reason, they can’t make money doing art. I’m talking more about people who are, I guess, more committed to making it their career – at some point, money has to come into it, or you do have to get a job and create art on the side. I don’t like it, but such is life. But yeah, the people that Greg Hatcher goes to see doing plays of Star Wars have to be doing it for love, because they ain’t making a lot of coin on it!

  3. Peter

    Usually, I think I’m pretty good at separating the art from the artist, for both good and bad. I think the things that Roman Polanski has done are despicable, but I still think Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are great movies; I have heard that Jon Bon Jovi is one of the nicest guys in rock ‘n’ roll, but that doesn’t mean that I really care for Slippery When Wet.

    Now, in terms of the actual CONTENT of art, I do have to admit that I’m a little biased. A perfect piece of art would make me feel something, would make me think about its connections to other works of art, would make me think about other people, and lastly would make me think about myself. I think that the last part there – the introspection – is just a lot more comfortable when you’re dealing with art that’s optimistic or at least humanistic instead of something cynical. Ceteris paribus, I probably would rather read a Grant Morrison comic than a Mark Millar comic; I’d rather watch a Frank Capra film than a David Fincher film; I’d rather listen to The Clash instead of The Sex Pistols. To be fair, I like a lot of the work by the latter artists (Fincher in particular has made two of my favorite films of the last decade and a half), but something about of the fundamental decency of the work by Morrison, Capra, Jones et. al. is a little bit easier to swallow and tends to make me WANT to dwell on the message more.

    All in all, though, what matters in art to me is basically the end result. Is the piece good, and does it make me feel something and think something? I find that good art is usually made by people who care a lot about it, but whether the motivation for that care is purely financial, a sort of workmanlike pride in a job well done, or some higher ideal – the end result is the same to me. The fact that “Should I Stay or Should I Go” has been in a bunch of Levi’s ads doesn’t make it any less of a great song; if Se7en was David Fincher’s most personal passion project and he funded it by selling his own kidney or whatever, it wouldn’t make me think any more highly of the final product.

    One last quick thought about overrated albums – in my opinion, what made London Calling such a landmark wasn’t really the passion of The Clash (although I don’t think the band would have had as much fun or cared as much about recording quality tracks if they didn’t have that ideological passion), but the diversity of the music. I wasn’t alive in the ’70s, but I did get into punk rock via a fairly chronological tour of the landmark albums. London Calling was a big leap forward in the sonic horizons of punk. Most punk bands started off as a course-correction to the overproduced versions of rock and pop that were popular in the mid-70s (disco, glam, prog, even singer-songwriter stuff with strings – there were more layers of interference between the performers and the audience than when rock became the dominant form of music in the ’50s and ’60s), and so your Ramones and Damneds and Televisions and Clashes of the world kept the arrangements simple at first: two guitars, bass, drums. Then, somehow, political consciousness also seemed to enter the arena, and “message music” also was expected to be loud and fast. Though the Clash had always had a strong reggae influence, I think London Calling is hailed as a masterpiece because they managed to keep their political edge but broaden the musical horizons of punk even more with piano, horn parts, more tempo variation, and even a little bit of quietness when called for. Again, I never lived in Thatcher-era Britain, but the album still holds up for me because of the musical creativity the band exhibited while maintaining their lyrical themes and keeping the music feeling as unmediated as the earlier, more straightforward punk stuff.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Peter: I’ve never had any problem separating the art from the artist. The only artists I don’t get for other reasons than I don’t like their stuff are people I felt had distaste either for their audience or me, personally. Luckily, that’s not a lot of people.

      Interesting thoughts about the kind of art you consume. I don’t completely agree; Se7en isn’t about fundamental decency and I love it, but I get your point and don’t completely disagree with it, either.

      That’s very interesting about London Calling. I always admit that context matters, and if you’re right (which, why wouldn’t you be?), the context is very important in that regard. The “you had to be there” phenomenon is real, I think, and your point is fascinating.

  4. Hal

    Interesting post, Greg. Your comment on the Emma Thompson (now *she* is, would argue overrated! Bwahaha! Altho’ perhaps that should read “irritating”. Hoo. I should probably say that my favorite perf of hers was as Nanny Gee in Cheers: Hilarious! Moving clip tho’. 😉 ) fascinates me, it’s the “I know she’s just acting” bit. It’s almost as if a sliver of silly Plymouth Rock Puritanism is in your psyche or that you are vaguely ashamed that you are moved by drama. Funny! There’s even a bit of that in your comment on Doom Patrol’s ending; you love it, it moves you but you almost apologize for the feeling. Why is that? Heh, that sounds a little too In The Psychiatrist’s Chair with Dr Clare! Don’t feel the need to apologize or distrust the feeling, if it moves you it moves you, isn’t it great that art and entertainment can do that? Yes! (Too. Many. Exclamation. Points. Must… Stop…!) Perhaps it is your cynical side, the notion that you are being manipulated, and the partial need to assert control? Wait, who let Doc Samson in? (“SAMSON SMASH PUNY CRIMINAL!” That’s probably a paraphrase but from where? I’d guess you’d know!)
    Morrison’s use of a quotation from The Smiths’ Asleep at the climax to Doom Patrol is a killer, isn’t it? C’mon… “There is a better world… There must be.” Gosh. More apposite than ever now. G.M.’s Doom Patrol ending is only rivalled by the conclusion to his Animal Man run and three moments from All-Star Superman as his most tear jerking (“I can save him. I can save everyone!”, the comforting of the suicidal girl, and the end with Lois), devastating.
    I’m a moderate Springsteen fan and I’d definitely plump for Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Born In The U.S.A. over Born To Run which I don’t like much (the title song is, however, a masterpiece. Overwrought? Who gives an eff?! As for the pause/false ending, one of the greatest moments in popular music!). I think it unfair to attempt to nail Springsteen for idealism, making money from music and wanting a better world are not mutually exclusive things, and it’s not as if he hasn’t thought about the difficulties of staying connected to his origins whilst being a millionaire, he’s aware of the contradictions as he isn’t an idiot. Whether it is “highfalutin” (dig those scare quotes, daddio!) to have or have had hopes for your music being transformative is another question (Answer: Fuck, no!). That said, I would doubt people who find Born To Run overrated do so because it’s too passionate and the same for those who think the same of Brooce himself. Of course, there are those maroons who think no singer should have liberal political opinions or believe that, say, the American Dream has been soiled but that’s something else.
    Away from the cynical/idealistic divide (one that’s sometimes illusory anyway) and on to overrateds! Morrison’s New X-Men (That tired Magneto reveal in particular! Not aaaaggggaaaainnnn! Commenting on something by doing the thing on which you are commenting is rarely a good idea. I suppose it was slightly better when he did it again with Oberon Sexton/The Joker in Batman. Slightly.) Nirvana’s Nevermind. Eh, it’s important but as with Michael Jackson’s Thriller (which I prefer, altho’ Jackson was *BLEEP*!), it’s three or four good songs and filler to my ears. The Wire’s fifth season. Friends. Fleabag. Line of Duty. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. Goodfellas!
    I was thinking about Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band a few days ago and how some feel it overrated or loathe it. I think it a great *album*, a great coherent collection with a great sound. Many years ago some “brave” people were decrying The Beatles as “The Beat-less” (see what they did there?!), which tends to suggest they had been brainwashed into thinking music has to contain only the elements they were used to in order to be worthwhile but I digress. To each their own but the anti-Beatles people I can but laugh are those who appear to think they are superior or iconoclastic by being so. Silly people. Worse are Americans who hate British rock/pop because it is* British and not American, yeuch (ditto for US comic fans who have the same dumb prejudice). They are as rancidly dimwitted as the British equivalent. Rant over!
    Again, stimulating post, Greg. Now own your emotional involvement!

    1. Greg Burgas

      Hal: Interesting points, sir. I don’t think I’m ashamed by showing emotion at drama. I didn’t think that came across, but I guess you thought it. I’m not saying I’m not affected by art, I’m just saying that I recognize it as artifice, which is fine. You can tap into emotions and make people feel something without those emotions being real. It’s kind of what art does, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t think I’ve ever felt embarrassed by admitting that art gets to me. I think it’s pretty keen, actually.

  5. Terrible-D

    Count my vote for London Calling. It has been a favorite since the age of 13. Like Peter, I was finding older punk albums to compliment my interest in Green Day and other pop-punk bands of the 90’s. Leave home, Nevermind the Bollocks, and anything from the Misfits. Much like my interest in the heavier-of-metal sounds, I thought speed and aggression equated to coolness. Upon purchasing, and listening to a cassette (dated myself there) of London Calling, I realized I had no idea what cool was. It was my first real taste of a band progressing from what they were expected to be, to what they could be.
    And while it may not be one of my favorites, but fits in with the discussion of art/money, Sandanista was made as a triple album. The band as a whole received writing credits, as opposed to individual members, so the royalty payments would be lower, allowing them to insist the album be sold at the price of a single album.

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