Discover is a curious word. I have been fascinated with the word discover for some time. We like to think that it means to learn or invent something spontaneously– as if producing something new out of thin air. We say Galileo discovered the laws of motion. Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity. Christopher Columbus discovered North America. But the truth is that those things were there all along. The forces of gravity worked upon Achilles, Hector and Agamemnon just as effectively as they do upon you and me, today. These things were not transmogrified at their moments of discovery. They were revealed to be true. The cover of ignorance– of unknowing– had been removed: discovered, uncovered.
Art is different. At the moment art is revealed it is handed over. Art is a sacrificial gift to be coveted, savored, squandered, mocked or copied. And there is nothing the artist can do about that choice once it has been given.
The relationship between artist and audience is a strained one. I believe an artist both loves and hates the audience. The artist requires an audience. Is an unread novel really a novel, regardless of how well-drafted it may be? Is a painting truly art if no one views it? Does an actor really act if the balcony is empty? I do not think so. I concede it may be possible to consider these events artistic absent any witnesses; but they strike me as something closer to lost treasures, valueless until the day they are actually discovered.
Now some artists have had fun with this bit of cosmic irony, postulating a world in which discovery functions much more like true prestidigitation. This brings a whole new meaning to something like the Copernican revolution. I appreciate that. I think it speaks to a motivation for some artists: a desire to change the world through expression.
I am no stranger to art. I have friends who are aspiring writers. I have family members who are painters. Another friend of mine works as an architectural photographer. Another works as a video editor for Harpo Studios. I, myself, work for a video game company. We work on the cutting edge of video game production and that includes a great deal of artistic effort. Play God of War, Shadow of the Colossus or Lost Planet if you do not believe me. All of that is likely a defensive way for me to say I am not an artist and to allow me to squawk that I know art when I see it. At best this is a weak contrivance on my part– a lame convenience. To my own defense I think this indirect association with art and those who make it drives me to ask questions about the entire process. And the questions I do ask tend to be the pragmatic ones about what are essentially impractical processes.
Friday evening Whirl and I watched the documentary film Shut Up and Sing. The film follows the Texas-based country music band the Dixie Chicks from 2003 to 2006. This three-year span saw the band– the highest-selling female band ever– come under tremendous attack after the lead singer, Natalie Maines, publicly expressed her discontent about the impending war in Iraq and President George W. Bush. Maines said between two songs at Shepard’s Bush Empire theater in London, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” All anyone seemed to hear were the last twelve words.
The audience turned. — Not the London audience at the concert. They loved it. European support for the war was, while probably strongest in the United Kingdom, significantly weaker than it was here in America. American audiences boycotted the band. Radio stations refused to play their music. They lost the corporate sponsorship of their tour.
Twelve words– twelve unreflected words– and the adoring audience transformed into mob.
How does an artist contend with that? People can be capricious, stupid and mean. When those three traits align together under just the right– or more accurately: wrong– circumstances, I think it can destroy someone.
Perhaps it is beauty. Maybe it is fame or immortality. — I know that for many artists it is a desire to change the world. Not always. Stephen King has described his stories as personal demons he is compelled to exorcise by putting them to paper. I have read a number of interviews with rock bands that discuss the powerful and motivating sins of lust, greed and gluttony in graphic detail. That is not to say these bands are not accomplished artists just because they know they were in it for the easy women, easy drugs and easier money. Those bands can be great bands.
Does the business of entertainment compound this issue? Given my unproven premise at the top of this essay that art is not real without an audience, together with the American predisposition towards capitalism, art becomes a commodity. Art becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold. For art forms like the novel, the sculpture and the painting– probably the film and the video game, too, to be honest– this is not the most irksome of conflicts. A painter or a writer may very well ask himself, “Is this thing gonna sell?” And then he will go on and write his story and find out. I know video game producers ask themselves that question often. I also know that is one of producers’ major functions. That is a place where they add value. I hear them in the halls discussing the business problems with some regularity. But even in our studio that is not the most important criteria for the artistic collaborators.
There is something about the Dixie Chicks story that compels me in its apparent simplicity. As I followed these women, I became struck by the notion that they performed because they loved music. They were artists because they loved art. While the appreciated the benefits of fame and fortune, and while there were moments during the indictment by their fans-cum-critics that they expressed anxiety about the money they persevered. Their music changed and grew.
We watched the 2007 Grammy Awards. The Dixie Chicks won all five categories for which they were nominated. This included the coveted awards for Song, Record, and Album of the Year. The band has interpreted this recognition as partly a statement for free speech. I see it as art affecting change: artists creating.
Scientists discover. They reveal truth. They do not press truth into being. Artists create. They sacrifice something of themselves for our benefit. In that powerful way artists are little gods and the stage is a dynamic temple.