Separation Anxiety: The Difficult Labor of Art and Artist

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There has been much to-do of late about some of the moral quandaries of our time and I couldn’t help but feel compelled to sit us all down and have a proper chat about it!

In this day and age of rapid-fire information zipping back and forth across the globe like so many lightning Pony Express letters, we are exposed to seemingly infinite amounts of detail like never before. But what should do we do with this veritable stack of informative leaflets? How do we categorize and use these facts? Indeed, how many are even facts at all?

Factory riff farming at an unknown location in Northern Europe, 1971, colorized.

And as the most cultured and discerning of music aficionados, how do we separate the art from the artist? Is it a simply an act of quality control, like separating the chaff from the wheat, curds from the whey, or cotton from the seed? Is it just that simple?

A farmhand shows off a fresh crop of artisanal free-range organic prog-fed riffs to be sold at the local farmer’s market, 2016.

Or is the art and the artist from which it is born inextricably entwined, and separating them more like trying to surgically separate conjoined twins sharing a single set of organs, wherein the procedure is awkwardly grotesque and inevitably fatal to at least one or the other?

To properly understand the topic, I believe we need to consider the issue from three distinct angles: that of the consumer, that of the artist and as always, that of the surrounding history and context.

First, let us train our telescopes on to the most familiar part of this equation: ourselves!

As consumers of things in general and art and music specifically, we all have a fairly simple goal: to seek out, acquire and enjoy content of our choosing. The specific impetus may range from seeking inspiration, new perspectives and experiences, to finding things that manage to mirror our life as it already is, perhaps in an enlightening, comforting or refreshing way.

The riff epidemic overtook opioids as the primary cause of financial ruin and medical hardship for white collar Americans in 2018.

So it seems to be a fairly simple situation!

We as consumers seek those sounds that add value to our daily lives, and the circumstance of origin for those sounds isn’t really an inherent quality inside the music itself, so we may judge the sound on its sonic qualities alone. And when it matches our needs and is sufficiently important to us, we will exchange our hard earned legal tender for it. Straightforward indeed!

So, let us move on to the second angle: that of the artist.

From the artist perspective, they are generally compelled to create something, and that something will either make some kind comment or statement regarding the community in which they reside, or perhaps a reflection and ruminating expression relevant to the artist themselves. These intrepid artists send unique waves of energy out into the world; a hearty soup blended together by a unique distillation of their experiences, ideas, opinions, histories and aspirations all boiled down into a series of screams, chugs and other types of bombastic racket!

And when these artists receive our likes on their favorite frighteningly unchecked info-dungeon and chamber of hysterically uninformed echoes social media platform, sales notifications on Bandcamp, plays on Spotify, or the screams of happy audience members on tour, that all boils down to one thing for them: support.

A young Hitler attempts to earn a new armband patch while raising funds for his Eagle Scout project, 1931.

Whether we like it or not, that financial support we lovingly transmit via PayPal is not delivered with a caveat that says “only for the riffs”, Facebook does not have a special emoji for “love the drumming, hate your personal choices”, and spotify plays do not have an exemption clause “listened for the solos, not the misogyny”.

So in the end of the day when that artist looks out over that crowd or pores through their overflowing balance sheets, the artist feels in their heart of hearts that everything they have written, said, done, recorded and played has resonated out there in the world…they have connected!

And whether those followers number in the hundreds or the hundreds of thousands, the artists see that following, and they hear it saying just one thing; “keep doing what you do, you are on the right track”.

Captured still image from one of Obama’s surveillance microwaves installed at an As I Lay Dying Concert, 2010.

There seem to be some stress fractures developing in our delicate scenario, but surely there must be a simple way to navigate this dilemma, some precedent to follow, or clear guidance to return our lives to simpler times and carefree tunes!

So, if we are to truly embrace our responsibility as thoughtful consumers and consider the positive and negative impacts of our choices on those around us, how should we approach other topics?

How should we treat the art and ideas produced throughout human history?

If we deny supporting a contemporary music troupe for their views on women’s rights, are we also not obligated to deny the classical works of music and literature penned by people of similar views throughout history?

And this brings us to our third waypoint: the perspective of context.

While we humans certainly do have a strong temptation to attempt to apply our judgment and idealism with the wide and consistent brush of black and white clarity, that is unfortunately a folly of oversimplicity. For though it is difficult to truly imagine a life other than the one we have known, the fact remains that the situations that governed the people of the past were vastly different than those that we live in, and it is inadvisable to claim a mantle of perspective sufficiently omniscient to be able to fairly judge people and events outside of the context from which they were made.

For instance, one would not fault cave-people for believing the Earth to be the center of the universe, for that was an appropriate assumption given the existing knowledge and technology of the time.

On the other hand, however, it is absolutely acceptable to fault someone of the modern era for believing such a bare falsehood, especially in the face of such overwhelming and verifiable evidence.

The last known Presidential Debate where a 3rd party candidate was invited to participate, 250,000 BC.

Put simply, one cannot fairly judge the past by current standards, and nor should we judge the present by outmoded standards either. So, while the behavior and perspective of certain musical acts of today may have been considered normal or acceptable in the 1500s, 1700s, or even early 1900s, the fact remains that the standard to which we are all held today as responsible citizens exists solely in the here and now.

Our poor beleaguered waters of clarity seem to have clouded over, for what began as a simple scenario from the listener’s perspective has become significantly more murky and gray when considering the give and take of society and the contextual norms in which we all must operate.

So, what is one to do?

Do we cross our fingers and simply hope that our favorite artists are perfect? Do we hope that bad people make equally bad art? Do we simply improvise on a case-by-case basis and attempt to retroactively justify whatever our gut tells us, or do we draw an arbitrarily hard line beforehand?

The good news is that, whether we realize it or not, this is a task we are all well-practiced at handling in one way or another in our constant struggle against the inconsistencies between our own thoughts and actions.

The fact of the matter is that every choice we make is a series of gray areas of nearly incalculable moral consequence. And unfortunately for us there is no escaping it, for even no choice is still a choice.

But what do you think dear reader? Do you draw up a plan of moral decisions to attempt to make as positive an impact as you can within your lifestyle and budget? Is it better to simply plead ignorance and merrily plod along and simply allow everything to ‘sort itself out’? Are you filled with crushing anxiety at the desire to improve but unable to find a satisfactory end in the rabbit hole of imperfect solutions? Are you in a state of perpetual boycott in a staunch attempt to resist evil at every turn? Or perhaps your response is simply one of fatal nihilism and to hope that Mr. President Trump grabs his nuclear football and relieves our existential struggle by throwing the final Hail Mary into the Ultimate End-zone?

Whatever your approach may be, I believe it is important that we remember the insightful words of an often-overlooked rap group of the 90’s who said, “The bass, the treble, don’t make a rebel…having your life together does”.

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