Artistic Style, Cultural Impact, or the Utter Lack Thereof?


Yesterday (was it yesterday or the day before? Time bleeds around here.), I listened to an old Jane’s Addiction album. I don’t often listen to “Nothing’s Shocking” anymore. In fact, I rarely listen to the music I grew up on, something I find interesting in and of itself. These days, it’s usually a combo concert of Rush, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Pink Floyd instead of Depeche Mode, The Smiths, the Cure, Nirvana, etc. In fact, I now find The Smiths incredibly funny, whereas my teenage self related purely to the profound angst and heartbreak. Geesh.

About half of “Nothing’s Shocking” is actually quite good. Very musical, very high in the cultural commentary category, and it  has a beat you can dance to. All this despite Perry Farell’s screaming. Guy sounds like he’s being castrated while recorded. (Did I just say that out loud? Damn. Well, there you have it.) The other half of the album is intentional noise rendering those songs almost unlistenable. These songs also happen to be the most scathing in their assessment of post modern culture – making them meaningful – and the howling screeching is their example of what we’ve allowed or determined ourselves to become. It’s enough to make your ears bleed, and that’s their point entirely.

My very tolerant husband looked at me afterwards and gently said, “Do you actually *like* that?”

Which made me think. Yes and no.

No, I hate the screeching. I dislike people using dissonance to make me uncomfortable and I don’t much appreciate them manipulating my physical response to their work.

Yet, yes, as a former director, I do appreciate the artistic choice of using your medium to insist that your audience experiences, as opposed to just observes, your opinion. It’s a bold move and one that most “art-teests” can’t pull off. I respect that. I’ve done it myself. When I was directing, I wanted to make it impossible for my audience to miss my meaning. I wanted them to have a physic bruise after the curtain and I wanted it to be necessary that they account for their discomfort. I wanted to be shocking.

And it generally worked / works, for a little while.

But, if you make people’s ears bleed or bruise their consciences, eventually and probably sooner than later, they will stop listening to you altogether, and you will lose your chance of making your point at all. When you are young, it is easy to believe that you will have infinite, or at least thousands, or opportunities to get people to listen to you. You take more risks. As you mature though, you realize that you are actively disrespecting your audience and their trust. You are abusing them. You will lose them.  And, no, I don’t like that.

So I’ve come full circle. If I want to make a point, I have to make sure I have an audience. They need to feel safe to open up their minds or hearts to me. Whether I like it or not, this is one of the parameters of any artist, and it demands respect. Even if I think my audience is largely composed of sheep and ought to have stronger stomachs. Well, maybe they should, but they don’t, so deal. Medicine has to be tolerable to be taken. Packaging does matter. It’s not selling out; it’s deciphering the method of effective delivery. And it isn’t that odd to compare artistic statements to medicinal therapies; art is the tonic of the soul just as pills are the balm of the body. In the ongoing debate of director/creator rights versus audience preference, I believe that ultimately the artist must bend a bit at least (note: this does not equal selling out). A painter can paint, a musician can play, a writer can write volumes of tear soaked sonnets, a tree can fall in a forest without an audience.

But does any of that matter if the audience isn’t listening?

I don’t think so. I have to woo others, persuade them that my point of view is worth consideration, or my art is just highly stylized masterbation. It only serves myself. I don’t want to be that selfish. I must bend without breaking.

So, this album has been placed back on the shelf, where it will remain. And all of their effort is in vain – because they worked so hard to make it viseral. They almost made their point, and I think they would have, if they hadn’t driven listeners away before they had the chance to explain themselves. It’s an important cautionary tale for all endeavoring to create something of value and meaning. One might be right, one might even be brilliantly right, but one must make it possible to understand as well. The burden of translation falls on the speaker, whether or not that is fair. And in the centuries old debate of whether context informs art or not, if the tree can make sound without a listener, I believe that I have now made my decision. Context is essential to art. Without context, you just have one more voice screaming into the wind.

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About Shannon Blue Christensen

Storyteller. Author. Editor. Literary Critic. Director. Teacher. Knitter. nascent Musician. Student. Operations and Quality. Marketing. Historian. Lear's Fool. View all posts by Shannon Blue Christensen

One response to “Artistic Style, Cultural Impact, or the Utter Lack Thereof?

  • Jessica Millis

    I find the art that has most profoundly touched me has not needed to scream for attention. “And behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake it in pieces; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” 1 Kings 19: 11-12.

    When I have seen or heard an artistic expression that has made a true impact, it may not necessarily be religious in nature, but certainly it is a spiritual experience. “….They heard a voice as if it came out of heaven; and they cast their eyes round about, for they understood not the voice which they heard; and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless and notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.” 3 Nephi 11:3 (Book of Mormon) Forgive the Mormon reference, but seriously it is one of the best descriptions I have encountered for how it feels to be so powerfully changed to the core by a “voice”, whether literal or figurative.

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