Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Artistic Integrity and Selling Out

One of the great Zen riddles of the rock era concerns artistic integrity and commercial success.

More of one is usually assumed to result in less of the other. Pleasing yourself or staying true to your initial small pool of fans is supposed to be superior to pleasing the masses and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

This is a central tenet of what academics call the "rock ideology," and has its origins in the counterculture, and selling out originally meant working for "the man" rather than yourself and your youth-based community.

But the idea has a much deeper history than that: it stretches back to the Romanticism of the 19th century. The Romantic notion of artistic purity being measured by the artist's brave flouting of conventions and rebellion against society's expectations continues to reverberate today.

Robert Pattison argued some time ago that rock mirrors Romanticism in many ways. But rock can only do so in a contradictory way. It is a mass commercial medium in the first place (it was never anything but that), and thus setting up an opposition between the uncommercial (authentic) artist vs. the commercial (artificial) entertainer in rock was always problematic.

This isn't to dismiss the oppositional, bohemian subcultures that popped up in rock's history at various times, but to acknowledge that bohemian oppositionality has often been a source of rock's commercial appeal.

There are lots of bands that used the rhetoric of the Romantic artist as a way of authenticating themselves, partly because they and their fans fervently believe in it.

As a Rush fan, I know I did. I liked the idea that the band "stuck to their guns" (so they said) and stayed true to their artistic vision, and shrugged off the fact that they'd never had a bona fide hit single. Yet -- and here's the rub -- I also remember feeling proud of my chosen group for their commercial success: the string of gold and platinum albums, that grandness of their live shows (and the size of arena they could fill). It somehow spoke to their strength as artists, the payoff for being so creatively bold.

There's nothing original about this: Led Zeppelin and many of their fans, King Crimson, and tons of other rock, prog and metal bands embraced this seeming contradiction.

I've been playing with the idea that this Romanticism is somehow linked to class, or at least to some kind of social privilege. Certainly, Romanticism arose at the time when the middle class was emerging in Europe; its individualism and revolutionary (anti-establishment) tenor is certainly part of the bourgeois culture of the time.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote extensively about class and taste, and laid out clearly how those on the higher end of socio-economic spectrum view art and culture as something outside and above the world of economic exchange. Because they're too rich to have to worry about the material necessities, culture can be viewed in a disinterested way and appreciated for its own sake. Mass culture, for them, is crass; real art and refined aesthetics are not concerned with wide appeal and mass sales. (I've reduced this idea greatly -- see Bourdieu's Aristocracy of Culture and Gene H. Bell-Villada's Art for Art's Sake for a fleshing out of this.)

Now, of course, most rock stars don't start off rich, but the attitude that musical integrity matters more than fame, money and popularity suggests that the prospect of material deprivation is not taken overly seriously.

Contrast this with the sheer flaunting of wealth that has become stylistically prevelant in rap music: the issue of selling out barely registers. If you've known material deprivation with little prospect for escaping it, then of course you flaunt success when it comes. Poverty is what was shameful, not jumping on your ship when it comes in. Endorsements, clothing lines, cross-marketing -- bring it on.

Art for art's sake, then, is an idea that originates in privileged circumstances. The starving artist is a Romantic, noble thing as long as it symbolizes idealism, not an inescapable reality. But does that mean that only the privileged buy into this idea?

I'm only playing around with this theme right now, because the idea of art for its own sake seems to have played a role in a lot of subcultural movements with a strong working-class base -- it's not just a middle-class thing. I'm wondering if its significance connects more forthrightly to an ethnically white/Western cultural position, because it shows up in white-dominated popular genres more than black, Latin or other immigrant genres in North America.

So maybe the art for art's sake attitude is something shared across class lines within an ethnic group. This leaves the door open for thinking about what Charles Seeger calls subacculturation -- literally, the transferring of cultural influence from one social class to another. With its history of having a relatively fluid or porous class structure, North America has been more open to subacculturation than Europe.

More on this in the next post.