Some of the comments on my Bob Marley Birthday post had me thinking. I believe that art should always be regarded separately* from the artist because for many artists their work is a letter to the world. It can be a love letter to a world that they struggle with, or simply a gift of their vision. It is a gift they can give even while they might not be able to relate to others. A life on the edge tends to make art that connects with us, that hits us, that grabs our attention. I can think of many examples of this: the Blues, traditional Flamenco (the blues of the Roma), the excesses of Rock & Roll, heroin addicted Jazz musicians, writers like William Burroughs. Many people desire security and safety for themselves but love artists that go to abyss and report from there.
Perhaps I should make this more personal, to make the point. I don’t enjoy large crowds unless I am on stage. I don’t like to be around a lot of people. I rarely go out, I almost never go to concerts, I dislike parties. My music is how I interact with humanity. We all say stupid shit. I probably say more stupid shit than many people. But I also say/write some good things, words that are true and sometimes even beautiful. If you could see/hear all of the truly awful things I THINK, and which I have learned to edit out, you would never listen to me or read my words again. My partner wishes I could edit out more of the awful but I think that there is a balance that needs to be maintained. If we discard the awful, we can’t get to the great. If we are not willing to even try awful, and to make mistakes, lots of mistakes, we arrive at an editing sieve that’s too tight… and the result will have no grain, no bite, no edges. We love the lion but the moment he roars we want him put down.
I think this does tie-in to other observations I made. Here is a rant I wrote sometime in the mid-Nineties. It still sounds true to me:
In the fringe is where everything exciting happens, never in the center. Cultures are like spinning circles. In the center they don’t move very much, that’s where the traditionalists live, the conservatives. Towards the rim is where the action is, that’s where the artists hang out. There, life is a little more out of balance and the spinning can make you dizzy. What is most exciting is that many of the culture circles overlap and if you can stay in a spot where several things overlap you can find new clouds of ideas. Ideas are not bound to any individual, there are bound to a time. Many people in that spot will come up with similar ideas. Sometimes this cloud of ideas forms a new circle and the center of it hardens and becomes a new tradition. The longer it can remain liquid the more alive it will remain. Life is change.
If we all desired to be in the center of the circle, the place where the least happens, how would change come about? If we don’t welcome, or even allow, awful ideas to be voiced, what will be left? I think we need people to go too far because it helps to recalibrate culture. Comedians should be allowed to cross the line and make bad jokes, how else can we know where that line is… that line is a moving target after all and lives in a different spot with every generation.
Fresh blood comes from the others, the explorers, the injured, the outsiders, from outcasts, from mixed culture relationships, from people who think differently. That is not to say that the mainstream isn’t important, but a mainstream that does not accept the edges is bland, indeed.
There is also the issue of judging a person from a different culture and very different background. Is it fair for a white person to cancel a black artist (Bob Marley was of mixed “race” but grew up in black culture) because this artist might not have acted in a way that white culture deems acceptable? What about child brides? In Sub-Saharan Africa 38% of girls are child brides. Is it okay for any culture to claim that something is simply their custom and therefore they should be left to follow their old practices? By that logic should cannibalism be acceptable if it only occurs within a culture? Ah, now we are in a cultural minefield, on the edge of the culture disc, and here the movement is dizzyingly fast and, doubtlessly everything changes quickly, too. I don’t have answers, but perhaps that’s the point, to look, to consider, to philosophize, to seek solutions, to move culture forward…
Mr. Weinstein was, by all the accounts I read, an awful man, but does that mean I should not watch one of his company’s many excellent films? Absolutely not. If we truly cut out every piece of art that was done by a person who can’t survive today’s scrutiny what would be left? By no means am I saying that we should overlook people’s actions but this after-the-fact inspection of their work feels wrong to me. Mr. Weinstein should go to jail if he is found guilty but his films absolutely deserve to be seen and enjoyed.
Perhaps Bob Marley had something to do with the deaths of the killers that came to his house. It might even be considered Yard justice (Yard, short for Government Yard, is the nickname of Trench Town, a housing project) if he did. Whether he did have anything to do with those deaths makes absolutely no difference to my enjoyment of Bob Marley’s music, which is as good as music ever gets to be.
* PS: After writing this post I realized that the case could be made that there may be a good reason to avoid the art of someone. To use an earlier example, if the case of Mr. Weinstein had not gone to court, the public might have wanted to boycott the movies of the Weinstein Company in order to create financial pressure on the company to remove Mr. Weinstein. This is something that I could see happening to living artists, but not to dead artists.