The Relation of Artists to Artefacts; or, The Dick and the Cultist

The Relation of Artists to Artefacts; or, The Dick and the Cultist

The last few times I’ve found myself waking in the middle of the night, my mind has usually strayed to the relationship artists play to their creations (I know, I’m pretty effin’ cool). It doesn’t really help me get back to sleep, but it does provide a bit of interest to otherwise dreary hours.
There was a time where I believed that the artist, on a normative level, ought not to bear any relationship to the finished piece. While they did create it, and the acciden
ts of the objects are stamped by the character of the maker, the piece itself stands alone. This perspective owed more to the New Critics than to BarthesDeath of the Author, but definitely took cues from the latter.

However, that is no longer the case, and hasn’t been for some time. I now hold the position that all human activity is, by its nature, a political statement. Everything we do and are should be viewed from that perspective: that we are social animals, and that all of our actions are inextricably wrapped up in that fact.

What gives me pause is neither the aim of the New Critics nor Barthes – I’m not, at least here, concerned about finding the author in the text; of using this position as some way of teasing out meaning. No, my worries are much more mundane. Rather than extending from art object back to artist, I’m currently worried about the way artists stain and stamp their creations.

To illustrate my point, I’ll use two, quick, case-examples. I read of the first a couple of months ago and, while it was news to me, I couldn’t with any honesty say I was surprised. The second is something I’ve known about for a while, but certainly affects the way I view that man’s corpus.

So, this URL (http://www.backstreets.com/SVZonSunCity.html) links to an interview with Steven Van Zandt, discussing, primarily, his involvement in Artists United Against Apartheid for their album in ’85. Amongst other things, he highlights Paul Simon’s refusal to observe the cultural boycott of South Africa in the creation of his album Graceland. More to the point, Simon casts off any blame for crossing the picket line by declaring he paid all the performers double rate. Furthermore, he boldly stated that “Art transcends politics.” If ever there were a case that showcases the poverty of that statement, I’d have to say that this is it. I don’t know that I feel comfortable laying blame at the feet of the South African performers – while they ought to have known better, it’s a truism that “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” Quite another thing for a well-heeled American to go about claiming inviolability. Later on, while making the film Under African Skies, which, on the face of it, was meant to be Simon’s mea culpa, both Van Zandt and Dali Tambo are edited to seem as if they approve of Simon’s actions. Paul Simon is a dick.

Now, to the second. This one is less important to me, as I encountered the “artist” after hearing about the other aspects of his character. While I’ve yet to get through of all of the Satanic Verses (truth be told, I’m much more eager to read Midnight’s Children), and Rushdie does come off as a smarmy son-of-a-bitch, no one deserves to have an international hit put on them, especially for offending someone else’s Sky God. So, when Yusuf Islam, né Stevens, comes out and states in public, “He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die,” I take a bit of umbrage. This is an on-going issue, several decades old, with a great deal of ink spilled on it already. Cat Stevens has claimed that the initial comments were merely his neophyte interpretation of Islamic law, and that subsequent ones were his crude attempts at some twisted humour. Fairly clearly, this is some cheap, post hoc defense. Rushdie himself is on record saying that Islam is no longer the man that Stevens was, and he hasn’t been that man for a long time. Yusuf Islam is a fool, and he’s been corrupted by the hate-filled rhetoric of an insane man and his insane followers.

So, where does that leave us? I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to enjoy Tea for the Tillerman the way I could have if I’d been ignorant of the stupid, stupid things that Stevens has said and remained unrepentant for. On the other side of the coin, I can’t but recognise the beauty of such songs as For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her (written by Simon, though sung by Garfunkel). At nearly 800 words, the main point is, the actions, stances and words of the creators have ineffably tempered my experience of their works (poor attempt that this is to utter). Art does not stand outside our actions. In a peculiar way, kunstwerken are our actions refined. They are our actions in-essence. This isn’t a thorough-going argument for the status of art works as politics – neither the time nor the place. However, does art not affect us? Does it not stir the passions? Does it not cause real change in our world? It seems that its designation as political action follows naturally.

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Posted on April 26, 2014, in Maunderings and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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