2014-02-06

Art Is Relevant To The Times

I once met a young man, about fourteen years old, who played a pretty mean blues guitar. His father had raised him on a steady diet of The Beatles, Led Zepplin, and the usual parade of blues and blues-rock classics. He was a genuinely good player, but when I jammed with him, he didn't know anything but oldies. And the White Stripes.

It's not that this kid had bad taste in music - I mean, those bands and songs are all pretty much the time-tested treasures of the rock music genre - it's that I struggled to comprehend what a fourteen-year-old kid in the second decade of the 21st Century sees in the music of the Baby Boom. 

Perhaps that's not even it. After all, I like a good slice of that old music, myself. But when I hear it, it doesn't sound like music I want to play. It doesn't sound like art I want to create. It sounds like good, old music that people will be listening to for a long time to come. 

This is not unlike when I go to the art museum and see a famous Renaissance painting. It's amazing (especially in person). It's a wonderful work of art. It is every bit as great as it gets credit for being. But if someone were to paint that painting today, it would be largely irrelevant. It wouldn't have the same impact. It's not that people don't paint as well anymore, it's that the artistic movement encapsulated by Renaissance painting has expired from relevance

It is still good. It is still great. It is still remarkable. We can still love it

But it is no longer relevant to the contemporary art scene. It is old, great stuff, that's all.

Here I must separate two different concepts: (1) We enjoy music as fans, (2) We create music as artists. I don't want people get confused and assume that I am complaining about (1). I'm not. Whatever music you love to listen to, I think you should listen to it, and love it, and let it move you. Music is a beautiful thing, and no one else's opinion of it ought to stand it the way of your enjoying it.

But if you're a music artist and you find yourself creating art, then we're talking about (2). The problem of creating art in the pattern of artists from 60 years ago (or more) is that your art will not be relevant to today's audiences. It might be good. It might be well structured. You might think you're doing everything right. Inevitably, though, you'll be missing one crucial element: Relevance.

It may be a crying shame that music no longer sounds like it used to. It also might be a crying shame that art is no longer as good as it was during the Renaissance. That's a matter of opinion. But it is important to remember that part of what made the music of the 1960s so artistic is the fact that it was relevant to the times. It was one important part of a larger social impetus. It encapsulated an era. It is part of art's job to do that. 

This implies that, if you make music that sounds like oldies, you are encapsulating an era - but it's not your era that you're encapsulating. You may as well put on a tunic and head to the local Medieval Fair. Again, nothing wrong with that; in fact, the Medieval Fair aficionados are fully aware of the fact that they are paying tribute to days long past. That's part of the point.

My point here is that, to make really great art, we as artists have to make that art relevant to what's going on in the world here and now. We have to interact with other human beings, partake of the human experience, and then report what we feel - in music. In art.

If, by contrast, we report what we feel about days gone by, then we are little more than a throwback to artists gone by. It might be good, but it's not relevant. Art is relevant.