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Blogger Book Club II: A Game of Risk


Mind the Gap is getting some new guest visitors from Google, people searching for answers to big questions such as, “What is beauty?” After 2 a.m., who knows what windows open up that compel us to ask a machine such a question.

Anyway, these late night visitors were of some comfort to me because Hickey’s text has left me digging around deep in the mush of my own definitions of things. Much of my musing is focused on the ways in which institutions deflate the risk out of experiencing art, and the impact that has on culture. My friend Rebecca likes to joke about all the bizarre (which is often also code for “cheap”) places we go in search of musical experiences: old warehouses, dirty basements, venues that require ferry boat rides. If I think about it, in this unsanctioned wildness, we do confront the art more empowered than when sitting meekly at Carnegie Hall (others may not sit meekly there, but I certainly haven’t overcome that, even after all these years). And for this or some other reason I have not identified, the art itself means more to me, resonates longer, when it is good, even if more often than not it is forgettably bad. I’m not sure how to describe it exactly, but I think it is only under these circumstances that I could truly be gobsmacked by music.

As I mosey down that path further, I come to another passage of Hickey’s discussion that hits a nerve (especially in this economy):

If we entertain, even for a moment, the slightest presumption that an institution, suddenly and demonstrably bereft of its social and philosophical underpinnings, is liable to imminent collapse, we have committed what George Bernard Shaw considered the most suicidal error that a citizen can. As Shaw pointed out, institutions die from loss of funding, not lack of meaning. We die from lack of meaning and of joy.

Later he highlights the disconnect between our appointed guardians (bureaucrats, academics, etc.), who “labor to protect us from error and danger, so we must forgive their distress at the tumult in the street” and our own goals, which are slightly at odds. “Guardians are concerned with securing our Safety. We are pursuing our Happiness.” A cruel sleight of hand, and all too true, no?


Admittedly, suddenly everything I’m reading seems connected to this discussion, so forgive me if I stretch too far here. While the institutions may be looking after us with the good intentions of a Mother Superior, the steely hand of the commercial marketplace offers dangerous harbor of another stripe. Hickey notes that beautiful art sells, and that’s why people are suspicious of it.

If it sells itself, it is an idolatrous commodity; if it sells something else, it is a seductive advertisement. Art is not idolatry, they argue, nor is it advertising. Idolatry and advertising, however, are indeed art, and the greatest works of art are always and inevitably a bit of both.

No matter where you fall in this debate, by anyone’s accounting, this Target/Black Eyed Peas promotion kind of follows the argument to its horrifying conclusion to a factor of 10–comepletely unbeautiful music shilling for a discount store. So while at first I thought the fear of commerce was irrational–isn’t everyone selling something?–later I acknowledged that there were degrees on that scale. But I have long believed that some of our ages most brilliant artistic minds are working in advertising, not in Chelsea. So what about the recent Prius ad package, say? How much art is in there? Does that make it any “better”? Does that lend it any value outside how many cars it sells?


  1. I’m not so down on the Target promotion. I think we can learn to distinguish between the personal and commercial work of artists and musicians. Black Eyed Peas have been headed downhill steadily since they let Fergie in, and Target has little to do with it.
    I’m pretty sure I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s name on commercial photographs (Patti Smith, Peter Gabriel) before I ever saw any of his non-commercial work — that is, his “art.” I didn’t think less of his art despite his commercial background. Of course, it’s more common for a photographer or illustrator to do commercial work than for a musician — more common, and more accepted/acceptable. I wonder sometimes why that is.

  2. Much of our perception of art and beauty has to do with context and application. If I have a chair and place it at my dining table, people visiting my home will see it as a piece of utilitarian furniture. Were I to take the same chair and hang it on my living room wall, people visiting my home would most likely pause to gaze at it, consider it, and probably deem it to be some sort of “art.” Possibly beautiful, or not; that’s up to one’s personal aesthetic. Nonetheless, in both examples, it’s the same damn chair. Context and application are all that has changed.
    Enter the use of “art” for “commerce.” The song or the snippet of music are the same pieces we enjoyed in the stadium venue or at Carnegie Hall, and even downloaded afterward for our continued pleasure. Yet once we hear them in the context of a TV commercial, our perception of them is changed. It’s the same music. Only the frame has been altered. I often wonder why this shift in context effects some people so much, when the very thing they presumably enjoy (otherwise it would not have been smartly used in a secondary application) is no different than it has always been.
    Clearly, for those who cringe when they hear a beloved pop tune in a commercial, it’s not the art of either the music or the [potentially artistically made] advertisement that they’re responding to, but a socio-politically charged, negative knee-jerk reaction that they do not want to associate the art they love with a particular product (which, more likely than not, they do not love). This reaction has nothing to do with art or beauty whatsoever, it has to do with a mind game that they resent, for fear that every time they hear “that song” in the future they will think of “that product.” Which, of course, is the brilliance behind licensing pop songs for ads.
    Nonetheless, I have never been one to get her knickers in a knot over the cross-pollination of any two species of media. I believe in the dollar economy of exposure and the boundless uses of one product (music) to sell another (uh, underwear). Does hearing [name your pop star here] sing their hit song on a commercial steal what Dave Hickey calls “meaning and joy” from the original, ad-detached music? Not for me. It gives that much more exposure to a good tune, just like if my nice chair were to be taken off the wall and used in a TV ad.
    Molly adds: Good points, Alex. Just wanted to point out the flip side of this: There are plenty of people looking for “the song that is in the ____ commercial” on the internet. I think they even have a website for that. It’s a whole strategy for getting new artists to the marketplace in the first place (and getting easier rights to their songs, I suspect).

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