Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An artist statement

"I find artist statements to be tiresome, so I limit myself to the following: yes, your kid could do this." -Inept, 1992

While shopping among the scratched records and random detritus at Goodwill sometime in the early-to-mid 1990s I found a tape by a “band” called Inept. It was a hand-dubbed Memorex with a photocopied cover, and contained10 or 12 songs of stumbling, out-of-time rhythms, mangled guitar chords and funny, self deprecating lyrics. Though nobody would claim (including the band) that the album contained great music, the “musicians” obviously had made it with much love and had fun doing it. It had a certain homemade charm, and it still holds a warm place in my heart. I think the band was from Montana somewhere, though I know nothing else about them.

The above quote comes from a short, spoken intro to one of their songs. The only reason I mention it here is that it has stuck with me to this day. An artist statement usually accompanies an exhibition or commission and is intended to provide some insight into the artists thought process or inspiration. Wendi has had to write a number of them in her college career, being one of them hoity toity art majors (in a fairness, she just now walked in as I was writing this and told me I was a “podunk philistine”).

I won’t argue. I love and appreciate art, but I do find much of the theorizing and philosophizing of the academic art world to be ponderous and wordy… tiresome, even. Hence, the above quote.

I’m not a visual artist. I can’t really draw or paint and the few times I’ve tried are better forgotten. But I have been playing and practicing music now for more than 20 years, writing and recording songs and absorbing lessons from the music that inspires me. I’ve been posting some of my random scribblings lately… some of the better ones anyway.

So, whatever the quality of my output, I guess I qualify as a creative person. I’m a fairly skilled songwriter and guitarist and have made plenty of efforts to study music theory and formal songwriting, in my own slacker way and time. But I also listen to and have made music in my time that was deliberately primitive, unskilled and… well, inept, and that is another reason that the above quote has always stuck with me. I’ve always said that making great music has little to do with how well you can play your instrument, and I still believe it.

Anyway all of this is just to give a bit of background to my own artist statement, and my thought process when writing music or words. I really don’t take myself too seriously, whatever the tone of the following; having said that, creativity and expression is pretty central to who I am. As I continue to post various poems, and as people hear the music I make, if anybody has questions about what they “mean” or how I come up with this shit, this is as good a place to start as any.

Narrative. What is it?

Narrative is the human compass. Texts are the expressions of the collective consciousness. The human capacity for forging narratives and myths is very nearly infinite. The peculiar and paradoxical features of narratives are that they are both universal and strictly individual, collective and differentiated, simultaneously. Every person is therefore both a repository for and manufacturer of stories.

But narratives are more than stories. They are ways of making sense of the world, understanding the associations we experience, the subconscious reactions and conscious reflections our minds’ eyes. The self both authors and experiences narratives, interpreting the manifold symbols and never ending chaos of life. The simultaneous objective and subjective nature of narratives’ relationship to our consciousness is, I believe, unique to human beings.

This dual nature of the power of narratives is what the best art strives to nurture. The experience of the viewer/listener/reader is an integral part of a work of art, in some cases more so than the contributions of the artist. The artist/audience dynamic and dialectic are essential to art.

In my work (if you want to call it that), I have tried to nurture and encourage this dialectic between the listener and this humble artist. The lyrical content of my songs has become more important as I have progressed as a songwriter and musician.

In the songs by other artists that I appreciate most, the deepest feelings and most unvoiceable thoughts were caused in me by their ability to foster this dialectic. Therefore, I try to encourage the listener to make up his or her own narratives or story. While I generally have a specific idea in mind, I consciously attempt to avoid specificity in voice or causality, but trying to leave enough significant signposts and monuments upon the convoluted path that (I hope) the listener will appreciate as their own the view to which it as brought them on the journey. I believe it to be ultimately more meaningful this way. I just hope the view is scenic enough to make them want to continue the dialectic.

What does it “mean”? Exactly what it says. Exactly what it sounds like.

I hope that clears things up a bit.


Mark said...

I'm hearing you. No more asking for meaning. Let the experience speak for itself . . .

I generally agree with this "Reader-response" approach to lit criticism: art means whatever it means to the reader, listener or observer. My opinion is that this it is just one of many useful ways of analyzing a text.

As a former English major (seems like another life), I was forced to write papers from all sorts of different critical schools: formalism, deconstructionism, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalytic, Reader-response, etc. I tended to favor a formalist approach, but was always surprised at the richness of meaning that could be extracted by using different lenses, often interpretations that I'm certain the author never intended, but that nevertheless could be found and expanded upon. I'm laughing just remembering a Marxist analysis I did of a Wilfred Owen WWI sonnet (powerful poem about the pride and senselessness of war, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, you should check it out), and I got on a roll, and by the end of my paper you would have figured that Wilfred was Lenin's sidekick in the Bolshevik revolution.

I like what you said about the essential dialectic between artist and audience that creates a meaning all its own, the human mind's irrepressible need to construct myths and narratives that attempt to extrude meaning and purpose from the sometimes random events of a sometimes senseless world. You said all of this brilliantly, actually. You sound like a English professor. Now you just need a tweed jacket and a bow tie.

I will say that, if I didn't know you personally, then my primary interest in your poems would fall under the Reader-response category. Either I would like it or I wouldn't, either it affects me or it doesn't. Let me say though, that knowing you, my competing interest is in understanding the spring from whence these poems came. What forces--inherent personality traits, environmental factors, life experiences, mental exercises, subconscious propellants--conjoined to beget this particular string of words or notes from you? In other words, I feel just as interested in what it means to you as I do in what it means to me. If I weren't your brother, I probably would have that interest.

I know that this is true for me, that when I go back to a poem or a song or an essay that I've written years ago, I can't help but read between the lines, to find my thoughts at the time forecasting my future directions in life, or see the bubbling up of tensions that at the time were wholly suppressed but have sense been exhumed and processed, perhaps resolved or perhaps re-buried. Often, I cringe at reading my old stuff, but often I'm struck at how prescient it now seems. Regardless of quality or import to others, this re-examination of my own creative output is a window into understanding myself and my personal journey in life. This is obviously an ongoing process, and I'm sure that a few years from now, I'm going to cringe at some of the stuff I'm writing now.

Like this perhaps. I'm ashamed. But not really. I'm proud. Or not. But who cares what I think? I guess the real question is, what does my response mean to YOU?

Your serve.

Matthew said...

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind chatting about the meaning or creative process behind what I write. I just don't want people to think I have all the answers.

Your comments about various forms of lit-crit are interesting. I'd love to hear your thoughts in some of these veins about things in pop culture.

There is definitely a deficiency of critical thought in our times. If I had one wish for the education system, it would be for a greater focus on developing critical thought than on job skills, as it stands now. I just think it's so important. We live in such a fractured, media and advertising saturated society now that it's hard to make sense of anything even if you do apply critical thought.

Anyway, regarding my poetry: I started keeping the notebooks sometime in the mid 90s as a kind of brainstorm repository for ideas for song lyrics. After a while it just mushroomed, and became a vehicle for me to just sit down and scribble any old idea or line that popped into my head.

I have found that creativity is hard work, and 90% of what you come up with is crap. But it's that 10% that makes it all worthwhile. So the "poetry" has a definite function for me.

In fact, most of what fills those notebooks consists of fragments of lyrics, random couplets and lines, pages full of stream-of-consciousness rambling rhymes, and even just potential song titles.

I have learned through experience that it helps the creative process to, if not be disciplined, at least have some sort of routine or methodology for developing ideas. So that's mostly where my poetry comes from... it's pretty much a secondary output to my overall focus on music and songs.

I have also come to enjoy enjoyed turning a good phrase for its own sake, make no mistake. But lyrics are not poetry. Though they are related, they generally have distinct purposes from each other.

Having written your own fair share, I'm sure you can relate. I don't think I have the discipline or skill to write a whole novel like you did! It has to be a much more involved process than my own kind of freeform methods. You should write about it.

Finally, your comment got me thinking about the creative process and my own methods, and more about how lyrics and poetry differ. But that is a subject for a future post :)