Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Ars Longa, Vita Blecch!

I recently had an epistolary debate with someone regarding Lennon, the Musical.

Not so much about the actual musical, but their assertion that wealth and success invariably result in an artist “selling out” and becoming a sad shadow of the force they were when they were young and hungry.

Well, no doubt a certain amount of material success removes one from the mundane tasks that occupy most of our days. But wouldn’t it also free an artist to create without having to worry about those things? Isn’t that what patronage and grants are all about?

In Lennon’s case, he dropped out not, as is so often assumed, because of a lack of inspiration: he wrote songs and stories throughout his entire househusband period. He just didn’t choose to share it. Rather, he was more concerned with not having his identity and worth tied up with values that no longer mattered to him, being in the charts, in the papers, etc.

My loyal opposition insisted that Art, real capital A Art, comes out of misery and suffering. He insisted further that John had been miserable throughout the Beatle years, thereby proving his theory since he held his Beatle work to be superior to the solo work he produced after he met and found happiness with Yoko Ono. When artists cease to suffer, he maintained, they fail to produce anything of worth.

I was a little shocked. Hadn’t this one died with La Boheme ? Did anyone still buy into the myth of the tortured artist in their spare but tasteful garret, who remains genuine until he or she actually sells something, thereby prostituting themselves?

We’re always so eager and ready to declare someone a sell-out, regardless of what they’ve done before. Meanwhile, we’re usually busy dancing around a golden calf.

Dylan “sold out” went he went electric. Phil Ochs “sold out” when he put on a gold lame suit and sang Elvis songs. Charlie Parker and Buddy Holly “sold out” when they recorded with strings. Albert Ayler “sold out” when he started recording R&B. Gertrude Stein “sold out” when she started writing narrative. Charles Bukowski “sold out” when he bought a BMW. Sonic Youth “sold out” when they signed to a major label.

John didn’t “sell out.” He refused to sell himself at all anymore.

My debating friend, not surprisingly, is much enamored with Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a portrait of a pseudo-Kurt Cobain named Blake who mumbles and stumbles through the end of his life. Because, you know, that’s how real artists are, man. He also holds that (I couldn’t believe he wanted to breathe life back into this one) artists as a group are generally sons of bitches, but that’s to be expected being, you know, artists and such.


It’s been my experience that the greatest artists, at least the few I’ve met, possess humility in direct proportion to their talent, which is to say that the best of them usually turn out to be the nicest people.

Pollyanna, my friend declared. Maybe.

But this idea that artists who have, god forbid, become happy and/or retreated to suburbia have sold out seems to me to be not only puerile, but dangerous.

It’s why Mark David Chapman stood outside the Dakota, waiting for the Holden Caulfield who’d disappointed him.


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