5.9.06

music... Derek Webb












Mockingbird by Derek Webb

Sadly, it seems Derek Webb has lost his faith in the power of art.

From all accounts, the progressive trajectory that characterized Webb’s I See Things Upside Down has diverged from its artistic course and instead proceeded toward pure rhetoric. In this way, Mockingbird could have made excellent source material for a series of magazine editorials, commentary for a bible study, or maybe a book of poetry. But it should not have been recorded as an album. How did it all go so wrong for the most promising Christian singer-songwriter of this generation?

Webb has always worn his influences on his sleeve, and that sort of honesty has worked well for him in the past because he chose superior influences. I would recommend that Webb return quickly to his influences, namely Dylan. A secondary viewing of No Direction Home might reveal for him more clearly the genius behind Dylan’s legacy. In a time when the country was torn in two by conflicting opinions of grave political matters, Dylan refused to let his art be subsumed into the prevalent ethos of topical songwriting. It’s the reason that the world will never forget Bob Dylan and never remember Pete Seeger. Dylan launched a legacy in the 60’s while those around him launched campaigns. Ironically, Dylan’s music unquestionably had the greater impact on society and culture. Webb would do well to follow his mentor’s lead in this area.

By any standard, art should show and not teach, dream and not dictate. Not even the best intentions or the truest sentiments can adequately replace the visionary abilities of art. Unfortunately, this is the untold story of kitsch. Usually thought of purely in terms of overly sweet or saccharine sentimentality, kitsch actually has a dark side as well. You see the earnest convictions of Webb’s newest cd are no different than the sappiest CCM love ballad to God because both rely on pre-digested content. Sadly, political credos do little more than Hallmark slogans in the end. Both are easily dismissed for the simple fact that neither evoke wonder and deepen the questions upon revisiting.

Even in truly difficult times, people still want sermons from their preachers and songs from their artists. Art will not change the world on its own, but it must be allowed to do its individual and unique part. If Webb wants the choir to sing so badly, maybe he should stop preaching to them and start modelling for them a better approach to art-making. We don't need another mockingbird.

24 comments:

Timmy G. said...

Your comments ring true. Sadly, they offer no comfort. I had high hopes for this album but after falling in love with the poetry of "wedding dress" and the beautiful imagery in a song like "lover" this one is a hard pill to swallow. It seems as if maybe he decided to forgo the art and just deliver the message. At least it stays true to the title.

Jake T said...

man. I came here from a link on a rather...uh...orthodox blog expecting to have something to rave about.

but all I can say is "true dat."

I haven't listened to mockingbird yet, but I can only hope you're horribly wrong, heheh.

stephen lee cavness said...

im inclined to agree with you taylor. although i would love to sit down with erek and talk through some of his motivations and vantage points, something i havent done since he was working on "i see things upside down".

i know that he maintains that his newer work is not divorced from his material from caedmons, and especially his solo work, but that it is the other side of the coin. but i have often wondered if a coin has any worth if it has two different values on either side.

good thoughts. you should email derek and see what his response would be. he has always been open to dialogue in the past, perhaps he could clarify, or otherwise defend his current perspective.

we miss you around here,
-stephen

Christi Cavness said...

I agree...to a point. This album is my least favorite of Derek's solo work so far. I have, however found a favorite song in Rich Young Ruler. It is powerful and convicting and rings true of American Christianity. He definitely has something to say.

TBW said...

Thanks for your comments, Cavness'. We really miss you guys too.

Christi, you are exactly right! Derek does have some very important things to say. His critique of American evangelicalism is both accurate and timely. But Stephen, you ackowledge the real problem. Listening to his record makes you want to sit down and dialogue with him. In this way, the work is not complete.

My contention is that Derek could accomplish much more for his message with a greater commitment to the craft of his art. A valuable message does not make up for poor expression, if we are talking about popular music.

I hope that my review is not too heavy handed, but I am simply trying to hold him accountable to his own statements. Derek has been a strong voice for better art from Christians, not better Christian art. I just think that Mockingbird is an unfortunate step backwards, despite its provocative claims and questions.

Freddy T. Wyatt said...

TBW,
I'm intrigued by the discussion.
When you speakk of the "craft of his art" and "poor expression" what exactly are you referencing. Are his lyrics not poetic enough, or is it a beef about the actual quality to the music, a combination, or more probably something else I'm just not insightful enough to see?

John said...

Freddy T. asked the million dollar question. Are you disappointed in the lyrics, or the musical scores? If the beef is with the lyrics, then I would be a little confused, since Derek Webb has always been a controversial lyricist. The problem with being controversial is that people are forced to pick sides - they either love you, or make you their whipping-boy. I wonder if people who disagreed with Webb's theology as presented in his Caedmon's days, and in his prior solo releases would call those songs / albums kitsch?

When Webb was writing about Reformed theology, ecclesiology, and other topics that are embraced by many young, conservative Evangelicals, most people I know couldn’t get enough of him. Now, he wants people to think of Christianity in more complex terms, and people interpret his lyrics to be more left-leaning, pro-social-gospel, political rants. I don’t find anything unbiblical in any of the lyrics on the album. (And I certainly don’t find anything repulsive in his most recent musical scores.) I do find several of the songs to be personally convicting and uncomfortable – but that’s not bad.

This whole conversation is great, because it is exactly what Webb was intending to bring about with this album. He is giving a free copy to anyone who wants one, simply to start the conversation about some issues that are important to him as a Christian. It seems that you and Derek have different working definitions of art in many respects. I have heard Derek explain his views on redeeming all forms of art for the glory of God. He explained that he sees himself as an artist who happens to be a Christian. You refer to him as a “Christian singer-songwriter.” He views himself as a singer-songwriter who is a Christian; and as such, his Christianity very often bleeds into his art. (To be fair, you express the same position as Webb in a response comment to the Cavness family.)

You say that his art is incomplete in that it leaves you wanting to sit down and dialogue with him. I think Webb would say that you have experienced his art correctly, and that your reaction proves it.

It seems that another conversation that could come from this post is a discussion of the definition of art! That would probably benefit me greatly in better understanding your position. You state, “By any standard, art should show and not teach, dream and not dictate. Not even the best intentions or the truest sentiments can adequately replace the visionary abilities of art.” By this definition it seems to me that it would be incredibly difficult to allow for much art to be redeemed for the glory of God. What about the great hymns that we all love? Are they not art, because they teach (doctrine / theology) and dictate (adherence to that doctrine / theology)? Were none of Webb’s earlier songs immune to the same kitsch criticism (perhaps from someone of another perspective)? Also, your charge that Webb’s art is incomplete because it doesn’t answer all of your questions seems to contradict your definition, (and answer the question of whether your concern is lyrical or musical) because such incompleteness should allow for much dreaming.

I am really trying to understand your position. I cannot come up with a consistent correlation between your expectations of message and medium in what you expect from Webb, especially in your last two paragraphs. Like Freddy T. also said, maybe I am not insightful enough to fully grasp what you are saying.
Thanks for the post and making me think through your thoughts.

John said...

Taylor,

I read over my comment, and I am not sure that it comes across as graciously as I had intended. I am not trying to be antagonistic at all...it's just a questioning-out-loud response. I don't want you to take it the wrong way. I really do appreciate your thoughts.

TBW said...

Freddy T,

Thanks so much for your question! I hope that I have answered it at least in part with my below response to John.


John,

I would like to thank you for considering my thoughts so carefully. You need not worry about the tone of your response. I understand well your eagerness to defend Derek. He remains my favourite singer/songwriter who happens to be Christian. I will attempt to respond to the issues you have raised.

First, I will not be providing a standard or definition of art for our discussion. I just don’t think it would be helpful to venture toward an ahistorical abstraction that would subsume both 18th century hymnody and 21st century popular music under the same category. Instead, I will refer to Derek’s self-professed influences, i.e. Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Glen Phillips, Jeff Tweedy, etc. Songwriters like these work with a certain standard for how to craft a song. If I knew exactly how to fulfil that standard I would probably be a record producer and not a theology postgrad. The history of the folk song however has demonstrated that success is carefully negotiated by resisting the label of ‘topical.’ Dylan was the example I used in the review, and I could explain further or you might want to rent No Direction Home instead. Other examples abound though. Consider Steve Earle’s recent releases Jerusalem and The Revolution Starts Now, or Springsteen’s Devils and Dust, or Guster’s Ganging up on the Sun, or even the very recent Continuum from pop favourite John Mayer. There is no shortage of recent albums where politics takes precedence over songcraft. I fault all of these for the same reason I fault Webb. Topical messages may fuel the political climate of the day but they will undoubtedly fail to make a lasting mark on the legacies of these artists. On the other side, consider Wilco. They are intensely political and let it show in concert. But despite their activism, the music has not been relegated to propaganda like it has for so many other come-lately musicians turned political activists. Derek has confessed publicly how much he would like to write songs like some of these influences. I am merely pointing out where success and failure diverge for this specific sub-category of ‘art.’

Secondly, I will affirm my claim that Mockingbird is incomplete. It may well be Derek’s intention that the album produce lots of conversations (conversations however about the issues raised by the songs and probably not conversations determining whether his album is good or poor ‘art’). But that would make his album simply a means to an end and not an end in itself. For these purposes, any host of other means would suffice. A pop music album is not necessary to get these discussions going. But surely, even the most uneducated armchair aesthetician would say that art must in some sense be an end in itself. In this way, Webb is actually selling his audience very short. He is saying that unless he puts the message right up front and simplifies the musical arrangements this audience is not going to get it. I find that a bit insulting, especially considering the fact that Derek has preached in the past about how great art from Christians can do so much more than simply instruct. Unfortunately, because the album is so easily dismissed for its lack of quality, those conversations will never come about on the grand scale that he has imagined. Why do you think he is giving the album away?

Thirdly, I would like to address the issue of kitsch. Those people that would classify Derek’s earlier stuff as kitsch would be right. Much if not all ‘Christian’ music is kitsch. These are not the erudite musings of a high brow culture expert. It is a simple fact. On this subject, I think we could all benefit from revisiting the definition of kitsch and forgetting the way it has come to be thrown as a pejorative label. By many accounts, the best definition of kitsch given of late can be found in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He writes,

When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.

The feeling induced by kitsch must be the kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation; it must derive from the basic images people have engraved in their memories: the ungrateful daughter, the neglected father, children running on the grass, the motherland betrayed, first love.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. p. 250-1

In the way that most Christian music strategises for just such a response, it never achieves more than a throw-away kind of kitsch. Derek is well aware of this. Why do you think he is so hard on himself and so unsatisfied and humble about his work? He has preached against this approach to music by Christian artists and this sort of taste on the part of Christian audiences for awhile now. I am simply trying to point out the converse of Kundera’s definition: stringent zeal can create a type of kitsch just as easily as a sapping sentimentality when the form presents a pre-digested experience for the audience. I hope this clarifies my use of the term kitsch.

In the end, I am simply dissatisfied with the album, the combination of form and content. I believe that Derek had some interesting musical and lyrical trajectories on the last album and sadly those seem abandoned on this one. I think that the issues he raises are important topics of discussion, but I just don’t think he needs to sacrifice an album to get the conversation started. I hope this bit of a response has shed some light on the thoughts I put out there. I look forward to discussing this more. If you don’t mind, I have a question for you John.

If you think so, can you tell me specifically why you think that this album was the best way Derek could get his message out and get discussion started? Why this album? I would like to understand your support of the album better.

John said...

Taylor,

Thank you for the excellent clarifications! They are most helpful in my attempt to rightly understand your original review.

In your next to last paragraph, I understand you to say that you have problems with Webb's most recent lyrical and musical composition decisions, which is not what I was really getting from your original post. I'm still not in total agreement with you, but I know that you are much more qualified to make subjective artistic decisions than I am.

I still wish that you would define art to frame the discussion, but I respect your desire not to. There are almost infinite nuances to the term, and subjectivity reigns in all definitions of which I am aware. Such seems obvious in your assumption that I desire to subsume "18th century hymnody and 21st century popular music under the same category." Maybe I want to define both under the large umbrella of 'art,' while allowing for smaller, 'parasols' of genre, etc.

As for your definition of kitsch as it relates to music, wouldn't all music that conveys any message then be kitsch? May we redefine kitsch to be non-pejorative? It seems that even Dylan is both new and old kitsch at times (Blowin' in the Wind, etc.) Granted, he is characterized by a more subtle style than Webb - and maybe that is your main point. I am still struggling to understand your views on how message and media are related / unrelated in art.

As for your assumption that Webb is giving the album away because of its "lack of quality," I cannot agree with that. I don't think that there is a decreased quality to Webb's newest work; I just think that his subject matter is different, and more uncomfortable to many of his devoted fans.

As to your question about whether or not I think this album was the best way for Webb to get his message out and get discussion started, I would have to lean toward saying "yes." Webb has a platform as a musician. His craft is writing and performing music. His vehicle of communicating his art (however we define that) is through music. He also does podcasts and other interviews, has several message boards /forums that operate to discuss his music, and is very personally accessible to dialogue with people - but at the end of the day, it all comes back to his music. People only care what he thinks because he is a musical artist.

Oh, and I am not uncritical of Webb. I am not a groupie. I don't even own half of his albums, though I have heard them all many times. My "support" for this album is based on my opinion that it is good art. I would even go so far as to say that it shows me things and helps me dream more than it teaches or dictates anything to me.

I respect your distaste of the album. Thank you for your charity in the discussion. You have been very helpful to me.

Freddy T. Wyatt said...

okay...this is good and challenging me to think, just like I'm sure TBW's first book will. Taylor you may want to respond to John and discard this comment from the initial discussion but you may want to bring it in; do as you see best. It seems to me, that kitsch the way I understand it thus far (as you have helped develop it) can always and only be somewhat of a subjective thing. It almost seems that the opposite of kitsch would be something transcendent. Maybe it doesn't have to be that extreme, but rather be a greater end in and of itself than the "message" it communicates. (I don't know if we can seperate them or not.) In other words we keep coming back to a song, because of its whole, the sum of its parts, and not so much just because of a part or its "message". Okay, if I'm in left field here I apologize. Taylor, you have spoken with me before about this transcendent element that many musicians strive for, but I do not know if that factors into this discussion or not.

stephen lee cavness said...

taylor,

i have a question that may seem irrelevant, but i dont think it is.

before i ask, i just want to state for the record that i have been very vocal and public about my disapointment with derek's last two albums. "i.s.t.u.d.", more sonically, and "mockingbird" for its not so subtely veiled point of view. all of that is stated to keep any preconceived notions that i am simply a "webb apologist" at bay.
now, my question.

what separates good art from bad art when it comes to a recording and a live performance of that same song?

for instance; on derek's last album, before it came out he had been playing " i want a broken heart" on a six string guitar, and i absolutely loved that song. it evoked lots of imagery and conviction in my heart, and it was sonically pleasing to my ears.
but when the album came out, it had gone through lots of production, heavy on didgital/synthetic over-dubs and lots of "airy" textured guitar tracks. all of these complications, in my view, ripped the heart of the song for the sake of "creativity" in the studio.

the chord progression, words, and message were all the same. same "artist" produced both.
what determines good from bad, when it is, and is not the same thing at the same time?

TBW said...

John,

I am afraid that I am not as confident as you are that we are actually coming to a better understanding of each other’s positions. Even though I don’t think I will be successful at convincing you of my appraisal of Derek’s album or the particular approach I took in assessing it, I feel that I need to respond to your comments and questions for the sake of clarity for the few others that check this blog from time to time.

On the issue of defining ‘art’, I’m glad that you respect my desire not to define art, but do you understand why and what I am suggesting instead? I have one question. Do you think that Isaac Watts or any other hymn writer conceived of their practice as ‘art-making’ in any sense in which it could be compared with the fine arts or popular art of their day? If you think so, I would be interested in hearing how you might defend that claim. I would gladly hear how you might wish to develop the concept of ‘art’ for this discussion and I promise to provide input where I can.

I wanted to avoid that path because, as you have observed, it is a very precarious one. Following thinkers like Wittgenstein, the contemporary analytic philosophers of art have spent a lot of ink on acknowledging and amending the fact that we say more than we mean when we use the term ‘art.’ I think that even Derek would say that when discussing hymns from centuries past and the popular music of his day one is actually comparing apples and oranges. I admit that I still use the term ‘art’ carelessly at times; old habits are hard to break. What I meant to say was that I think Derek should be evaluated by the standards of the predecessors and innovators from his particular genre.

Along these lines, I would enthusiastically recommend Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Art in Action as a really thoughtful, well-argued and informed approach to discussing ‘art’ from a theological and philosophical perspective. Wolterstorff seeks to bring the conversations about ‘art’ back down to the matters of real live; hence his view of art as action.
With regard to kitsch, you have not understood me. Kitsch is and always will be a very pejorative term. There is a vast difference between work that conveys a message and work that negates the medium for the sake of the message. The latter is kitsch while the former can be termed kitsch if it has not sought a creative means to convey the message through the medium. I was not clear enough in my earlier response. Kitsch is a concern for both art-making and art appreciation. Artists can employ kitschy methods, and audiences can have kitschy taste when it comes to receiving the work. Regarding your example of Dylan, I must protest. Dylan did not adopt kitschy methods back then. Those influential folk songs from the sixties were not received as kitsch in his day, but that does not prevent a younger generation without firsthand experience of the songs’ context from perceiving the work in a shallow, sentiment way today. Or, for an example of my own, I think that many of us would say that Derek’s song ‘Wedding Dress’ ranks as one of his finest works. Pardon the pun, but I think there the medium is married well to the message. Simple yet austere accompaniment. Plaintive, almost desperate lyrical voicings. All coupled with a very naked, intimate description of the nearly unbelievable grace of Christ’s good news. When it comes to how you and I respond to the song, however, it can quickly become kitsch. I wager that I am not alone in suffering from the temptation to return to the song in moments when I am lacking conviction over my sins because the song held for me a very intense emotional reaction upon first hearing it. Using the song in that way is making it kitsch. I would also wager that Derek remains reluctant to perform the song a great deal because of this very temptation. Avoiding the cultivation of kitschy taste is best exemplified by the urge to not snap the photo of that perfect sunset, or watch that favorite film over and over, or attempt to recreate that authentic experience of an art work again and again.

About the free giveaway of Mockingbird, let me say that I think Derek to be a person of integrity. I have a great deal of respect for him for making the choice to make the music available to whoever wanted it. I’m just saying that it wasn’t plan A.

Thanks for answering the question I posed to you. To be honest, however, I’m not satisfied with your answer. You stated the obvious reasons. Aside from saying “that it shows me things and helps me dream more than it teaches or dictates anything to me,” you did not tell me why it is good art in your estimation. What is it about the album that you think is so worthy of commendation? Don’t be afraid to get specific. That is really what I am interested in. I happen to think that this material could have made for a great speaking presentation using his platform as a recognizable name from the music industry in much the same way he orchestrated his house show tour from a few years ago. People like you and I would go hear him speak even if he didn’t have a cd to sell, right?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to explain myself through your questions. Feel free to keep the conversation going as long as you like. I am finding it helpful in clarifying these things for myself.

TBW said...

Freddy T,

I would like to officially say that you are not in left field. Didn't you play shortstop anyway?

You are definitely on to something. Your assessment of kitsch as a subjective thing is right on. Hopefully, I made it clear in my last response to John about the different concerns for avoiding kitsch as an art maker and as an art receiver.

I like your termingology here, Freddy T. I think we are describing the same thing when you describe a 'transcendent' experience of an art work and I say an 'authentic' experience. We could also call it the single tear take, based on Kundera's definition of kitsch. We know we have experienced something significant when we don't have enough for a second tear to fall. I mean when we are so locked in to the subject of our attention that we don't have a chance to stop and think about experiencing the experience, if you know what I mean.

Great art works help you forget yourself, right? They help you transcend your temporary concerns in an effort to catch a glimpse of the vision that the artist may be trying to communicate.

Relating this discussion to Derek's new album, for me, I can't see the forest for all the trees. I mean, I have trouble catching a view of what Derek is picturing because I am too preoccupied with the straightforward tone of teaching that I get from the songs.

TBW said...

Stephen,

If the C+C Music Factory would happen upon this discussion, they would surely break out with some 'Things that make you go hmmm.' Not to sound to much like a Caveman apologist, but I had the same thought.

When Derek performed 'I want a broken heart' and 'What is not love' at the show that you opened for him, I was thinking: "Yeah, this is why we got him to come." That show was a real encouragement for me as a supporter of his music. I thought that he was really solidifying his practice of songwriting and had found his own sound apart from Caedmons.

So, when 'I see things...' came out, I was just as confused as you were. However, I soon came to accept those poor production choices on the two above mentioned tunes based on what I saw as huge successes as far as the production on songs like 'reputation', 'medication', and 'nothing is ever enough'. I was even more excited by those successes because they represented an attempt on Derek's part toward experimentation with a new sound. A sound more indebted to Radiohead and Wilco than Dylan per se. I think that the stripped down singer/songwriter sound, so well exemplified by the live performances, fit some of those songs well and the experimental noise tracks and over dubs fit well with the others. Despite the poor balance in production dynamics, I felt Derek was headed in a very interesting and exciting direction musically and lyrically. It seems that those issues of dynamics have moved to the back burner on Mockingbird.

On the bright side, at least he has returned to the polished and clean, Nashville sound of 'She must and shall go free,' right?

Freddy T. Wyatt said...

This is some of the most beneficial blog discussion I've experienced, thank you guys!

TBW, question: Is a guy like me who is ignorant of music theory, and art history as a whole, destined and forever in bondage to kitsch is his personal approach to art? I know I can begin to educate myself, but I will be working my way out of a wet paper bag called kitsch for sometime...maybe.

But if kitsch is subjective, where does that leave us? Do we go with the majority of people, or the influencial people, or those educated in art, and lean on their judgments as to what is kitsch?

Also, another thought. The comment about capturing the sunset photo. Is capturing great scenery in a photograph always kitsch?

TBW said...

Freddy T,

These are tough questions you are asking. I'm not sure I have alot of answers for us.

In many ways, the subjectivity of kitsch has a good deal to do with the context of the work. I'm not saying that there aren't absolutes. Prescious Moments figurines prove that. I guess what I am trying to say is that some work can be challenging and provocative and authentically moving for one audience and not another. For instance, much of early modern art has not been engaged by evangelicals that have especially deep roots in fundamentalist tendencies. For this reason, there are lots of Christian artists that are still working with early 20th century themes in art-making because their primary audience has not yet been overly sensitized to those approaches. The problem arises when those Christian artists try to showcase their work to a broader audience. An informed and rigorously theoretical artworld audience would see those old approaches as kitschy methods. They would see it in terms of nostalgia. But these are more specialized problems.

The everyday issues for you and I come down to resisting the impulses we all have within us to be easily satisfied with kitsch. This reminds me of Piper's quotation of C.S. Lewis in Desiring God. Lewis always said that we are too easily satisfied. 'A child would prefer to stay and make mud pies in the muck than go for a holiday to the beach.' I don't think it is a bad thing to take pictures of sunsets. I do that for time to time. What I want to avoid is the impulse within me to take the photo before I have really seen the sight. Along these lines C.S. Lewis has written a very good introduction to art engagement or appreciation for the Christian person: An Experiment in Criticism. When it comes to art and the aesthetic side of life, there are no hard and fast rules... just helpful principles.

Brendt said...

Taylor, thanks for putting your finger on it. I was wondering how I could love "She Must..." so much and yet be so phenomenally bored by "Mockingbird".

Jennifer G. said...

Well Taylor, my friend, I was listening to Tim's Johnny Cash record this weekend, and when I heard this song, I thought of this discussion. Forgive me if this is too long of a post. It does speak to artists allowing their own political bias to taint their music. I'm not saying that Derek Webb is in the category of this song, but I'm just throwing it out there to provoke a broader discussion about the topic at hand. At least I think it's related. :) It does of course lose a little of its punch without the music.

The One on the Right was on the Left by Johnny Cash

There once was a musical troupe
A pickin' singin' folk group
They sang the mountain ballads
And the folk songs of our land

They were long on musical ability
Folks thought they would go far
But political incompatibility led to their downfall

Well, the one on the right was on the left
And the one in the middle was on the right
And the one on the left was in the middle
And the guy in the rear was a Methodist

This musical aggregation toured the entire nation
Singing the traditional ballads
And the folk songs of our land
They performed with great virtuosity
And soon they were the rage
But political animosity prevailed upon the stage

Well, the one on the right was on the left
And the one in the middle was on the right
And the one on the left was in the middle
And the guy in the rear burned his driver's license

Well the curtain had ascended
A hush fell on the crowd
As thousands there were gathered to hear The folk songs of our land
But they took their politics seriously
And that night at the concert hall
As the audience watched deliriously
They had a free-for-all

Well, the one on the right was on the bottom
And the one in the middle was on the top
And the one on the left got a broken arm
And the guy in the rear, said, "Oh dear"

Now this should be a lesson if you plan to start a folk group
Don't go mixin' politics with the folk songs of our land
Just work on harmony and diction
Play your banjo well
And if you have political convictions keep them to yourself

Now, the one on the left works in a bank
And the one in the middle drives a truck
The one on the right's an all-night deejay
And the guy in the rear got drafted

Leann B. said...

*sigh of relief* I'm glad to know that I'm not alone in being let down by Mockingbird. The title (and title song) are almost ironic in a way...I agree that the lyrics would be setter suited for another outlet--perhaps a series of essays or lectures. I was blown away by what I heard him say in a couple of shows on the house show tour and I too would have gone to hear him speak. She Must and Shall Go Free remains my favorite of his solo works, but even it is lacking or falling short of the influences he claims. I thought perhaps the shortcomings were due to it being his first go alone, but he's not yet become what I'd hoped. Even Radiohead floundered there for a while (in my humble opinion) so perhaps he'll straighten out. On a personal note I find it difficult to escape kitsch in my own art which is the reason I've been making very little these days. Everything seems overworked to me and I'm not sure how to express Christian themes in a way that doesn't reek of that special section in Lifeway...

TBW said...

Thanks, Jen! What a great addition to this discussion!

Johnny Cash remains another great example of an artist who maintained a particular tension between a specific and very religious fan base and at the same time a very broad artistic audience. It seems that Cash knew very well that great art both inspires outsiders and challenges the comfortable within the camp. His provocative way didn't rely on reducing his art to political or religious credos, though he no doubt held deep sympathies with those that wished to tame his controversial tongue. Along these lines, I encourage anyone to explore the 'Cash Family Tree' of musical influences made available through the Walk the Line page's resources: (www.walkthelinedvd.com/main.html).

Our younger generation can reap all the benefits of looking back on Cash's long and influential career and trace the development and fulfillment of great art. The generations that paralleled Cash's run, however, may have experienced a less enchanting ride. In this way, I think we should keep in mind that it will always be easier to look back on the icons of the past with admiration and praise saying 'do that!' or 'follow their example!' (i.e. Dylan or Cash) than to take a stand with or against the artists of our own time.

TBW said...

Leann B.,

I think you have voiced the sort of frustrations that many, many Christians are feeling with regard to art. You are definitely not alone.

I would, however, encourage you to persevere. Your frustrations are not even unique to Christians artists. With the state of the current art world, all young artists have to struggle to develop an interesting, original direction for their work. Unfortunately, there is no clearly deliniated recipe for success, though market interest and agile networking sometime seem the best options. I still believe that the best work WILL get noticed no matter where it originates from. If I may, could I offer some humble advice?

Firstly, broaden your horizons. Don't be afraid to look for inspiration in unlikely places. Take a deeper interest in the work of other artists and trace their influences out. Much of the current practice of contemporary artists relies on the subtle references and responses to the work of their fellow artists or modern masters. There is still much to be explored out there.

Secondly, discipline your studio practice. Just because you don't feel like showcasing much right now doesn't necessarily mean you can slack in the studio. The most influential works of late often rely on long hours of research, experimentation, and sheer hard work. This work may not resemble the practice of the old masters but that doesn't mean it won't require the utmost discipline and commitment. Many times the ideas that infuse really unique work only rise to the surface after consistent trial and error in the studio. Similarly, you can have a great concept or idea but stunt its realization through poor practice in your materials. Kitsch is a cop-out in both areas of meaning and the embodiment of that meaning.

Thirdly, with regard to art from a Christian perspective, consider not only the answer but also the question. I am not saying you should abandon Christian themes...just explore them. What's wrong with Lifeway's fare? Are they ultimately wrong? Or, do they not give equal weight to the validity of the questions that precede the answers? In an age where spirituality comes as pre-packaged as your fast-food lunch, we could all benefit from simply revisiting the questions and the roots of those questions.

I hope this helps a bit. Please let me know what you think.

Leann B. said...

Thank you for your advice. I admit my studio practice has suffered lately at my lack of inspiration. I will say though that I feel I have been exposed to so many artists and influences, techniques and processes, themes and lack thereof that I am tired of everything.

Ultimately there isn't a problem with Christian themes or even a lot of the stuff at Lifeway. (aside from the pseudo-christian mush that, I feel, undermines truth) It's the way the stuff is churned out by the truck-load and labeled Christian without anyone stopping to think about it or ask why. What makes a warmfuzzy picture of Jesus snuggling bunnies and babies necessarily Christian? I suppose my disdain for commercial Christian "art" products on a large scale comes from all of my relatives asking me if I can paint like Thomas Kinkade...

I hadn't considered abandoning Christian themes. I'm not even trying to approach them in a new or fresh way because I've seen everything before and I know it's all been done. Maybe I'm just not sure who my audience should be. Maybe I'm not confident in my own abilities to produce work that is excellent in a way that mirrors truth. I suppose that's where discipline comes in.

Thank you. I've got some thinking (and some practicing) to do.

Leann B. said...

I was hoping for a discussion of Felix-Gonzales Torres a couple of posts back. I had that poster in my dorm room in college. :)

...and thank you for the Jose Gonzales recommendation.