Does art for art’s sake further society, or is it merely emotional porn? And, why Tupac and M.I.A. are more important musicians than Mahler.

I did not blog last week due to a composition masterclass and concert featuring Brent Miller. This guy is doing amazing things for the new music community. Check out his organization, Center for New Music.

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Art for art’s sake. What is it? Depending on who you ask, you may get conflicting definitions. I will give my definition.

Art or art’s sake- the origination of materials in a given artists medium created based solely on the artists fascination with those materials.

For myself, this could mean coming up with what I believe to be an interesting rhythm and creating an entire work that liquidates every possible variation and permutation of this rhythm in a way that is aurally pleasing- first to myself and then hopefully to others. As a person who is passionate about certain humanitarian issues, how can I justify the emotional vomit that is absolute art? M.I.A., one of the most socially conscious rappers of our time, speaks about how artists often take for granted their ability to spread a meaningful message-

when asked about her experience at an art college:

“…By the time I left St. Martin’s, I could not justify myself being an artist at all, because I did not meet anyone there who was doing interesting art that was also getting through to everyday people. [Students there were] exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing. My life did not allow it: My mom was getting evicted, my brother was going to jail, I’d get my first phone call from my dad in twelve years confirming he’s still alive. So making ripples in the water, to aesthetically represent beauty, just didn’t make sense [to me].”

Full interview here

I think the point M.I.A. was trying to make was that artists have to be careful to not create emotional porn, to not create something that makes you and an observer simply feel feelings on a visceral level. Yes, M.I.A.’s music is great for an ass-shaking good time. But it also draws attention to some of the most important and overlooked (especially in the West) humanitarian issues our world is currently facing. If you have not seen the video for her track Born Free, watch it now.

Did you watch the video? Good. Now I am going to do some lumping. One could argue that art for art’s sake has just as much meaning (or lack thereof) as programmatic music based on the artist’s personal experience. For example, Mahler’s fifth symphony is said to have been inspired by his emotional state at the time it was written. During its composition, Mahler was madly in love with Alma Schindler and was also going through some health issues. Allow me to play devil’s advocate here, but who cares? Yes, Mahler was and remains to be revered as one of the greatest masters of his craft, but what has he done to better the world besides give us all warm fuzzies when we hear the Adagietto? M.I.A. has brought attention to 21st century genocide and ethnocide- what have you done, my dear Gustav? I am picking on Mahler, but the same could be said for many composers, especially those of the romantic era. And there is definitely the equivalent trend in the new music world of, as M.I.A. put it, “…exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing.” To put it in perspective, I saw Brent Miller play a piece for amplified water bottle last Wednesday. And I have to admit, I thought it was pretty cool.

But maybe musicians should consider being a bit more like Tupac Shakur. Like M.I.A., the late rapper definitely knew how to lay down some sick rhymes and groovy beats, but he also had something to say. With his public appearances and lyrics, he brought attention to the plight of inner city blacks in the U.S. To my fellow artists, please be your own devil’s advocate and look at your body of work and seriously question what its purpose is.

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