The Culture Industry is both a megaphone and prison for the modern artist. Art is an intrinsic part of the human experience, its existed since we were cavemen, its been world changing, its toppled empires and institutions, furthered ideologies, inspired faith and won wars. That same art in an industrialized society becomes an advertisement, either for the church or for a brand, but truth always pierces through, because there will always be a void in a society that needs a truth, that only artists can tell.
“..something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make.”
Dave Chappelle once said the reason he applauded Richard Pryor was due to his fearlessness. Richard Pryor was known for his groundbreaking, introspective humour. He opened up about all of his darkest demons in front of millions of people. He was true in a selfless way, that might have cost him his life. His level of honesty is what any creative, or any human, wishes he could do. It's so hard to open up to your closest friends and family, let alone millions around the world. We knew about Pryor's addictions, fights and painful moments. Pryor spoke the truth of himself, and the truth in all of us, but that took him to some dark places, he was given all of the tools to destroy himself and he received no help from anyone around him. Nobody cared about the person, we only wanted the art that came from the pain. That's the strange role of the artists in the culture industry. The role of celebrity becomes its own construct, we worship people’s art but don’t value the person, we consume the work that comes from the pain, but don’t try to help the person that created it. We romanticize the broken artist and their deaths.
In this piece I’m trying to understand the role of the modern artist and the concept of celebrity, the role of truth in the culture industry, the role of culture, and the purpose behind creating. Ideally art is pulled from within, in order to give the audience a sense of connection with it. I’m wary of terms like artist because I’m a product of the postmodern world of South Park and Family Guy, irony is ingrained into my DNA.
I’m too ironic for sincerity, you know what I mean? As a generation, most of us lack the necessary sincerity to use terms like artist. There's an air of pretension around the term nowadays. Artists describe feelings, and describing feelings is almost impossible because everything's cliché, so trying to say anything honest and original, without being kind of corny, feels impossible. The reason why certain works stand the test of time is because feelings are archetypal. Generations of humans are just waves that pass through the pillars of emotion, they’re stable and universal, we're temporary. That's the reason why we still relate to Hamlet's battle with depression and unrequited love from the 1600s. Emotions have been around way longer than us, and they’ll be here long after us. Every generation needs people that sincerely describe how it feels to be alive during their time.
Being sincere doesn’t mean commenting on the literal occurrences of the world, like yesterday's inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris or breaking news, even though it could, it has more to do with describing existence in your time, in order to help those that come after you cope with the terrifying ordeal of being alive. The issue the modern artist has is dealing with systems, like the culture industry, the role of celebrity, and being a person inside capitalism. It's not that easy to just tell the truth when you have brand deals, relationships and assets to protect, you have to sacrifice truth at times.
In his Essay ‘The Artists Struggle for Integrity’ James Baldwin said the role of the artist is to tell the truth of the times. James Baldwin remained honest, in spite of the potholes that exist for the poet in this world, the poet being used to describe every artist. With his peers like Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, being assassinated left and right, for their poetic orations, James understood the transcendent power of the pen and he spoke to it, instead of cowering from it.
James Baldwin emphasized the truth that poets knew, that union leaders, businessmen, soldiers and politicians didn’t know. Baldwin didn’t pander, that's why his truth resonates. He didn’t care about coming off as pretentious.
In fact, James Baldwin said the people of his time were:
“Inarticulate and illiterate and they’re very particular and difficult to describe away, unlettered in the language, which may sound a little florid but there’s no other way that I can think of to say it, totally unlettered in the language of the heart, totally distrustful of whatever cannot be touched, panic-stricken at the very first hint of pain.”
He said that, to all of them, in front of their faces.
James Baldwin unabashedly spoke his truth. He spoke about the truth of himself and the truth of his times, and in turn, left a blueprint for future generations. His struggles with bureaucracy, blackness in America, and maintaining integrity, resonate nearly 60 years since he wrote the essay. He spoke about the pull of the ego, notoriety and wealth once you begin to gain attention by speaking truth.
Once the exchange becomes reciprocal instead of intrinsic and you start trying to manipulate the medium, it just becomes inauthentic and embarrassing. I can see it in myself, the pull of the idea and the medium have to be at the forefront, or else you’ll start lying. Industrial art requires so much from people. Time constraints, operating and producing at a certain pace to maintain traffic, doing something because of the opportunity that comes along with it, doing things to meet a quota, branding, marketing, and so much more, will make your ego start taking control of the medium. Your ego can’t say much, because your ego doesn’t know much. Its the antithesis of trying to make meaningful art.
When inspiration truly takes hold of you, you learn something from doing the process, you make connections, tell archetypal stories and create in a way that feels as though you are watching it happen, as opposed to making it happen. You end up learning something about yourself and the broader world. When your ego does art, you’re just trying to do self serving things in order to please your ego. Bob Dylan can't create 'All Along The Watchtower' again, even though he would love to, that was inspiration at play, the song writing itself in spite of him, its as if the idea itself is manipulating a toolmaking creature to bring it into existence, at the perfect time, the result of that effect can be world changing. Once you start doing and saying things to serve your ego, that’s when artists fall into the “ain’t I clever” category.
The “ain’t I clever” category is something I’ve personally hated since I was a teenager. It's things that are made with the intention of exclusively aggrandizing the artist or promoting a brand, while not revealing any truths. The content becomes nothing but an ad to promote the brand, and the brand becomes an ad to promote the merch, and the merch becomes an ad to promote the brand. There’s no substance or humanity to be found anywhere in the content. It's the reason we’re weary of pop music. Of course you’re going to sound great with millions of dollars worth of backing, in a song that promotes every luxury brand, but that’s exactly what the music sounds like, shallow and bland. Emotionally bereft content, like a Jake Paul video.
Jake is a cool guy, and he knows he’s a cool guy, so he does a lot of “look at my house, look at my car” content, which is great, if you’re into that kind of thing. That type of content has always existed and will always exist, but there needs to be a lane for substance and authenticity. We need more people that care about telling the truth, and making something that matters, not just wealth and attention.
This is an argument Joe Budden had with Drake 4 years ago, I was too young to understand at the time, now that I'm older I see his point. Joe Budden was on camera, yelling and sweating, as he so often does, about Drakes ‘Views’ album, and how uninspired and commercial Drake's music sounded.
At the time I was 17, dancing to One Dance, Controlla and Hotline Bling, calling Joe Budden a hater. Now that I’m older, I kind of get it. I love the Views album because of the memories I have with it, but a lot of