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 the album did stray from Drake's introspective style, to more generic pop lyrics. It's still a great album, and the music was great, but it strayed from what Drake set out to do on 'So Far Gone' and that was to tell the truth and author the page for an entire generation. Something that his peer Kendrick Lamar has been able to successfully do, while making meaningful art.
Drake, like many artists, wanted to be a footprint describing the pulse of the moment, he ended up becoming the biggest star in the world, but he did start spitting commodified lyrics talking about going to Cheesecake factory, Disneyworld and CVS. But that’s the nature of the game of industrialized culture. Drake is the biggest artist in the world, everyone's mother and grandmother knows who he is, which makes him a great billboard for corporations.
Joe felt as though Drake was becoming mass produced and losing that introspective authenticity. I personally think Drake tells more truth in his records than people seem to realize, because a lot of his lyrics have subliminal double and triple entendres. But I also see where Joe was coming from. Artists and musicians are tasked with telling the truth of the times. The world needed artists like Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone and more, to tell the truth of their time. People needed art to describe how they felt, ground them and move them, in transcendent ways that only art can achieve.
The blues came from slaves on plantations, the emotion compelled them to tell the truth through the blues, it was used as a tool to share important information. The medium chose them to discover life through it, and teach to future generations. Blues played the artists, it was instinctive. Artists are born, the compulsion is genetic, it's known before rigidity and routine. In fact, it's born outside of it. It's a predisposed perception of life that is stripped away by rigidity, especially in the world of industrialized culture. Don’t get me wrong, art should produce value, because it's valuable. Creativity is a finite resource. True creativity is once in a lifetime, every time.
In the industry of culture, those who are compelled to tell the truth of their times are often forced to betray the medium in order to serve the ego, and in doing so the world is relegated. Being truly honest is not profitable, and it's painful, it's vulnerable, it's selfless, it requires burning certain bridges and digging deep inside oneself into the darkest depths, taking pain and then alchemizing it into beauty. Truth is not always commodifiable. True honesty constantly clashes with the concept of celebrity.
Creativity should be both authentic and useful, in some way. It has to produce an effect on other people. Does it even matter if the tree made a sound if nobody hears it? Yet telling the truth can be dangerous. The truth coming from a poet is the most dangerous weapon in the hands of man. It's so dangerous that Jamal Khashoggi had to be murdered by the Saudi Government for being outspoken with his pen and platform. They sent 16 men to a foreign Country, with various weapons and a bonesaw, to assassinate a 60 year old journalist with a pen, that's how powerful the written word still is.
Being a true artist is unwillingly becoming a martyr everytime you speak. Authentic art is dangerous. The written word has toppled empires. Jewish slaves wrote a book and the Romans had armies and weapons, the Jews spawned the 3 largest religions in the world and the Roman Empire has been disintegrated for millennia, that is the power of the written word.
True artists are selfless in their creativity, they tell us something true about ourselves. And in doing so, they give so much of themselves, for very little in return. Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Kurt Cobain, XXXTentacion, these people gave us so much of themselves, and we just consumed, and left them on the wayside, to die while we record it.
With the culture industry, the selfless acts of our poets are reduced to the status of celebrity. They tell truths that have them killed, then their death is commodified and celebrated. When we romanticize these stories, and we romanticize the conditions that took them there, we miss the point. We martyrize honesty from poets like Martin Luther King, and create icons instead of achieving the change that the symbol speaks of. We martyrize prophecy and idealism, achieve no change, and applaud when the comet that lit up our skies in poetic fashion fades away. Amy Winehouse made art that resonated with our souls and instead of being helped, she was commodified and given all the tools to destroy herself.
No one is revered more than the dead poet. No one is hailed more, no one is more incentivized to die. When a JuiceWrld dies from an overdose, from the drugs he raps about, his sales increase and his label makes more money. Dead poets are society's saints, icons to be upheld instead of tragedies to be prevented. To be commodified, used up, burnt out and assassinated when necessary. Yet millions everyday, are compelled by forces beyond cognitive comprehension, to speak truth.
Muhammad Ali said he was not going to war in Vietnam, he was kicked out of boxing but he stood on his integrity. He never wanted to hurt his opponents, or himself, so he mastered defensive strategy. He was naturally light on his feet, he was the fastest heavyweight alive, and he knew it, and it made him the most famous human alive. He fought in a style unseen before in boxing. He kept his hands down and danced around the ring, like an actual butterfly, yet his punches stung like a bee and knocked out the most elite heavyweights, he was a poet, he was elegant, beautiful and graceful.
Muhammad Ali was an artist and a magician in that ring, there was no denying it. Ali refused to go to War in Vietnam, because he labeled it an immoral war. Ali reached the truth that only the poet knows, decades before the politicians understood the war was a mistake. Once Ali was labeled a draft dodger for standing on his beliefs, he was stripped of his prestige and of his ability to generate an income, and 90% of his income was taken by bookers and promoters, before taxes. Of the 2 million Ali made, he kept 10% before taxes, bills, lawyer fees and life expenses, while not being allowed to work in the country, or leave the country. The greatest boxer, and the most famous entertainer in the world, was broke. He planned on retiring with a winning streak but his ability to maintain a living was taken away by the system because he stood on his beliefs and spoke truth.
They made the greatest boxer of all time have to come back into the ring, way past his prime, and get hit as much as possible with his world famous move he called the “Rope-A-Dope” to the point where he caught Parkinson's. Muhammad Ali was not a fool. Watch his interviews at 22 when he was stripped of his title. He openly states that he is glad he did not receive any brain damage and can leave the boxing game freely, without losing, hurting himself or his opponents. Why would this man return to boxing, to take and give more damage than he ever did before? A young Muhammad Ali would never be involved in slugfests like the 'Rumble in The Jungle' and the 'Thrilla in Manilla' but because he spoke his truth, he was stripped of his wealth and resources, then forced back into the ring, past his prime, to fight for his life, literally.
Muhammad Ali returned, he was nowhere near as fast as he once was, but he still had heart, his champions instincts drove him back to the championship, because there was no way a man could sustain that much damage. And a man could not sustain that much damage, the fights took a toll on him and he developed Parkinson's, exemplified in his Olympic torch lighting ceremony. He did that for us. He did that for himself. He did that for his kids. He did that because the culture industry made him. He got out of the constructs of celebrity that imprisoned him, and he was punished for it. Bookers, promoters and brands didn't want to work with him because he spoke his truth, that is what happens when you speak too much truth in the culture industry.
Ali was much more than just a boxer, he was an ambassador of unity, there was way more value in his pen than in the ring, but he was relegated to boxer and entertainer because that was his primary vocation. He was stripped of his prestige when he told the truth, and had his head cut off, in front of our eyes.
This phenomena is depicted perfectly in 2018’s ‘Sorry To Bother You.' The movie is a surrealist take on the artists' need to tell the truth of the world within capitalism, how society treats them, then recuperates their image for profit. The protagonist played by Lakeith Stanfield literally goes on a game show called ‘I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me’ where he gets beat up and has fecal matter thrown on him, in an attempt to tell the masses the truth of their exploitation by a villainous corporation, and all it does is raise the stocks of the evil corporation.
Artists have a need to convey and discover truths that need to be heard. The oedipal complex was not discovered by Freud in the 1900s but by a poet in Greece centuries ago. The commodification and industrialization of truth is a difficult process. It becomes a constant struggle between ego and truth.
Conveying truth is painful, and at times embarrassing, but when you love the process, it speaks to you. When you feel alone, it comforts you, it reminds you that in expressing, you are uniting, by reflecting what makes us, us. Our fears of death, our gratitude. Our love, all of it.
The whole spectrum of emotions during our time have to be conveyed in order to build bridges and teach us about ourselves, and how to maneuver when inheriting this eerie globe. Art is the last hope for global unity. There is no ideology, technology or philosophy that is more transcendent, and able to depict a certain humanness, than art is capable of.
When you convey a truth and you give a piece of yourself, and try to shape something that isn’t there, you need to understand that it's much bigger than you can understand. We have to tell the truth as we see it in order to understand what's wrong and what needs to be fixed. Earlier this week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, what if instead, he was here in his old age to celebrate it. What if instead of killing our young poets, we uplift them and reward telling the truth. As long as culture is a valuable mode of advertising, it will be used for that. But we will always need people who remember the necessity of authentic expression, especially during these turbulent times.
"Most young kings get their heads cut off” -Jean-Michel Basquiat
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