Pop music is full of messages, mostly silly, mostly sappy, mostly sophomoric love songs. But there are those occasions, not overly rare, when a song makes an earnest statement. Sometimes it’s slipped in, almost imperceptibly. Many times, until you listen, really listen, it may go right past you. Those messages have been going on for centuries, and yet, they seem to have little affect. It makes me wonder.
What does it take to get an idea, an attitude, or an outlook embedded into a culture? How do individual responses turn into a collective response? Does an artist have any direct influence? How many artist does it take to change a light bulb?
Most of the time these effects are attributed after the fact, conflating cause and effect, creating a circular definition. Artists like to think they have a lead into, not only the act of creation, but the creation of culture. I used to believe this too. It was wishful thinking—something us humans are really, really good at doing. We can convince ourselves of anything, with or without evidence.
There are, however, a few things about art that are certain—
- Art does not exist in a vacuum.
- Artists are not clairvoyant.
- Art appreciators understand.
The last of those may not be so obvious. Actually, I’ll bet hardly anyone has ever considered it. The art intelligentsia would never grant just any ordinary yokel the ability to understand. But I do. If you don’t get a work of art, that’s not because you don’t know enough, it’s because that particular work doesn’t speak your language. If you get something different out of a work than others do, that’s okay too. Art appreciation is personal. The old saying, “I don’t know what is good art, but I know what I like,” is wrong. You do know what’s good; it’s what you like.
The same goes for the messages in art. What the artist intended, or what someone else says it means is valid, and important, and often not what we’d expect. If you get another idea out of it, yours is equally valid and important. If and when you discover another person’s view point, that’s a bonus which makes the work that much more interesting. Art appreciation is a discovery process. Be open to art, and don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t get it on your own.
Mountains O’ Things, Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman, 1988
Can You Hear What I’m Saying, Toto, Past to Present, 1990
The Logical Song, Supertramp, Breakfast in America, 1979
The More We Live, Yes, Union, 1991
So Many People, Chase, Ennea, 1972