I took my dad to a blues and jazz bar last week. We got there, had a couple of drinks, and listened to the music. The first band played modern blues. It had a guitar, a bass, drums, and a saxophone. It was one of those fringe bands that blur the line between blues and rock ’n’ roll. My dad loved it, and honestly I can’t blame him; they were good—a tad simplistic, but good.
The second act was a real jazz band. It featured accomplished musicians playing complex rhythms, sophisticated horn solos, and a beautifully smooth bass player. After listening to two or three songs my dad turned to me and said he was bored.
We left the bar and went home. On the way out my dad said to me, “That first band was so much better than the second, eh?” I smiled and said nothing.
My father isn’t dumb; he likes his music in 4/4 time, consisting of the same three chords played over and over and over again in a stock rhythm. He likes his music bland so he can understand it, and so he can pay attention to the lyrics—most of which have been recycled a dozen times by a dozen bands and a poet or two.
What makes his music less artistic? Is it less artistic? For hundreds of years the question of what is “art” has kept aesthetic philosophers arguing; some think art is defined by craft, some think it’s defined by the concept, some think it has to do with the feelings the artist instils in their consumers, and it seems like all parties are right. Good art is nestled in between concept, emotion, and complexity. Not all jazz is artistically better than all blues. But the jazz band I listened to was more original, more complex, and arguably more emotional than the blues band.
It was, simply, better art; but my dad didn’t think so, and though there is artistic value in the music my dad likes, other music has more of it. I believe his choice between blues-rock and jazz is reflective of our culture’s views on art in general. I believe most people in our society would rather be spoon-fed their entertainment than pursue the more sophisticated arts. But why?
One of the major factors is our technology. Technology has radically changed the climate for artistic endeavors. Now that aesthetically pleasing pieces can be created with minimal effort, our world has become saturated with simple arts and entertainment. A quick Google search will produce thousands of photographs, videos, or remixed songs, many of which can be quite visually or audibly attractive, but with the speed and ease at which they are produced, they cheapen society’s views of more complex arts, and disservice the arts as a whole. Our society has become so saturated with simple arts that they spill into our soft drink ads. Everything in excess loses some of its value, and though some of the art is still stunning, this oversaturation may have made us lose the ability toappreciate it.
What people get out of recorded art isn’t what they think it is. Recording performance art is changing the medium of it, and in making this change the art loses some of its emotional appeal. The back and forth between an artist and an audience is part of the piece he is producing, and many of the more complex performance arts lose emotional appeal in this translation.
A perfect example of this is found in the jazz bar. One of the things that make jazz so special is its improvised sections. A good jazz band will never have the same drum line for the same song from one performance to another, and they’ll never have the same solo twice. Recorded jazz just sounds stale.
Our economy creates another hurdle the modern artist has to jump. It is more profitable to give an audience bite-size sitcoms and soap operas than to pursue complex or original artistic pieces. More people understand simple arts and entertainment. The people who own the television stations and recording companies know more people will buy simple arts and entertainment, so that’s all they produce.
With stale media being the only art many people come into contact with, it’s not surprising that people don’t understand more complex pieces. You can’t blame a person for not understanding a language the first time they hear it, and you can’t blame a person for not understanding artistic forms they never come in contact with.
I’m painting a depressing picture. Yes, there are people who still appreciate art, though there are less of them than there once were. Yes, there should be a place for art in our society, though it’s smaller than it once was. In our world of Twitter and Facebook, in our world of television and YouTube, there is some hope. Yes, there should be all manner of arts in our society, even though only certain arts thrive.