I’m an Artist and You’re an Artisan

I had an odd adventure yesterday that caused me to reflect on many things. My mother’s birthday is in a couple of weeks, and I happened to hear that Lionel Richie was signing copies of his new greatest hits CD. It’s just the kind of somewhat cheesy pop that seems to appeal to her, and a signed copy of the CD would be a funny gift. So I went down to 66th Street and stood in line in the freezing cold for two hours to get it, and ultimately I was successful in my mission.

While I was standing in line, I was surrounded by four men who were obviously real Lionel Richie fans. They started talking about the Commodores in relation to various funk groups and Motown acts, and at first I thought they were specialists with an interest in American R&B of the 60s and 70s. But I soon realized that they were all rabid followers of virtually any kind of mainstream music, and they had detailed knowledge about all kinds of “artists” from P Diddy to Led Zeppelin to Prince to Kiss to Jay Z. It was really remarkable to follow their ecstatic discussion, but I barely said a word the whole time. Honestly, I didn’t know a lot of the people they talked about. When they hit on something I could agree with, I would pipe in an acknowledgement, but mostly I just nodded my head and kept my opinions to myself.

It made me think about the interesting juxtaposition of “artist” and “artisan” that exists in popular music, the blurring of which I suspect is a foregone conclusion of market capitalism. This is a dichotomy that I think about frequently, and I’ve imbedded some of my more cynical thoughts on the idea into one of my books. It can be summarized as follows.

The artisan creates things with intended use. This sometimes involves impressive skill and creativity, and these four men that I met were keen observers of artisanship in the music industry, which can include any or all aspects of composition, arrangement, production, mastery of an instrument, dancing ability, packaging, and marketing. There may be other elements that come into play, but off the top of my head, I think this sums up 99% of the industry.

Artists, on the other hand, create things that are likely to have no use. They create because they are compelled to create, and they don’t have anything to gain from it. Both the industry and consumers of the industry frequently and willingly blur the lines between these two. Many become impassioned about artisanship, and dupe themselves into believing its art. To make things more confusing, once in a great while, a true artist stumbles into the music industry and is able to combine the two roles effectively. Also, like most apparent dichotomies, I don’t know that there’s always a hard line that you can draw between the two.

However, an inevitable cycle of entropy occurs in the music industry as a direct result of market capitalism. Artists, who don’t necessarily have the polish to gain mass appeal, are increasingly ignored by the industry in favor of safer investments. More and more the artisan skills that require the most energetic study — composition, arrangement and musicianship — are also ignored in favor packaging and production, which are easier. That’s why every generation says they don’t write songs like they used to. They really don’t. And those that do can’t get a break because the industry doesn’t need them to sell records.

What would be a more ideal situation? I don’t know. I’ve been trying to turn it around theoretically in my mind. As things stand, there are already an overwhelming number of potential artists. So a big part of the puzzle is how to separate the best interests of the corporate music industry from the best interests of the artists and also the best interests of the potential music audience. If you remove the idea of profit, how do you decide who gets to make “being an artist” their life’s work and get them the materials and freedom they need to do their work?

Maybe the best we can hope for is that good artists somehow latch onto a strong underground current just below the radar of the industry, and at times we seem to have that. But in many ways an alternative or “indie” market is a specialized microcosm of the industry as a whole and shares many of the problems.

Even in my most extreme fantasy of a regenerated, totally socialized entertainment system, it’s hard to imagine exactly how that would improve the end result, unless of course, I alone am allowed to be the supreme dictator of taste. It’s really not so much a matter of changing the public’s taste as it’s a matter of calling things what they really are.

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