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Parts I and II: Introduction and Thesis
by Solomon Philbrick
Parts I and II: Introduction and Thesis, Followed by an Explication of the Role of the Commercial artist in America
Wherein Simon postulates his theory of the existence of four distinct categories of American artists.
Thomas: Whatever are you doing in this drab room, Simon? It’s a sunny day, and here you are with the shutters drawn poring over God only knows what.
Simon: Well, my dear Simon, I have just received a letter from an old friend who seems quite despondent over the current state of art in our culture. It would seem that she has become a bit pessimistic.
Thomas: You two must be quite in agreement, then. Were you not just saying the other day that Kanye West should be shot from a cannon into a vat of mayonnaise?
Simon: Yes, and I still stand by that statement. However, that is not to say that I am pessimistic about every facet of today’s artistic climate, rather just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps when I lash out in my aggravated narcissistic belligerence, the finer points of my attitude are lost.
Simon: I suppose that since we now have more time and my head has cooled somewhat, I should launch into one of my long, rambling disquisitions on something that will make no difference whatever in the greater scheme of things.
Thomas: I was hoping you would, Simon.
Simon: Very well, then. Upon reflection, I have categorized the contemporary American artist into four groups: the commercial artist, the artiste, the professional artist, and the dilettante. These categories can be fluid, as you will no doubt see, but as a general rule any American artist can more or less be placed into one of them. I do not know if these categories apply to those across the pond, nor do I care.
Thomas: Yes, I know that you do not care much for the Europeans. Well, then, proceed.
Simon: Very well then, Thomas. I shall begin my long-winded diatribe by explaining the commercial artist, the first of our four categories.
Thomas: Carry on.
Simon: The commercial artist is something of a weak demigod, or if you will, a cardboard icon. He stands precariously between two vicious and fickle masters, the market and his corporate handlers above, and the public below. If he loses favor with either of these forces, he will be destroyed. He stands atop a flimsy pedestal, at the mercy of sales and public opinion. In most cases, he struts and frets his fifteen minutes upon the stage in a nearly godlike fashion, until the inevitable backlash, which strips him of this status and leaves him forgotten at best and reviled at worst.
Thomas: Why is his status so flimsy, as you put it?
Simon: The American consumer has a startlingly short attention span, due possibly to years of watching television, consuming too much sugar or some other strange variable. The commercial artist who is everywhere today will be nowhere tomorrow. If he is merely forgotten, it is probably because another quite similar commercial artist has come around to replace him, one with no more talent than his predecessor but having the transitory and superficial quality of a more youthful face. Hence, we see the spectacle of new commercial artists eclipsing their older counterparts in ratings and sales on an almost daily basis, while offering no more substance or quality than the original, which probably was not very original anyway. In other cases, something different happens. The commercial artist begins to believe, due to the adulation of his fans and skyrocketing sales, that he actually is important. At this time, he begins to behave in an outlandish manner, forgetting that he is in reality all style and no substance, all image and no text. Perhaps I am mistaken in saying that his behavior becomes outlandish: his behavior becomes human. He gets drunk, he argues with people or he states his political or religious views, but instead of doing so privately, as most people do, he is constantly surrounded by cameras and microphones recording every dumb thing that he says or does. After the public realizes that this god is actually human, the backlash is inevitable. A story in a tabloid or Entertainment Tonight spreads like a virus, infecting the commercial artist’s fans with a rabid hatred for the object that yesterday they adored. At this point, the commercial artist is not simply knocked from his pedestal; the pedestal is burned and the artist is lynched in effigy across the spectrum of media.
Thomas: Simon, there are some commercial artists out there who intentionally use their stardom to advance political causes and this does not happen to them. What is your explanation for this phenomenon?
Simon: Thomas, you need not feign such naiveté with me. A dancing bear with a ring through his nose is just that. The commercial artist who makes his name through outspoken political views or the championing of causes is still at the mercy of his corporate puppeteers and the fickle public. In fact, his position is even more precarious than that of the purely “pop” commercial artist. If a nitwit like Britney Spears decided to take up some cause like PETA, no one would bat an eyelash as long as she continued to spin out the same useless tripe on record. However, the political commercial artist is locked into his image even more than today’s flavor of the hour. Imagine, for instance, what would happen if Eddie Vedder decided that not only did he have a decent childhood, but that he was going to become a Republican. Or, while not necessarily political but related to the topic at hand, imagine if Trent Reznor decided to write a happy love song with no anger or ironic twist, and play it on acoustic guitar. The disruption in the vacuum between the ears of his pierced and tattooed admirers would cause a collective outburst that would make the Hajj look like a pleasant walk on the beach. The political or social commercial artist is therefore so locked into his own image that he cannot escape it for a moment. His fans know this intuitively, his record label knows this explicitly, but he must feel this most acutely. He is incapable of change. As Eminem says, “I am whatever you say I am.” This is why the most fortunate commercial artists know their inherent lack of substance on some level, and therefore exploit image to the hilt. I point you to David Bowie and Prince. Both realize that image is the name of the game, and are free to change their image at any whim. If either were to take the stage tomorrow donned in a tuxedo and singing jazz standards, the public would love it, because it would be just another example of attention-whoring pop tarts doing what they do best. Whether or not I take them seriously, I respect their inherent understanding of the way stardom works.
Thomas: But Simon, what exactly is the role of this strange creature, the commercial artist?
Simon: People need to worship something. In a secular society, pretty people become the new miniature gods, but free-market democracy makes this god status extremely unstable. These little gods remain in a constantly fluctuating and rotating divinity, and what the market giveth the market taketh away. The commercial artist is almost always bound for some sort of dreadful fate, which is why it is better to pity him than despise him. After all, pity is fare more cruel than hatred.
If you have made it this far, stay tuned for Part III, where Simon explicates the meaning, role and existence of the artiste in America. Be warned: It will only get uglier from here.