I observed in my recent blog about Cheryl Cole that the logical conclusion of the arguments usually wheeled out to defend her role in pop was music originating with computers, with pop fans rooting for their brand of choice. This column in The Guardian is quite timely, then, in taking that possibility and using it to ask what ‘art’ is. Many would argue that it is merely an aesthetic, and largely an individualistic one at that – if I like something, it is art. This is, in fact, the view of many Cheryl fans who have moved a step beyond attempting to justify her as a popstar – when Lucy Jones of The Telegraph criticised Cheryl yesterday, she received several replies pointing out that Cheryl ‘brought pleasure’ to many people and that was all that mattered. On a very fundamental level it’s almost impossible to argue against this – people have different tastes and ideas and woe betide anyone who is seen to be attempting to impose their own onto others. If we step away from pop music, however, I think this argument is far less persuasive. In the ‘high art’ forms, such as literature or fine art, there are readily accepted contexts in which works are judged. We are able to recognise and discuss technique, form, an evolving yet nonetheless fixed history. Indeed, without this context the study and teaching of these forms would be impossible. It is a context which has been forged by human creativity and effort – sometimes affected by technology, certainly, but not replaced by it. We could program a computer to faithfully replicate many of these techniques etc but however satisfying the result, the machine would not, could not, move the form on. Here, then, it seems obvious that ‘art’ requires a human hand.
I will never forget the trauma that was studying Shakespeare at university, where we would spend hours poring over specific paragraphs and unpicking the depths contained within them. I could never quite believe that one artist could have been so skilled, so astoundingly talented. Aside from the poetry of Shakespeare’s verse and prose (and how dismissive that seems!), his plays are packed with references and allusions to history, religion, mythology, other literature and the culture and politics of the period. This requires both intention and insight, which instantly puts the work beyond the reach of any computer. They are also bursting with a humanity (and understanding thereof) which even the most advanced computer could never hope to replicate. So, while judging Shakespeare on the level of ‘do I like it or not? Does it bring me pleasure?’ may answer the question of individual taste, it doesn’t begin to answer the question of whether Shakespeare is art as it doesn’t appreciate that which separates it from random scribbling.
Even with intertextuality, post-structuralism, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ or Adorno’s negation of aestheticism itself, we rely on these contexts and histories created by humans, even if to react against them (and in doing so, expand and progress the form). All of these things have become part of critical theory and part of our interpretation of art (however much some of the individuals behind them may have despised this development). The same could be said of Punk rock – it reacted against the dominant ideas of popular music at the time and created something new, yet for all of its radicalism it is now seen as influential as the context it kicked against.
Popular music certainly has its own history, its own context. The major difference with the more ‘traditional’ art forms is perhaps that it’s a fairly brief one, with mass-produced recorded music only arising and dominating in the 20th century. The notions of authorship and artistry which we appeal to when speaking about pop music tend to be those which, varyingly depending on your tastes, only hark back as far as Motown and/or The Beatles. The former is held up as the banner for ‘it’s not important who write the songs’ and ‘the star is key’; the latter are obviously archetypes of creative self-determination in pop. In their way, the Sex Pistols were an important crossroads as the perfect blend between the two, having their own Berry Gordy in Malcolm McLaren and playing ‘characters’, yet writing their own songs and playing instruments (albeit in a self-consciously rudimentary fashion.)
Yet the tensions between the two concepts of pop have never really abated; many still pick their side, mocking ‘manufactured music’ or ridiculing ‘authenticity’. What is lost here are the deeper commonalities : both undoubtedly treated pop music as an art form, and there is far more going on in the best of both ‘worlds’ than ‘does the listener find this catchy?
Ironically, it was another meeting of these ‘worlds’ which perhaps ushered in an era where this was obscured: Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, while undoubtedly a brilliant piece of work, was the ‘Jaws’ of the music industry, ushering in the era of the blockbuster. Many of the arguments we hear today – justification by appealing to record sales/popularity, the dominance of love for an artist’s persona over their work, the fetishism of an artist who retreats from their work and becomes the product themselves – can arguably be traced back to this massive breakpoint. Its aftermath certainly calcified attitudes of ‘manufactured vs authenticity’, which is perhaps surprising as most of the pop artists which came after were certainly self-determining. Yet this was also the period where the star, the character, became a visual product and commerce really became an unavoidable part of pop. This spectacle was so removed from what had come before that it paradoxically calcified the tribe mentality.
We’ll probably never stop asking what art is. What’s remarkable about pop music today is that so few seem to care. As The Guardian blog illustrates, it’s a conversation which never dies with certain forms. I suppose Instragram is its own ‘I like it vs how it was made’ argument…but that’s another story.