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The built-in reaction

Norman Rockwell tuggin' them heartstrings.

Norman Rockwell tuggin' them heartstrings.

Jack White, the former singer and guitarist with The White Stripes, last week had a dig at Lady Gaga, describing her persona as "all artifice. It's all image with no meaning behind it". Then, rather confusingly, he issued an apology on his website a few days later, saying "I never said anything about her music, or questioned the authenticity of her songs in any way" ...

It's an interesting distinction for White to draw, particularly when he goes on to insist that this sort of "tabloid drama" (by which, I guess, he rather disingenuously means being "quoted out of context") only "encourages artists to not express their opinions in the press, and instead give polite sound-bites that don't stimulate thought about creativity and the consumption of art in its many guises".

Frankly, I'm disappointed in White because he did say something interesting about "art" in the interview but instead of sticking to his guns and spurring a debate about the quality of music (and art) consumed by the general public, he backed away from his insights and effectively killed the debate.

In the Esquire interview White takes exception to, he's quoted as saying: "The goal of modern celebrity is to make yourself into the lowest common denominator. 'Hey, I'm a guy just like you. I like a beer, a football game …' Especially in reality television, you'll see people will go so far as to make a fool out of themselves just to prove that. I don't want to see a reality show about Michelangelo."

When asked about Gaga, "who has been known to cook pasta at home in a wig and Louboutin heels, is [she] an example of a celebrity who really lives their vision?", White replied:

"I don't think she lives it because it's all artifice. It's all image with no meaning behind it. You can't sink your teeth into it. It's a sound-bite. It's very of this age, because that's what people want. They want a Twitter line, a Gif, a Jpeg, an MP3".

Or an inoffensive song.

I guess White saw the shit fight he'd stepped into attacking the world's most popular female singer, chose discretion and issued the above-mentioned apology. Sadly, he'd actually hit the nail on the head about the problem with most "art" and music nowadays - the artists don't live it.

As trite as it might sound, art is its own reward, and as much as artists would love to be acclaimed and financially rewarded for their efforts, the experience of producing art is more than enough fufilment - to be able to stand back and say "I did that", "I conjured that from nothing", "this never would have existed without me".

If it's not - get out of the business. And if acclaim and financial reward are the dominant motivations? Then you're not making art - it's kitsch. Chintz. Tinsel.

Or jingles like this.

This is not to doubt the sincerity of the "producers".

In his great critique of mass culture, Masscult & Midcult, the American essayist Dwight MacDonald demoralising insists "there seem to be two main conditions for the successful production of Kitsch. One is that the producer must believe in what he is doing."

MacDonald goes on to say: "A good example is Norman Rockwell, who since 1916 has painted over three hundred covers for the Saturday Evening Post. When a fellow illustrator remarked their craft was just a way to make a living - 'You do your job, you get your check, and nobody thinks it's art' - Rockwell was horrified. 'Oh no no no. How can you say that? No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations. He's got to put all of his talent, all of his feelings into them.'

"Having just seen a most interesting exhibition of Rockwell's techniques at a local bank, I think he was telling the truth. He makes dozens of careful, highly competent pencil sketches. He makes oil renderings of details, for just one Post cover; if genius were really an "infinite capacity for taking pains", Norman Rockell would be a genius. The trouble is that the final result of all this painstaking craftmanship is just - a Post cover, as slick and cliche in craftsmanship as it is in content."

Try telling this to the seemingly limitless number of art directors, filmmakers, chefs, designers, hairdressers, musicians, photographers and stylists who try to pass themselves off as "artists" nowadays and see if you can get out alive from the biodynamic urban taco fabricator you're eating at.

Perhaps the largest single issue MacDonald has with these types - as he does with the likes of Rockell - is their inherent need to build in the reaction required from the audience to their work.

As with mouth-breathers who use the word "party" as a verb, the likes of Gaga and Matt Corby and Flight Facilities and Damien Hirst and Steven Spielberg and Bryce Courtenay and friggin' Underbelly might as well have their own laugh tracks - AKA THIS IS WHERE YOU CRY, GET ANGRY, HATE THE MAAAN!

"It is impossible not to identify the emotion [they] want to arouse. Sometimes solemn, sometimes gay, always straining to put it across like a niteclub violinist - Play, gypsy, play! One is never puzzled by the unexpected," MacDonald writes.

Or maybe I just misinterpreted him. And Jack White.

Oh, this is the part where you tell me I'm jealous.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

98 comments so far

  • I'm disappointed that Jack backed-off rather than ante-up: Gaga is pure manufactured crap. Dross. Shite. Rubbish. She is a talentless hack.

    Date and time
    December 12, 2012, 3:58PM
    • get over yourself; just because you don't like Gaga (and are obviously not her market) doesn't mean she's not talented. Tens of thousands of performers try to do what she does every year and very few succeed.
      Why can't everyone just accept that different performers appeal to different people (and different age groups) and the ones that succeed generally have something special that hits a cord with their fans – that's their talent.
      (and no, I'm not a Gaga fan)

      Date and time
      December 12, 2012, 9:14PM
    • Sam, you are on fire the last couple of days (or years if you look at the tweet with the link to the 2009 article).
      JJ you miss the point of the article. She may be talented but she wouldnt do it if she didnt get the huge financial reward therefore she is not an 'artist'. The real artists; like them or not, are the the tens of thousands you mention who keep doing it despite receiving little monetary reward

      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 8:36AM
    • Mostly agree with that. White is correct about Gaga. She is nothing more than manufactured contrived plastic pop for mindless teenieboppers. Her "talent" lies more in the spectacle and hype than the music. She's all show and no go. There's nothing artistic or even remotely original in it. We saw Madonna do it back in the 80s and she wasn't the first to combine hypersexualised style with basic unimaginative synth pop.

      But White isn't much better. He's just another hipster Bob Dylan clone and his music has no sonic dynamism. He had one mildly catchy tune and he's been riding that popularity ever since

      Popularity does not equate with ability or talent. Gaga performs to mindless teenieboppers who only like it because the rest of the herd do. All you need to do to be successful in this demographic is have a decent PR campaign and buy up a lot of radio airtime. If you've ever seen abunch of 14yo girls deciding what they like you'd realise it's more about groupthink than anything else eg Q: What do you think about this? A: I don't know what do you think? Someone else said its good. There's not much more to it than that. It's conformism for the sake of popularity

      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 10:50AM
    • right, so a middle aged white boy defines art for us all.

      I wonder what kids think about that or teenagers or Kooris or octogenarians or Sudanese refugees... and that's just in Sydney. Each of the groups I have mentioned will probably have a different emotional and aesthetic reaction to any one work of art, and that's how it should be. But, you know... good for you, Sam, you seem to know it all – brilliant!

      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 1:26PM
    • Franky... how do you know she wouldn't do it if there wasn't huge financial reward?
      Being wealthy or making sure you earn a buck for yourself doesn't preclude you from being an artist, just ask Picasso or Dali or Whitely (not that I'm comparing her to them artistically, just in the way that she she goes about her business, just as they went about theirs)

      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 1:37PM
    • Franky, that's ridiculous. Do you really think the definition of "artist" is "unsuccessful"?

      I think Gaga would still be singing if she wasn't getting the financial reward. Maybe she does certain things because it improves her brand or whatever, but I reckon if she just had a niche following she'd still perform.

      Of course, there's no way to test this.

      Date and time
      December 13, 2012, 1:42PM
    • Bender, Gaga performs cracking pop tunes that are catchy. I quite enjoy them and hope that she enjoys her rewards because from my observation she works hard for it.
      Just because it is pop rather than something else does not mean that it is bad. It also doesn't mean that it is not art. The Pop Art movement in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's proved that the every day can be artistically beutidul. Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans are evidence of that.

      Date and time
      December 14, 2012, 8:43AM
    • Red Pony, I completely agree with you.

      All I will add is that Sam, the reality is that you have no idea whether Lady Gaga will be remembered in the future.

      Personally, I loved Lady Gaga's 'Fame' album, however, unlike you, I'm not arrogant enough to presume that my opinion is worth all that much.

      Date and time
      December 16, 2012, 11:26PM
  • One person's perception of art is another person's perception of self-indulgence. What is fashionably considered art by an elitist group trying to express their cultural superiority is a load of rubbish to those that are being told they are uncultured.
    I have been of the view for many moons that there is no crap music, just music not to your taste. Same goes with movies, art, food and however you choose to spend your leisure time. It may not be to my taste so I don't do it, and I wouldn't rubbish you because you do.
    People who admonish another for not demonstrating their "art" with enough committment, passion and gusto needs a smack on the hand and to be sent to the naughty corner until they can play nice in the sandpit.

    What utter nonsense. There's a massive difference between art and Lady Gaga. And yes, most people don't know better. - Sam

    Date and time
    December 12, 2012, 4:03PM

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