Pete's Blog

Kings and Queens

A recent Barbra Streisand concert at Madison Square Garden was enlivened by a comedy routine between La Streisand and a George Bush impersonator. The audience, many of whom had paid huge amounts of money for their tickets, apparently thought the evening's star should stick to what she is best at - namely singing - and when the more restless gave voice to their feelings they were answered by an expression Miss Streisand no doubt learned growing up in Brooklyn. This made a few headlines, and in an interview a few days later the star replied to her critics that it is an artist's duty to provoke, to challenge, and at times even to offend. It's not really worth pointing out just how self-serving it is to put on the mantle of righteousness to justify what was, by all accounts, a painfully inept waste of time in the middle of an expensive and (so far as the singing was concerned) otherwise excellent concert. But I'm getting tired of artists of all types bullying their audiences and calling it healthy. It isn't. People go to concerts or buy records or hang paintings on their walls because doing so makes their lives better. That is Art's purpose: to improve the lives of the people who consume it. Since the first caveman painted on a wall artists have been servants, providing their talent to those who would pay them just like any other master craftsman does. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, artists who lose sight of this truth are in danger of losing the delicate balance that art requires to speak effectively to the world. The idea that an artist can scold, lecture, or discomfit his patrons is very new and grows out of changes in society that have little to do with art itself. For instance, Count Esterhazy employed Joseph Haydn to provide him and his court with music. Haydn wore livery and ate in the dining hall, his position analogous to that of a skilled horse trainer or an especially valuable cook. With the fall of the patron class and the rise of the mass audience, artists make their money in smaller portions but from many more people. The audience becomes a faceless mass, merely an adjunct to the glamorous life of the artist, now often referred to as a "king" or "queen." This is incredibly destructive to talent. Look at what happened to Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson, or Andy Warhol, or John Lennon. When the relationship with your audience is inverted your work becomes self-indulgent, and a corporate subculture develops capable of forcing people to accept anything, no matter how stupid, simply because they've been told this is What's Happening. Say what you will about hereditary aristocracy, they were tastemakers, cultural leaders, and our culture today is the poorer for their absence.

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