Assemblog: May 24, 2013 – On The Purpose Of Art

Published on May 24th, 2013 in: Art, Assemblog, Critics/Criticism |

Velvet Goldmine, 1998
Screencap from Screenmusings

New this week on Popshifter: Jeff explains what Billy Squier and Ratt have in common in this week’s installments of Metal Mayhem; Melissa describes the “strange mix” on the reissued The Legend/Come Back To Me disc from Marty Robbins and is brought to tears by Davell Crawford’s My Gift To You; I review the “dark, disquieting” film Comforting Skin, now out on DVD and the anything-but-boring Ready To Die from Iggy and the Stooges, and attempt to unpack David Bowie’s new video for “The Next Day.”

Last week, The Cultural Gutter posted a link to a piece on Brain Pickings, which describes itself as “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” The piece was devoted to author Greil Marcus’s commencement address to the School of Visual Arts in New York. Marcus, who has written a lot of books about music and pop culture, had some fascinating things to say about the alleged differences between high and low art.

The commencement address is embedded in the article as a Soundcloud link. It’s only about 20 minutes in length, and definitely worth your time to hear. There are few points that Brain Pickings singled out and I’d like to share them here, as they resonated deeply with me.

At one point Marcus describes art this way: “What art does—maybe what it does most completely—is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t. There are whole worlds around us that we’ve never glimpsed.”

He gives a powerful example of this, describing how he felt transformed when he first saw Titian’s painting of the Virgin Mary in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. You might be wondering how Marcus can attempt to argue about the validity of low art when discussing his reaction to such a revered work of high art. But stay with it, because he goes places you might not expect.

Later, he talks about the power of art and how it can be ruined by fascist minds, quoting filmmaker Dennis Potter and author Albert Camus, and getting into the controversy of The Great Gatsby‘s recently reissued paperback, whose cover features Leonardo Di Caprio and the cast of the new Baz Luhrmann film.

When he talks about the reactions of various authors to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, it actually becomes uncomfortable if you recognize yourself in his descriptions. There is a tendency on the Internet—one I’ve certainly been guilty of—to equate oneself with the work being reviewed or described, sort of an extension of the “first comment!” mentality. Everyone’s bragging about who liked what first and who broke what scoop first. Of course, this is hardly new to pop culture discourse and it’s also something that a lot of journalists are guilty of, but it doesn’t make pop culture critics any less culpable. The popularity or notoriety of the film or music blog seems to have eclipsed the movies or music it purports to be promoting.

The following two paragraphs of Marcus’s speech affected me profoundly:

“That’s what art does, that’s what it’s for—to show you that what you think can be erased, cancelled, turned on its head by something you weren’t prepared for—by a work, by a play, a song, a scene in a movie, a painting, a collage, a cartoon, an advertisement—something that has the power that reaches you far more strongly than it reaches the person standing next to you, or even anyone else on Earth—art that produces a revelation that you might not be able to explain or pass on to anyone else, a revolution that you desperately try to share in your own words, in your own work.

“What’s the impulse behind art? It’s saying in whatever language is the language of your work, ‘If I could move you as much as it moved me . . . if I can move anyone a tenth as much as that moved me, if I can spark the same sense of mystery and awe and surprise as that sparked in me, well that’s why I do what I do’.”

—Less Lee Moore, Managing Editor

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