Blonde On Blonde and the Elusive Nature of Art

Different Versions of Blonde On Blonde

Today I was listening to the mono version of Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde.  I then stumbled on the above article, which tries to document the different versions of that album and there reasons for being.  Even if you are not an audiophile, with truth be told, even though I love records, I am not, there are reasons why this should interest you.  Often we think of a piece of art as having a definitive version.  However with albums, there are slightly different versions in different countries.  Even in the same country, especially in the 60’s when it was common to have stereo and mono versions of the same record, there are different mixes, track listings, cover photos, etc.

Music isn’t the only art-form where there can be many different versions.  Many times painters or other kinds of visual artists will make more than one of a piece.  Japanese woodblock prints are a kind of art-form that were meant to have multiple versions.  The movie Alexander, by Oliver Stone, one of my favorite films, has the theatrical cut, the directors cut, and a sprawling two disc The Final Cut.

There is arguably a best version of a particular piece of art.  There may be an intended version of something.  However, there often isn’t a “definitive” version of something.  The movie Blade Runner is an interesting study.  There is the original theatrical cut and there is also a director’s cut, among other versions.  The director’s cut is obviously the intended version by the person that had the biggest hand in creating it.  However, I know many people that are passionate about this movie, that prefer the theatrical cut.  Which version would you deem “definitive”?

Art, like the human experience in general, can be hard to pin down.

Paul Simon’s Graceland Acclaim and Outrage

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Paul Simon Graceland Acclaim and Outrage

One of my favorite albums is Paul Simon’s Graceland.  I have always liked Paul Simon in general, but my particular love for this album is also largely rooted in the African music that is part of it.  Paul Simon was attacked politically breaking the boycott of Apartheid South Africa and recording with South African musicians.  Apparently there is a documentary that details this story called Under African Skies.  I have not seen the documentary, although now I would like to.  The above article tells the political story behind the album and the documentary.  It is an interesting read.

I am personally glad that this album exists.  This album has meant a great deal to me.  It has also caused me to investigate further and purchase music by African artists.  I have read before where some people have said that Simon was committing a kind of cultural imperialism, but I have no patience for such things.  Anyone that understands music knows that artist are constantly borrowing, stealing, and learning from each other.  It is how the form gets moved forward.  Everything comes from somewhere.  Even artists that create things that seem shockingly original are simply combining ideas in ways they haven’t been before.  That and technical innovation are what creates new sounds.

On the political side of things I still think Simon comes out clean.  As far as I know he treated the artists well and paid them well for their work.  (There is some controversy over his collaboration with Los Lobos on the album, but none that I can find with the African Musicians that he worked with.)  I think Simon’s own view on the political nature of what he did is correct:

What was unusual about Graceland is that it was on the surface apolitical, but what it represented was the essence of the antiapartheid in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed. It was completely the opposite from what the apartheid regime said, which is that one group of people were inferior. Here, there were no inferiors or superiors, just an acknowledgement of everybody’s work as a musician. It was a powerful statement – National Geographic

I also find it interesting that for all of the clamor and noise over a work of art at the time of its creation, that time has a funny way of sometimes turning everything but the art itself into dust.  That doesn’t mean that political arguments over a piece of work have no merit, especially as they relate to current political struggles.  Also, overtly political works have a different amount of relevance to political struggle than works that are art for art’s sake, especially if those struggles are still going on in some fashion.  However, as time progresses we humans and our struggles disappear and all we are left with is what we created.  Graceland is till fairly new and yes there are still struggles going on in South Africa, but they are different ones than what was going on during Apartheid, even if they are related to that time period.    Lately I have been reading parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Dante wrote this as a political exile.  While knowing the politics behind it can make certain parts of the text more meaningful, Dante’s political struggle has no bearing on our present reality.  Yet the text is still with us in all of its power.  It is very possible that problems of race will long outlast Graceland, but the opposite may also be true.  All one can do is to follow their own compass and try to speak their truth, time will sort everything else out, one way or another.

Bjork, Marina Abramovi, and MOMA

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I’ve mentioned before that Bjork is doing a career retrospective at MOMA.  Here is an article in Rolling Stone about that retrospective.  It also features some clips as well.  This is definitely a show I would check out if I lived even remotely close.

Speaking of Museum of Modern Art, one of my favorite documentaries of recent years was about a show there.  That film is Marina Abramovi The Artist is Present.  This movie is fascinating and definitely worth your time.  Here is the trailer:

The Privileged are Taking Over the Arts

The Privileged Taking Over the Arts

Above is an interesting article from The New Republic which talks about how more and more popular artists are coming from a background of privilege.  (And really this could be for any art form.) It is an argument that I can’t help but feel has some merit.  That’s not to say that one’s art should be judged from where they came from, as at the end of the day the work is all that matters.  However, it may well be another reason why less and less music seems to speak truth to power.  I think it is a topic at least worth thinking about.  I am only just beginning to think about this topic, and will write more on this at some further point.  This article is definitely a worthwhile read.

Hat tip to William Michael Smith

Pussy Riot Stands Up For Eric Garner

This is Pussy Riot’s first English language video.  It is called I Can’t Breathe and it is in tribute to Eric Garner, the man that was killed by the New York City Police with an illegal chokehold.  They have commented that they stand in support with all of those that are victims of state violence.  I think the video itself is powerful as a piece of film.  I am someone that has long believed that art has a role in critiquing power.  One of the things that is as old as history itself is the idea that the elite try their best to divide and conquer those who have common cause.  One saw this especially during Reconstruction in the South where poor blacks and whites, who had more in common than either group had with former white slave holders, were pitted against each other, so the wealthy could retain their power.  Pussy Riot, in commenting on the piece, realize that Russia is more oppressive than the United States.  However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t also speak out against injustice wherever they see it.  I wish more artists in the U.S. would not only speak their political conscious, but also stand side by side with those in other countries with similar political aims.  In a world that is more and more interconnected, when multinational corporations are causing corruption at all levels, it is important that we stand in solidarity with those seeking justice, wherever they may be.  It is also important to note that non-violence is the best antidote to corporate and state violence.  Art, because of the powerful emotional connections that it can make, has a role that is complimentary to forms of non-violent protest.

Bjork to be Featured at MoMA

I still really love the new Bjork album, though I got on some other trips and got slightly distracted from it.  I want to write a comprehensive piece about it, but it may be awhile.  In the meantime I saw that Museum of Modern Art is doing a sound and video installation of her work called Black Lake.  The above clip is the trailer for this installation.  Bjork is one of the few musical artists where you feel the visual side of what she does is fully integrated into her work, that it isn’t just a way to drum up press.  So many modern pop stars are visual spectacles without substance.  She is someone that you feel belongs in the Museum of Modern Art.  I actually started appreciating her by seeing one of her concert films in a theater.  It was a totally unique experience.  I’m about 99% positive that I won’t be able to go to the MoMA installation, but if I was in striking distance I would.

How Black People and Art Became Devalued

How Black People and Art Became Devalued

In my last blog I mentioned that culture, in general, seemed in decline.  I asked why.  The above article is from Salon and focuses on the same idea, but from a black perspective.  The writer, Brittney Cooper, starts with Prince’s quote at the Grammys:

“Albums still matter. Like books and Black lives, albums still matter.”

And then goes on to talk about the connection between a culture that devalues human lives and arts, hitting upon this core theme:

But under conditions of neoliberalism, which favor the unregulated, unchecked reach of huge multinational corporations into every area of our lives, art and music and the people who produce them all become merely marketable commodities.