Morality and Censorship in Art

Should art have any kind of moral compass?  I’ve mentioned in recent posts that I’m currently going through a thrash metal phase.  I’ve been listening to albums by the Big 4, which is Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer.  Many songs by these bands depict the horrors of this world, and the next one, without any kind of commentary on how they feel about these horrors.  That’s not to say that these bands don’t also have socially conscious lyrics as well, but there are many that simply paint a picture and leave it up to the listener to interpret them. 

In particular I am thinking about the Slayer song Angel of Death.   The song is about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.  This song talks about the horrors of the Holocaust without any kind of commentary by the band telling the listener if those deeds were good or bad.  Although Slayer would later go on to write things that had more of a point of view, at this point they were just writing brutal lyrics filled with horrors.  Because of listening to this song and others I have begun thinking about whether or not this kind of thing is responsible.    

In thinking about it I have decided that art, as long as it is art and a form of true expression, does not need to have a moral compass in the standard sense.  An artist’s only responsibility is to express themselves in the truest way that they can.  I would like to explain why I think this. 

First of all I am talking about art and not about commerce.  If something is done just to make money this is a betrayal of the talents of an artist.  All artists are lucky and are blessed with a talent.  Whether you deem that that talent is the result of hard work, DNA, fortunate circumstances, or some higher power, the ability to create something is a gift.  Using this “gift” for anything other than creating something that is true is not valuing the talent that you have been lucky enough to have bestowed upon you.  I am a realist.  I understand that in this day and age there are circumstances where the artist might have to occasionally cash in so that they have the freedom to nurture their true gift.  In the music business, for instance, it is growing harder and harder every day to make a living.  To create something to make money, so that you can survive, take care of your loved ones, and nurture your talent further, may not be ideal, but it may need to be done on occasion.  The line where this goes from being survival to exploitation of your talent is a murky one.  At the end of the day each individual needs to live with their own decisions. 

Also, there are plenty of things out there that have no artistry to them whatsoever and are simply done to exploit the public in some form or fashion.  Most reality TV is like this.  It creates the opposite of thinking.  It leaves the mind in a dulled state so that it can be more easily influenced by the advertising that is this forms true aim: To make money for large corporations.  Plus these things take many people that may have talent, and while possibly providing them with a living, uses those talents towards an idiotic end. 

So let’s get past that and take the exploitation of talent by commerce out of this.  Should an artist use that talent to try to make the world a better place, and if so how do they do that?  Again, I have already answered no.  That is not to say that I don’t idolize people like John Lennon and Bob Marley who inspired people with their calls for social justice.  But I would say that the art that they created was a natural extension of who they were and what they believed in.  Because of this their work is organic, full of passion, and rings true to this day.  If an artist gets to a place of enlightenment where they can write about topics that bring light to the world, then I am all for it.  If this kind of art comes from a true place it will have weight and validity. 

As an artist I think you should, despite the television and your gut often tells you the opposite, treat people like they are intelligent beings capable of reasoning on their own.  Another way to exploit talent is to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator.  If you are creating something you should not let your ego tell you that you are smarter than everyone.  You should assume that there are enough people that are as smart or are smarter than you that will get what you are doing.  If you look out at the world and see some kind of void in what you want you want to hear or see, then you should try to fill that void as best you can.  Even if this provides you with a smaller audience it is out of your control.  Sometimes, like Bob Dylan, the world will reward you.  Sometimes, like Vincent Van Gogh, the world may not catch onto what you are doing until you are long gone.  And there are sometimes when you may not ever be acknowledged, but that is ok.  At least you were trying to do something of value.  Success is not an indicator of anything.  The Backstreet Boys sold way more albums than The Velvet Underground, but only one of them moved the cultural needle. 

So now let us get back to Angel of Death.  Is a song morally reprehensible because it depicts a real world horror without any social commentary?  Again, I say no.  In doing so you would wrongly be assuming that everyone was stupid.  In doing something like this you are causing people to think for themselves.  Someone may or may not want to listen to something like this, but in hearing it they have to at least confront the issue.  They can’t ignore that something like this happened in the world.  This is not escapism, which too has its place and time.  I know enough about Slayer to know that they are not Nazi’s and that they actually wrote songs later that did express a point of view which was in no way associated with fascism.  They were simply depicting something, which in and of itself means that it is not necessarily moral, but it is not immoral. 

Two of my favorite bands of the last year have been The Angelic Upstarts and The Cockney Rejects.  These are two second generation British punk bands that are often associated with the Oi! Movement.  The Oi! Movement is really misunderstood as it was primarily a working class movement.  However, there were Oi! bands that were racist skinheads.  The Angelic Upstarts and the Cockney Rejects both actively fought against the right wing aspects of this movement, sometimes literally!  The Angelic Upstarts in particular were very political and often sang about supporting unions and other important working class topic matters.  They even have a song called Anti-Nazi

But what about the bands that were racist?  Should this music have been prevented from being made?  Although I would never listen to such things, I would say that art, if it is true expression, should never be censored.  If someone has a feeling, even an ignorant backwards feeling, if it is expressed truly in the public eye than it brings it out of the darkness.  Art is a conversation that often takes place in the public eye.  Where hatred and the less noble human emotions can often fester in back rooms, if it is created as something for mass consumption, as something tangible, it has to at least be acknowledged.  If you know something exists you can fight against it.  It has been given a form and a name.  All censorship does is give more power to those that are being censored.  It makes it a cause for those that are being censored, instead of maybe a silly little group of idiots on the fringe of society.  It also is an attempt to whitewash something that may exist.  It is far better to confront things and try to prevent what is causing something, then to ignore its existence.  It may someday, if not acknowledged, become a problem that you can’t ignore. 

So I started talking about the morality of art and ended up at censorship.  I always like to remember the Flannery O’Connor quote, and I’m paraphrasing here, that if an artist writes about dirt it is often because that artist despises dirt and not because they love it.  Although we should want love and joy out of art, we should also realize that those that are diving into the darkness of the human condition have a value as well.  We live in a capitalist society where you often vote with your dollar.  You should only vote for things that you think bring value to society, but that is for you as an individual to decide.  More often than not I would rather hang Vincent Van Gogh on my wall, but occasionally I want to stare transfixed at The Raft of the Medusa.  The duality of man fascinates me.  The world is such an interesting place! 

You’ve Got to Have Hope

The above video is a long speech by author and activist Rebecca Solnit on the topic of hope.  It’s easy in this day and age to want to throw your hands up in defeat.  With climate change, reality TV, endless war, the military industrial complex, overpopulation, banal music on the radio, the increasing gap between rich and poor, people in power like Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, or any number of other things, it can be hard to wake up each day with a can do attitude.  On this blog I often point to a lot that is wrong in this world.  The reason for that is simply that a lot is wrong.  However, if I didn’t think things could be better I would simply quit writing, go buy a ton of drugs, and enter my own private fantasy land.  I always loved Flannery O’Connor’s quote that if a writer writes about dirt it is because the writer despises dirt, not because they love it.  (Paraphrased)  Hope doesn’t mean looking at the world through rose tinted glasses.  It just means realizing that the potential for positive change is there if it is worked towards.  Even someone like Hunter Thompson, famous for writing things like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, believed in fighting the good fight for a better future.  There is nothing more noble in human beings, in the face of an ever growing storm, than small acts of defiance like hope.

Bruce Springsteen and Flannery O’Connor

In the fields of the lord
Stood Abel and Cain
Cain slew Abel ‘neath the black rain
At night he couldn’t stand the guilt or the blame

So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name

Billy got drunk, angry at his wife
He hit her once, he hit her twice
At night he’d lie in bed, he couldn’t stand the shame

So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name
So he gave it a name

Pa told me “son, one thing I know is true
Poison snake bites you, you’re poison too”
At night I can feel that poison runnin’ ’round my veins

Gave it a Name by Bruce Springsteen.  As those of you that have been reading along know, I have been diving back into Springsteen’s catalogue.  This is a lesser known song off of his Tracks box set.  Ever since I was a teenager this song has moved me for reasons that I can’t quite articulate.  I have never been a religious person, but the haunted Biblical language in this song has always appealed to me.  It’s poetic and yet simple at the same time.  It’s as if this song is carved from stone. 

I love the writing of Flannery O’Connor and I know Springsteen read her as well.  Wise Blood is one of my favorite novels and her short stories are simply some of the best American short stories ever.  I’ve read the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find numerous times, always taken in by it at every reading.  (Springsteen would later go on to steal that title for a song.)  A lot of people call her writing southern grotesque, which is a term she never liked.  Her writing is truly unique.  It is infused with a good deal of the same kind of Old Testament poetry which gives it a timeless power. 

I also like the way Springsteen lets the last verse hang.  In the lyrics as well as the song there is no third chorus.  It leaves the song unresolved and mysterious.  Art is often at its best when it is not tied up in a neat little package for you at the end.  It allows the imagination to fill in the blanks.  

The Artificial Hillbillies

Dear God in Heaven!  I was just out at Wal-Mart getting some cheap socks for the tour.  As long as you have clean underwear and socks on tour you can survive.  Everything else is negotiable.  I don’t usually shop at Walmart, but when I need something I don’t care about, like socks, I end up going there.  Yes, I’m selling everything I believe in down the river for a couple pairs of socks.  My soul is cheap.  Anyway, as soon as I walked in I saw four giant flat screen TVs with Duck Dynasty on them.  I mean as soon as I walked into the store.  Then I saw books and all kinds of other stuff featuring them.  Holy shitballs!

It reminded me of a story by Flannery O’Connor called The Artificial Nigger.   This story is about two white country bumpkins that go to the city.  It is a demented fish out of water story.  Basically, what finally pushes them over the edge is that they see the figure in the title.  They can’t believe they are in a place that doesn’t have enough black people, even though it’s filled with them, and actually needs to make artificial ones.   This completely breaks the grandson in the story and he has no desire to ever return to the city.

Why was I thinking of that story?  I have lived in Central Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Texas.  I have seen enough ignorant hillbillies in my day that, I don’t need to see images of them everywhere I go.  This country has enough stupid people.  We don’t need to be putting them in more places than they already are with television screens!

I Love You All the Same

Sometimes I dream of other women
And the end of the world
Sometimes I wanna crash your father’s car
And steal your mother’s pearls
I can be greedy
Selfish and vain
But oh my love
I love you all the same

I don’t trust any man
Without conflict in his eyes
I don’t trust any women
Who’s never been a pawn to desire
Someone had to bite the Apple
I don’t care who’s to blame
Oh my love
I love you all the same

That old river is flowing
It flows to the sea
It won’t wait for you
it won’t wait for me

Lying in your bed
I dreamt of the fall of Rome
I did unspeakable things
It felt like home
Am I the candle
Or am I the flame?
Oh my love
I love you all the same

Thanks for all of you that came out and supported No Show Ponies this weekend.  It was a succesful weekend and tremendous fun for the band.  We’re really looking forward to playing more shows for you and finally getting our new album out there.  This is another set of lyrics from the upcoming record.

This song is called I Love You All the Same.  The song is lyrically influenced by Flannery O’Connor, the movie A Clockwork Orange, but mostly by the writer Denis Johnson.  Denis Johnson wrote a book called Angels.  It’s my least favorite Denis Johnson book.  It’s his first and probably his worst.  I love the writer overall though, and have read all of his books.  However, the book Angels ends with a beautiful passage about personal violence.  Are you the candle or are you the flame?  Will you be consume your personal demons or will they consume you?

Musically this song is some weird almagamation of Willie Nelson’s Teatro and The Smiths.  I don’t know how those two ended up together, but they did.

We are tremendously excited to get this music out in the world.  Soon.

What’s Shaking On the Hill

There is probably nothing harder than writing about music, except writing about your own music.  Music is primarily an abstract emotional art.  Other than lyrics music is something that is supposed to make you feel, not think.  Words often fail.  Music is often something that takes the place of words.  Even when you have something more concrete, like a story song, the music, and that abstract emotion, is on equal footing with the words.

I have tried and failed more times than not to tell people what the band No Show Ponies sounds like.  Part of this is the trouble of change.  Our first album, The End of Feel Good Music, was mostly an Americana affair.  This is due largely to the part that we had grown bored with electric guitars at the time and when we first moved to Austin we brought in all of the players that we knew, that tended to lean towards this genre.  This was not a natural fit for us as my brother Ben, who is my copartner in NSP, and I listen to Americana about as often as there is a full moon; maybe less.  Sometimes art just turns out the way the gods intended, and you don’t’ have as much control as you would often like.  Everyone that worked on the album did great stuff.  I still believe in that album as a collection of songs.  I’m not trying to queer my own hustle.  All I’m trying to lay down is that the music on that record doesn’t fit our natural inclinations.

The record that is done in all but title, that we are releasing this fall, is more representative of us and our influences.  It’s a combination of our artier pretensions and at the same time our love for big classic rock n roll.  It may sound strange to say that it is one part Joy Division and one part Van Halen.  It is one part Public Image Lmtd. and one part Thin Lizzy.  It is the Replacements and My Bloody Valentine, it is the Police and Thomas Mapfumo, it is Fleetwood Mac and it is the Smiths.  I know what went into the pot.  Those are just a few of the things we were stirring together.  Lyrically it was influenced by the darker humor of Lou Reed and Morrissey and Leonard Cohen.  But it was also influenced lyrically by Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and a whole host of other artists and thinkers that have nothing to do with the music business.  To me the album is a rock n roll album in the classic sense.  Most rock bands of the 60’s mixed together a highly eclectic set of influences to come up with their sound.  Someone like Pete Townshend was an intellectual and a primitive.

You may get some of that or none of that when you hear it.  That’s fine.  We just hope that you get something out of it.  That it sounds good cranked up in your car.  We hope that it also sounds good on your headphones when you are alone and want to dive in deeper.

We recorded live to tape with minimal fixing and overdubs.  It’s raw and unpolished, but it’s true.  We redid the vocals, but we even sang into the same microphone at the same time to get it as live as possible.  It’s the sound of a band that can play their asses off all in the same room together.  It’s unhinged energy.

They say when you are slinging your own shit to come up with a catchy term to sell it to people.  I’ve never been able to do that.  I’d say it’s rock n roll, and it is, but that term has lost value as it’s been tied to everything under the sun that features guitars and isn’t country, blues, or jazz.

So again I’ve failed to explain exactly what it is that we do.  That is often death in a marketing sense.  But I believe in this record a hundred percent.  I hope that some of you will too.  Maybe as it gets closer to being released I’ll get some kind of divine intervention and come up with the perfect term or phrase to give this thing wings.

If you are curious about what it is we do, and happen to live in the great city of Austin, Texas, we’ll be playing live at the Continental Club this Friday.  We start at 10pm sharp.  Come out and see what’s shaking on the hill.  Make up your own mind.  As a listener that’s what you should be doing anyway.

Quote

Flannery O’Connor On Mystery

“I don’t think literature would be possible in a determined world. We might go through the motions but the heart would be out of it. Nobody could then ‘smile darkly and ignore the howls.’ Even if there were no Church to teach me this, writing two novels would do it. I think the more you write, the less inclined you will be to rely on theories like determinism. Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.”

Flannery O’Connor is one of the great American writers.  Her use of language is completely unique.  If you have never heard of her, read her short story A Good Man is Hard To Find.  All of her work is excellent.  I’ve actually never read anything bad by her.

Where I’m Coming From

I would like to explain the kind of writing I am trying to do with this blog a little more.  Think of it as a diary, but where a diary is a reflection of one’s own feelings and inner thoughts, this is a diary of what I see and think of what is going on in our culture on a day to day basis.  Where a diary would be all about me, with this blog I am trying to hold up a mirror to the world as best I can.

I am trying to write on a daily basis, without fear, on what I see, hear, and read.  All writing is biased and personal to some degree.  I don’t have a stranglehold on the truth.  I am simply trying to tell my truth as best I can.

View the culture as an ocean.  Everyone is swimming in that ocean.  It influences us in ways that we can’t even comprehend.  I am trying to help people understand that ocean and how it influences us.  In even the simplest pop song there are market forces, cultural prejudices, and tribal loyalties at play.  When someone drives a pickup truck they may be driving it for reasons of need related to work, or they might be driving it because of reasons associated with identity.

I grew up in a liberal family with mostly conservative friends.  I am from the North East, but I live in the South.  I am a musician who played sports as a kid.  I’ve worked white collar jobs and I’ve worked blue collar jobs.  My parents are Unitarian, but I have read the Bible and taken religious classes, and I don’t belong to any kind of church or organization.  I’ve read Steinbeck and I read Entertainment Weekly.  I treasure David Lynch, but I’ve watched trashy reality shows.

My heroes include Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Morrissey, Oscar Wilde, Oliver Stone, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Nicolas Winding Refn, Bob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, John Lennon, George Orwell, Hampton Sides, Lou Reed, Bill Maher, Haruki Murakami, Flannery O’Connor, and George Carlin.  Those are just a few of the many people that have influenced my way of thinking.

I have an American Studies degree from PennState and am getting an Environmental Science and Policy degree from St. Edward’s University.  I play in a band called No Show Ponies and a band called Shinyribs.

This will hopefully tell those of you that don’t know me a little bit about what my background is and who I am.  I’ve always liked George Carlin’s distaste for groups and the way that he tried to treat every individual as an individual.

I have my own biases and blind spots.  I don’t claim that I have some kind of secret information that elevates me above anyone else.  If there is anything that I view as being slightly different it is that I don’t fit neatly into any tribal affiliation.  In the past year I’ve gone to art museums and drank beer on the back of a pick up truck while my friends went hunting.  Although most of my political beliefs could best be described as extremely liberal, I have friends that run the gamut in terms of their political orientation.

Every time I write something I am filled with a feeling of pride followed by a serious feeling of dread and self doubt.  I promise to write as honestly as I can in the moment and let it stand as is.  I will not revise anything, unless it is for spelling or grammatical purposes.

Hopefully those of you that read this will learn to trust me.  Not that you will agree with me, but in the sense that I will not bullshit you.  I will fail and I will succeed.  I am human.