I teach an undergraduate course called “The Communication Revolution, Entertainment and Art”. I often have to remind students what the last word has to do with the rest of the title. Marcuse wrote,
In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by society, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of the artist.
One of my first jobs was working as a tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band. Their work was testament to Marcuse’s statement. I think we are impoverished by our lack of artists who refuse “to forget what can be”, but I’m not sure I know what happened between the late 60’s and the present day. McLuhan had his own ideas about the way we deal with dangerous artists.
To reward and to make celebrities of artists can, also, be a way of ignoring their prophetic work, and preventing its timely use for survival. The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness.
So does the culture of celebrity and marketing make it easy to ignore the prophet? What was the nature of the world in 1922 that both a Louis Armstrong and a Pablo Picasso could have such revolutionary effect on our culture? If US Magazine existed in 1922, would Louis and Pablo be “celebrities are just like us” drinking anisette at Els Quare Gats in Barcelona or sharing a reefer with King Oliver at a Windy City stage door?
The problem with the 80-20 rule in entertainment (80% of your profits come from 20% of your product) is that it is a relatively recent development. John Hammond, who discovered Billy Holiday, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen didn’t live by the 80-20 rule. Mo Ostin, who ran Warner Bros. Records from 1967-1995 kept artists like Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and the Kweskin Jug Band on the roster despite their anemic record sales, because they were artists he was proud to release.
I guess I’m sick of the 500 channel universe and the 24 hour celebrity culture. I want to be shocked again by an artist as brave as Orson Welles making Citizen Kane. What will it take to get back to that reality show?