The enemy of art is always going to be the inaccurate reporting of it by both the audience and the critics who line-up to discuss it. It is a double edged sword because both entities need each other to survive. Every artist wants an audience to listen and invest in their communications and also for the critics and art / music / journalists (or reviewers) to accurately describe their interaction with their art. That description can communicate both the positive and negative reactions to the art but it has to be an honest reflection of what was experienced. The fans also, I believe anyway, need to interact honestly with their artists work leaving their hopes and expectations and sentimentality behind in favour of travelling that evolution with them. There is no strict rule on how to be a fan or critic of anything really but there are two phrases that get thrown around by both fan and critics that showcases a lazy understanding of what being creative is all about. Those two phrases are the communicative stain known as being “self-indulgent” and or “pretentious” which are two words thrown around with very little understanding by sum of what the words mean.
When someone ceases to understand something an artist is trying to communicate it automatically becomes “self-indulgent” or “pretentious” which is a nice way to refer to it I guess but in terms of the word “self-indulgent” I’ve never really been comfortable with it being used as a negative phrase to describe misunderstood art.
Examining for a moment the dictionary meaning of being “Self-Indulgent” I don’t see why adhering to this principle, at least in the art world, is peppered with negativity:
Self-Indulgent: Excessive indulgence of one’s own appetites and desires
One would assume that based on the dictionary meaning of the word that every artist no matter their worth in the cultural lexicon is being “self-indulgent” because they choose the excessive indulgence of their own appetite and desire to create art that reflects their emotional world. How this is a negative thing will always bug me considering the amount of human beings who are quick to utter that dreaded business plan of “you got to just create what makes you happy and not the audience.” This is indeed a beautiful theory but so many artists don’t adhere to it. If all artists were truly “self-indulgent” (and for the sake of this argument I’ll lean on the music world) we wouldn’t have a need for that corporate structure of having hit singles, being accessible, radio edits, music awards or chart success. If artists engaged in the excessive indulgence of their own appetites and desires we’d see a lot of great music being released that reflects honestly what beats inside their hearts not an adherence to industry standards. If so many musicians are prone to telling you that they are “doing what they want” then why do so many of them try to write a song suited for the radio and try ever so hard to collect enough chords and melodies to suit that archetypical “single” that you supposedly need to be successful. How is that an evolutionary step as a human being and how is that in the spirit of art? That entire template proves is that you are more invested in the reward of money as opposed to artistic critical acclaim and it is the enemy of creative freedom. So many bands I know or have known strive for this kind of success and although they pass off their “single” as a gateway to their more arty / weirder material it still shows a lack of faith in just making art for art’s sake.
This is what brings me to the idea of being “pretentious” with your art.
If you then look at the dictionary meaning of the word “Pretentious” you will find the following meaning:
Pretentious: Attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.
When you muse on the meaning of the word it actually opens up the extreme disconnect between the idea of being “self-indulgent” and “pretentious” and how a lot of folk use these words incorrectly when describing art. I would define the musician who spends time trying to write a radio single, focusing on their image and how they look and just that overall desire to be famous and financially successful as the kind of artist who is pretentious because they are indeed “attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc, than is actually possessed.” These people aren’t artists, sure they have talent and a creative discipline but instead of acting on their own desires they assume that to have a hit or be successful that they need that hit radio single. That for me is incredibly “pretentious” behaviour because it is the enemy of honesty and quite frankly puts them in a position where they assume that by writing that radio hit that they will be put into a position that will afford them greater importance or talent than people who choose to boycott this way of creating.
Only because I love Mike Patton and Tool quite a bit I will use them as an example. Quite often I hear both of these artists described as “self-indulgent” like that is a negative thing. They also get labeled “pretentious” which is also again a great misunderstanding from both the fan and the critic. I think the appeal of Mike Patton and Tool lays in the way these artists have created that distance between them and their fans in order to keep the focus purely on their music. People, whether they love or hate Mike Patton or Tool, are fascinated by this and the standard uneducated argument in relation to the distance they create (between fan and band) and the type of experimental sounds they make is that they are “Self-Indulgent” and “Pretentious” as both people and artists. I never understand this argument because I often thought that most serious and good humoured artists would strive for that focus in their career and to chase art over being a celebrity.
Based on the above dictionary definitions of the words “self-indulgent” and “pretentious” it would seem that the human beings who label any artist, Mike Patton and Tool included, as Self-Indulgent are actually, by definition, being pretentious. Mike Patton and Tool aren’t attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc than is actually possessed. Mike Patton and Tool have the talent and a level of artistic discipline to make amazing music by using an excessive indulgence of their own appetites and desires for making meaningful pieces of art. It’s an argument I’m sure that will be pulled apart by people who like to prove that they are better at the internet than me, but when I sit back and think about all of this it is the fans and critics in this situation who are being pretentious and quite frankly a bit daft in peppering the positive nature of the word “self-indulgent” in order to affect greater importance on their point of view or as I see it, a lack of understanding of a piece of art being communicated.
To lean on Mike Patton once more, I want you all to watch this video:
Now listen to this song by Tame Impala
And then listen to this song by Fantomas
You tell me who is being “self-indulgent” and who is being “pretentious?”
I know which one I prefer and that is more about personal resonance than anything else (and of course resonance will always play a part) but I think if you want to be a person who uses words like “self-indulgent” or “pretentious” to describe art that is made then perhaps you should take the time to look up the meaning of the words in the dictionary before you continue the destruction of language and words in order to prove why you are right and everyone else is wrong. I’m sure there is a Dictionary App on your smartphone to help you on your quest to being a better human being and while I’m at it possibly a better artist.
Dan Newton xo