Artistic Responsibility
by Brad Garton

"Guest Editorial" in KEYBOARD magazine [12/1989]

Most of us know George GreatArtist.  From the "I'm cooler than
you" sneer on his lips to the tips of his pointy-toed black
shoes, his whole demeanor shouts that he is above society's
rules.  He's obnoxious and greedy, and generally treats the
rest of us lesser mortals as objects to be used to achieve his
own selfish ends.  You're just about to delete his name
from your address database forever when he hands you a tape
of his latest music.  Of course the tape is incredible, full of
wonderful sounds and fresh ideas.

Then there's Melissa Professional.  She's on top of every gig,
delivers flawless (if somewhat sterile) licks using the latest
Glosso Digital Synthesizer.  She gets paid good money, and she earns
it.  No matter what the music, she always knows the right part
to add.  No one seems to know what music she *really* likes
to play, though, or even if she really likes music at all...

Something is wrong with these pictures, and it's not just the
exaggeration I put in to make my point.  For lack of a better
term, I'll call it a disregard for personal responsibility.  I'm
not talking about the responsibility you assume when you get the loan
for your studio upgrade, nor even the responsibility you feel to your
art when you are creating your own music note by note.  The
responsibility I'm thinking of is a personal responsibility that
we musicians owe to society.  It's an obligation to our fellow
human beings.

So what is it about George and Melissa that offends my sense of
personal responsibility?  George's case is obvious, but Melissa
is probably  a decent enough person.  She may not be totally
involved in her work, but what's so horrible about that?

Both George's posture and Melissa's spring from a deeper societal
attitude that has developed in the Western cultural tradition.
This attitude can be described as the separation of the artist
as an individual from the art-object that he or she produces:
"Once it's finished," the saying goes, "it takes on a life of
its own."  Very little connection is seen between the evaluation of
an artist as a *person* and the evaluation of his or her work.

You don't have to look very far to see evidence of this `separationist'
attitude in real life.  Consider Sixties Rock Star X, whose songs about
the brotherhood of humanity touched millions while he rode to
concerts in limousines protected by a vicious security force.
Consider Great Conductor Y, who cavorted with the Nazis in order
to further his career (but boy-oh-boy you ought to hear his
version of the *Ninth*).  Or consider even some of the grand icons
of Western classical music like Richard Wagner, who by most accounts
was an A-number-one bozo and definitely not someone you wanted
as a friend.

There are many other cultures where this separation has not taken
root.  In Near Eastern singing traditions, the aesthetic judgment
of an artist is intrinsically linked to how that artist lives.  The
concept of a musical craftsmanship that is not connected strongly
to other aspects of an individual's life is almost completely
foreign to many African musical cultures.  As a matter of fact,
in much of the early religious music that formed the basis of our
own tradition, the music was not seen as a separate object but was
integrated into devotional life.

Why has this hypocrisy flourished in our culture?  I don't know,
but it has become almost standard operating procedure for the
social interface used by creative artists today.  My problem with
Melissa (and George, of course) is that by accepting this status
quo, they ensure its survival.  Now more than ever, I feel, it
is extremely important that people realize that they are personally
responsible for their actions.  When a person is able to
isolate himself or herself from the objects they produce, then they
come chillingly close to the "just doing my job, ma'am" mentality
that makes Hiroshimas and Holocausts possible.

If this attitude spells trouble, then how can we musicians go
about changing it?  Obviously, we can't suddenly decide that we
don't like particular pieces of music because the composer was
an objectionable person.  (Frankly, I like a lot of Wagner's
tunes, and I was one of those millions whose hearts were touched
by Sixties Rock Star X.)  The music of the past is past.  But there's
no reason why we have to adhere to the role models of the past
in our current work.  In fact, it's through the role models that
we hold forth for the rest of society that we can work to change

I'm certain you can think of contemporary musicians who are
taking an active role in trying to shift our culture towards
more humane approaches to living.  What I would like
to emphasize is not the rhetoric espoused in an artist's music, but
the way in which the artist leads his or her life.  This is the
old `practice what you preach' idea, but in my view the practicing
is far more important than the preaching.  As creative artists,
we are in the business of manufacturing culture.  We are helping
to define cultural attitudes.  Through our work, and more
importantly the *way* that we work, we can demonstrate to the
rest of the world more desirable and appropriate ways of being human.
Why not use our visibility for the betterment of humanity?

Some people might read into what I'm saying a call for some
sort of "culture police" to crack down on anti-social violators.
Nothing could be further from my mind.  The whole point of what
I'm saying is that the *method* used to accomplish some goal says
a lot about the goal itself.  A cultural police state is certainly
not conducive to the growth of humane values.  It could even be
claimed that writing music in the service of some political
idea diminishes the music.  I'm not advocating that we all
go out and write music designed to show off some imaginary
golden world.  What I am advocating is simply a greater
awareness of the social and political roles that are always played
by the creative artist.  The traditional picture of the
artist as the quintessential Bohemian existing outside of
society, marching to the beat of a different drummer, is seductive,
but it is false.  The very act of placing yourself "outside"
of society is a profound political statement about that society.
All I'm asking is that we be conscious of what we are saying to the
rest of the world when we do our music.  If more people
realized what they were actually doing as they cruised down
life's highway, the world might truly become a "kinder and
gentler" place.

I don't want to be read as handing down a list of `thou shalt nots'
or seen as trying to establish some moral yardstick by which
artistic works can be measured.  So what's the point of all this?
Again, it is only that we need to have a heightened awareness of who
we are and how we're acting.  I believe that there is a fundamental
sense of goodness in each of us.  In saying that we need to be
aware of what we're doing, I'm hoping to appeal to that inner
sense of right and wrong.  Don't model your art to conform to
some set of political or social preconceptions (unless that's what
you want to do).  Go ahead and create whatever you are driven to
create, but at the same time, stop and think about the model
of society that you're putting forward.  Would you want
to live there?