“STF” is the Parental Advisory song on Madness and Morals. Sorry. It’s always something. The refrain, which gives the songs its title, is “Shoot that f—– where he stands.” Consequently, I intone the f-word 10 or 12 or 16 times throughout the piece. Honestly, I think it’s more shocking that I vow to shoot somebody all those times than that I should use a forbidden word. In any case, I feel I must shoulder the responsibility of justifying abusive language and reference to violence in the happy little pop tunes that make up Madness and Morals and in much of popular culture.
I recently took my daughter, who is 14, to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I found an excellent adaptation of one of my favorite novels. In one scene, a young woman is shot dead as part of the torture of an English intelligence officer captured by the Soviets. This event, a horrible shock in the film, is not in the novel, as I recall. I felt bad about putting my sensitive young daughter through that shock and expressed my regret after the movie. My daughter, with surprising wisdom, replied, “Well you know, in movies you have to show. . . .” not just tell. And I realized that we accept violence in art so long as it is integrated into the artwork and not just an optional extra. This fact has been established for quite a while, going back at least as far as The Iliad. But even so longstanding a notion as that of the presence of violence as enhancing rather that disturbing the fabric of the artwork, even this ancient truth requires us to reassess our concept of art. If we think of art as the creation of beauty, which is certainly a widespread notion, we must think twice when we consider the horror of Oedipus’ gouging his eyeballs out, or the brutality of Achilles’ treatment of Hector, or even the grotesquerie of some of Picasso’s figures. If these highly regarded works exemplify beauty, then we must conclude that beauty isn’t pretty.
And yet we must acknowledge that the apprehension of a work of art and even the appreciation of it are, in the first instance, a matter of sensory response. And let me put in a good word for superficial, sensory pleasure. One is (and I guess I should speak for myself) always in the mood for one of Matisse’s voluptuous, colorful nudes. One must, in contrast, sort of work up the mood to look at Picasso’s muddy-colored Demoiselles. I don’t think Picasso is any more profound than Matisse, though that’s a commonplace assessment. Indeed, I would claim Matisse as more modern than Picasso, at least in regard to their respective views about sexuality. Matisse looks forward (in my view) to a celebratory attitude akin to that of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, while Picasso evinces something of the late 19th-century view of sex as alien and destructive (Salome and all that). And while we might quibble over the relative stature of these two giants, nobody doubts the immense significance of their works; nobody (at this late date, at least) would exclude Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in particular from the category of art. No doubt the opposite charge is likelier—that if a work is too pretty it becomes kitsch and so must be excluded.
Part of the difficulty comes from a confusion of sensuous appeal and popular taste. True, mass marketing (and hence consumption) promotes the pretty, the unchallenging, the kitschy. But in our post-grunge moment we know that the deliberately shocking (invocation of Charles Manson, e.g.), the calculatedly disturbing, the self-consciously profane are as little challenging, as much a function of market research, as The Littlest Elf. Nevertheless, there are some generalities possible about the sensory responses of the human organism. People generally (and babies in particular) like bright, shiny objects. The sound of a perfect fifth is soothing while a flatted fifth—the demonic tritone—is jarring. So while I clearly endorse the power of art to challenge, I gratefully accept that on some basic level it’s easier to like something that appeals to the senses over something that stings them. On occasion, however, art should sting.
And really, art without conflict, without internal tension, is insipid indeed. Matisse knew this as well as Picasso did. Both artists were concerned with breaking down the forms of art that all-too-readily pander to the emollient self-approval of wealthy patrons. Picasso broke the mold with the “ugly” faces of his working girls. Matisse, in contrast, kept the sex-appeal while jettisoning the wedding-cake confectionary of, say, Boucher or Fragonard—or Renoir, for that matter. So the situation is really rather simple: a pretty, appealing surface must promise turbulent depths; a stinging surface must promise delights beyond the sensuous. And here Oedipus and Achilles come to our rescue: they are heroes in great poems. When a real person mutilates himself or desecrates a corpse, our only response is disgust. Now, we certainly feel disgust at the crime of Achilles and the punishment of Oedipus, BUT the horror of those events is redeemed by being framed, isolated in an artwork. I would go so far as to say that this is the very reason why we want conflict in art: because we don’t want it in real life. Contemplating conflict in art helps us avoid and prevent conflict in our real interactions with others. (This fact is true in music as it is in narrative or representational painting.) And because artworks are concrete objects, we do not merely contemplate them as abstractions but participate in the situations and feelings that inhabit them. So you, Mr. or Ms. Artwork
Wilt remain a friend to man [us]
To whom thou sayest
Beauty [aesthetic gratification artificially generated ] is truth [death, loss, conflict]
And truth [death etc. not as fact but as theme] beauty [prophylactic framing of art]
That is all ye [we] know on earth
And all ye need to know
Keats’s tragic vision holds that only through the medium of aesthetic gratification can people confront, experience, and know the hideous truth.
So in art we simultaneously experience the truth, which can be pretty ugly, and stand back and evaluate that truth, judge its relevance. Moreover, we evaluate the artistry whereby the artwork links its sensuous form, be it stinging or sweet, with its truth. Thus we may rightly judge an artwork to have succeeded or failed. All of this judging is possible because art is not life. We are obliged to suspend judgment of other living people because nobody knows anybody else that well. But an artwork, being a non-human object, invites analysis. Theoretically, we could identify each and every significant feature in a work of art; practically, however, because our interaction with art is an experience and not merely a disassembly (or reverse engineering), we will never exhaust the signifying potential of an artwork. Indeed, the fact of the inexhaustibility of artworks provides a criterion of value that many people put into action, namely, the feeling that one always sees or hears something new in a favorite work of art.
A work of art is like a friend, another person, one who always has something new to teach and about whom there is always something to learn. An artwork is an artificial creation and not a person, but we interact with artworks as if they were people and thus experience in them the conflicts, the triumphs, and the uncertainties of real life. Indeed, artworks enter into history as if they were human participants in it. But the experience of art is always protected by the art’s artificiality. Hence the pathos of tragedy, the exhilaration of comedy. Thus, among the highest gratifications that art has to offer is our weighing the relation of the artistic refraction of real human interaction (sweet or stinging) with the artwork’s immanent law of form. (Here I borrow the terminology and argument of Theodor Adorno, who, nevertheless, does not speak much of “gratification.”) Pleasure is important, and one of the pleasures to be had in looking at a picture or reading a novel or hearing a song is to evaluate the hoary relation of form and content.
Notice that the artist is truly irrelevant. For good or ill, however, the refraction of human affairs that manifests itself in art stands in some relation, mysterious no doubt, to the artist and the artist’s life. But the artist does nothing except to follow the logic of the artwork’s immanent law of form. Consequently, many artists have testified to the experience that the artwork flows through one, that the artist is merely obeying the prompting of the muse. To put it another way, art originates with “the shaping power of the imagination” (–Wordsworth), which is prior to individual control, but manifests itself as creation through the artist’s skill (artistry), which develops the imaginative germ through conformity to the immanent law of form. Hence the alchemical transformation that characterizes the experience of artistic creation.
So: I admit: I have been angry enough at another person to want to “shoot that fucker where he stands.” But without the law of form, self-expression is nothing more than an infant cry, insignificant and unintelligible. Nor can I explain why that emotion should demand the form of a Bo Diddley beat, a Doc Boggs banjo figure adapted to guitar, or the invention of “The Boston Boys, worst racists outside the south.” And finally, I can identify no particular event that the song refers to, though I have wracked my brain. Oh sure, some prime candidates come to mind, but I can assure you, Dear Reader, that I’m not a facile enough poet to say, “I’m so mad at Bleepity Bloop I’m going to write a song about it.”
And surely you understand, Dear Reader, that collaborative artists like the members of Louder Than Dirt don’t sit around talking about the artistic refraction of human affairs or the immanent law of form. Actually, LTDers (who are authentic intellectuals, if they’re honest) approach those lines of conversation fairly frequently, but it’s always a matter, as here, of discussion after the fact. And yet the glory for me of working with these guys is precisely the intuitive and borderline-clairvoyant way that each of them grasps and carries out the songs’ immanent laws of form. So the interlock of the Julian’s bass and Adam’s clavinet enhances (or rather establishes in “STF”) the mechanical sound that, weirdly, often shows up in bluegrass, an organic and presumably non-mechanical style. It’s not like anybody said, “Your parts should express anger.” Of course, the refrain of “STF” might give one an inkling. Similarly, Joseph’s drums rise to the challenge of bridging contradictory rhythms in the guitar parts: the mechanical-banjoey flat-picking and the Bo Diddley beat in the tremolo-drenched chords. By this late date the reader will surely have understood the high esteem in which I hold my bandmates. Technical virtuosity is honorable and commendable, but what I appreciate most is my collaborators’ inventiveness and problem-solving skill. No! Wait! What I appreciate most is Adam, Joseph, and Julian personally! I love each of them for who he is. I appreciate their patience with me, and I only wish that I could be equally patient in return. But human relations are never quid pro quo. It’s all quid, I guess.
One of my dear bandmates, I won’t say which one, once asked me how I could write songs so full of conflict when my life seems so free of conflict. He’s absolutely right: I’m ridiculously fortunate at this moment of my existence: my family life is about as tranquil as it can be, I have a day job that I enjoy, and my teen-beat combo is as good as any band I’ve ever played with in many years of playing with bands. But ‘twas not always thus: my family has certainly gone through its share of crises, I’ve had jobs that literally taxed my sanity, and every band I’ve been in before Louder Than Dirt has had least one asshole as a member. Ah, but I’m probably the asshole in this band! And that’s the point: every conflict that the artwork embodies originates as an inward conflict. I would have to be the greatest poet who ever lived to express myself with perfect accuracy. But perfection is for punks: perfect self-expression would be one-sided and meaningless. Eventually, the artist gives the artwork to the world. And the best works of art are the one’s that give the audience something to do, a space to fill with their own experience. Maybe this makes me an inferior artist, but understanding the vital importance of imperfection has allowed me to let go. This understanding has been particularly prominent for me with Madness and Morals. While I did work closely with our producer on the post-production of the album, I was glad to give final responsibility to the mysterious Lord Erudite. He’s an artist too, let it be said, who came up with, for example, the part for The Muttering Crowd in STF: “where he stands.”
This rambling consideration of “STF” concludes DK’s song-by-song survey of the album. Sorry for the rambling. “STF” is the “parental advisory: explicit lyrics” portion of the program, a fact that seems to demand explanation. Let me be clear and brief, teeny-boppers: abusive speech is bad in real life. But in movies and books and songs bad language sometimes appears within a dramatic context. Drama requires conflict, and the experience of conflict in drama helps us to understand, prevent, and resolve conflict in life. I plan to post an overview of the album if I can figure out whether the album expresses an overall concern beyond “Louder Than Dirt is wicked awesome.”