I (DK y’know) listen to Madness and Morals all the time. Driving in my car, performing mundane tasks, after rehearsing, or finding an unoccupied hour, I slip on the headphones and enjoy the tunes. Ostensibly this activity aims to subject the work to critical analysis, to discover opportunities for improvement. But as soon as the opening chords to “Suspicions” hit, Pong Pong Kaponk Ponk, I escape into a world of pleasure. Now, there is in this world horror and conflict aplenty, along with laughter, doubt, and craving, but because I have escaped into this alternative universe, I experience these feelings without the practical costs that usually accompany them. And when it is over, every time, I say, “Ah! That was good!” Later, I tell my friends (usually my bandmates), “You know, the guitar solo that ends ‘Bacteria’ is really spectacular.” And I am a little embarrassed to praise myself in this way, but only a little. While I’m listening, I’m not playing that solo or even remembering playing that solo. It’s as if it’s some other guy. And if I’m arrogant, the arrogance preceded the playing of that solo: I believed, I seem to recall, that I would play a solo a good as the one that ended up at the conclusion of “Bacteria.” So. . . Isn’t such immodesty a bad thing? Doesn’t arrogance by definition take away from the dignity of others?
The respect owed to the dignity of each individual is non-negotiable. Beyond that, however, there’s a lot of room out there. To begin with, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. Lovers, in which category I include only consenting adults, are a law unto themselves. Similarly, safely nestled between the covers of a book–the sustaining ramparts of the artwork–the characters in a novel insouciantly enter into conflict and commit the most horrific acts against one another. Drama especially thrives upon grand guignol horror. It thus seems a reasonable enough conclusion to draw that one of the attractions of at least dramatic art is that audience members want to witness events safely ensconced behind the proscenium that they would never want to experience in real life. The audience wants Iago to seduce Othello to deadly jealously, wants Oedipus to blind himself, wants Stanley Kowalski to cry out despair. The viewer wants to encounter the hideous masks of the Desmoiselles d’Avignon. (Don’t give me that: of course they’re hideous.) The hearer wants the circuitous journey from dissonant dominant homeward to serene tonic. In phase, out of phase, out of phase, in phase: we love the cycle of torment, so long as it’s puppets caught in the cycle. Identifying with the fictional sufferers, we experience without the cost of experience.
And so in any art form, the artist is a kind of superman. Deploying the armamentarium of vast skill and experience, the artist constructs the monstrous artificial world with the innocence of a child playing with dolls. Shakespeare captured this above-it-all quality of the artist with his “director” characters, which Prospero exemplifies. The artist merely fulfills her function when she loads her work with sex and violence, conflict and oppression, fear and loathing. It is worth emphasizing that the artist enjoys the Olympian heights only by maintaining the duality of life and art. Nothing is less convincing that the artist’s claim merely to have recorded direct personal experiences. What amounts to the same thing, the author’s cultivating of the hero’s persona is nonsense. On the other hand, the act of creation on the canvas, like the act of love behind closed doors, is a situation of unlimited freedom. A pose of false modesty is just as ill-becoming to the artist as the pretense of heroism. No doubt the artist immerses herself completely in the artificial world (this is the meaning of Shakespeare’s alternative “green world” settings–forests, taverns, festive carnivals), safe to create inside an artificial skin, itself a socially constituted fiction.
For precisely the same reason, and precisely the same fiction, the artwork provides provides an immersive experience for the viewer. Again, Shakespeare’s example is instructive. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the young lovers escape into a fantasy of unbridled eros. And yet the conflicts of the real world, namely power politics, reappear here transposed into the key of jealousy, lovers’ spats, manipulation, and selfish desire. So too the audience escapes into the fictive world of the play only to be reminded of conflicts, actual or potential, from the real world. Of course, the truth about fiction is more complex than it appears. The life-art duality is, as we say, itself a socially constituted fiction. Why? So that the audience might willingly suspend its disbelief. The audience requires that the stage not be the world. But life imitates art. Again, Shakespeare: all the (real) world’s a stage, and upon it we each play many roles. This fact is evident in families, rock bands, and other creative organizations. Dad must play Dad, the guitar-player must play the guitar-player. In every social interaction each participant improvises within a script. Without the script the interaction, and the improvisation, would be impossible. And the relation of script to improvisation is one of the great sources of conflict, especially inner conflict. People often feel imprisoned by the roles they’ve been assigned. One of many factors that makes Louder Than Dirt so great is our improvisation within the script defined by the songs. And bandmates, like lovers, are a law unto themselves. This is just one of many implications of the concept of Loudness.
We know when we have played our part well or badly, in the band and elsewhere. However, in a sincere, purposive social interaction, one is by definition never alone. Thus the likelihood that the player would play the part fatally badly is slim–another is there to pick her up. Louder Than Dirt is four highly competent interactors, with, by the way, a growing cadre of supporters. I can’t see how my praise of the opening of “Suspicions” or the closing of “Bacteria” hurts anybody. I’m merely expressing the pleasure I have found in that other world. (The unfortunate speaker of “Polytoxic,” who does “not like that other world,” expresses feelings distorted by the intoxication of guilt.) The worst harm that my arrogance could cause is self-deception, but it is not so: the guitar-player in those songs is a role that I played once upon a time in the studio and on occasional nights onstage. Fiction is not deception: “You cannot call them lies even if they’ve never been before.” Integrity, creativity, loudness. Moreover, I have the testimony of others. It rocks.