Thursday, May 1, 2008
Who am I as an artist?
Last night was somewhat of a restless night after watching an indie documentary called "My Kid Could Paint That." The documentary is an inside look at the life of a four year old girl named Marla and her family. One day, Marla's dad was painting, and like any other child, Marla asked if she could paint too. What is first unusual about what developed is that her dad began giving her entire tubes of oil or acrylic and large framed canvases. Remember those days being a child when mom and dad handed you $20 bottles of paint, a $75 canvas and said, "Hey, have fun!" Yeah, right.
Here's an example of what happened. The story thickens with a lot of different controversies that i just couldn't get out of my head last night. Although the film started out with the innocent face of a beautiful young four year old, the journey into a very dark and confusing "art world" brought a reality to the story that was quite unsettling. By 3/4 of the way through the documentary, you are no longer focused on the innocent "paint play" of a child but are thrown into a complex scandal. The question of whether or not the painting is art comes into question. The question of whether or not the child actually did the art all on her own comes into question.
This painting called "Asian Sun" was supposedly done completely by her. But lets be real for a second. Did the 4 year old pick the size of the canvas? Did she choose her dark mustard yellow background first? Did she pick out her complementary colors, lay down the red square first, then drip the white and black as her foreground? Or (if i may be a skeptic) can i say that maybe her dad is stoked that she can sell a painting for $20,000. So he bought the canvases, picked colors he knew would work, washed the canvas with the mustard yellow, brushed in the red square, then put a black tube of paint in one hand, and a white tube in the other, and said, "ok squirt squiggles here...little more black...good...ok now more white...over to the left...no your other left...ok good." Marla's masterpiece.
There is an awkward scene in the movie where Marla keeps asking her dad for "help" and to "tell her if she is done." The parents insist they never have ANY part in her paintings. The documentary climaxes when the interviewer/producer confronts the parents. The scene takes us a bit too far into their lives and into an awkward situation in which it "appears" the husband/father MAY not entirely be truthful with the mom about his involvement.
So "why," you ask do i give a rip about this movie? I'm still trying to figure it out. But i know it strikes a very sensitive nerve in me. I am an artist...one who paints with sounds. My wife is a visual artist. Right now, we are sorting our way through the muck of all the questions about art and music and the industry that is created within our society. Here is an example of a little child, just doing what she was meant to do. Slopping paint like any other child. Yet, her child-like instincts got ripped from her hands and thrown into an industry of elitism and scandal.
I feel for the child. And i feel for the mom who never wanted the whole crazy thing to happen. She believed it shouldn't have. I feel for them because i find myself struggling through the same kind of identity questions. There was once a day when i just liked plunking notes on the piano or strumming chords on a guitar. There was once a day when it was just a fun and curios thing to try and tweak a piece of sound equipment just to see what it would do. Today, my world of making music is much different than a child's. I am a part of an industry. I am a part of the critics who decide what is good music and what is bad. To make things even worse, what i do as an aritst determines how i make a living. If i write a hit song today, that might be the down payment to my first house. If i try to write a hit song but fail to even write anything "good," i essentially do nothing for my career. I might has well have gone to see a movie. These things pain me at times. I wonder what it would have been like to have never gone there. What if Marla was left alone, and just painted freely like all the other kids?
Another chord that was struck was the struggle to understand "what is art" and who the heck decides that. There was a scene in the bonus materials on the dvd that showed a forum being held. An honest man made a comment comparing 2 paintings (much like the 2 that are in this blog). One had an obvious cohesive and mature approach to it while the other looked much more like what any child would do. He was just using his simple eyes and brain to make a very obvious comment. But then this elitist stood up and said, "are you an artist? have you ever painted before? because if you HAD ever painted before, you would understand..." then she went on this tirade explaining why his opinion couldn't be valid because he wasn't a painter.
Imagine a 10 year old comes to me and says, "Hey Forestry guy. I like your music, but i really like Michael Jackson music more because i can dance to it." What if i said, "are you a musician? do you know how to play any instruments? then you can't possibly have a valid opinion about Michael Jackson's music can you?
Although that example is absurd, there is a reality to it that exists in the music industry daily. Marketing decides what is good music or bad music. Rolling stone determines what is cool or not. If I put a blog up that says Radioheads new album is the most mature of all their albums, then a LOT of people who read the blog walk away thinking, "Radiohead's new album is the most mature of all their albums." Labels are a part of the whole complex mess. Others see Future of Forestry as a better band because they are on a major label. Meanwhile, other bands who are just as good or better struggle to get attention.
Like in the art world, the value of music or musicians comes through a strange declaration. If i find a way of convincing people that my concert is worth $50,000, then it is. If i find a way of convincing 500,000 people that my album is better than Coldplay's album, then it is. There are people whose job is to find ways of convincing others of that. It is their job to convince the public that so and so's music is the hottest thing out there and if you don't buy it, you're lacking in coolness and ability to have an opinion.
The whole game makes me want to run and hide. Like Marla, i feel like a child. And although she may have a beautiful talent to slop paint onto a canvas, she IS just a child.
A verse from Ephesians 3:16 has been gnawing at me:
"I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith."
It takes strength to find Christ and to have him dwell in us. It takes this inner wholeness and power to find an indwelling peace and faith. The strength or wholeness can't be manufactured. It simply comes from him, and the writer of Ephesians is simply asking for that.
Life is full of days like this in which I really need that prayer of Ephesians. I'm struggling just to know who i am as an artist. I'm struggling to be a child again and to figure out how to do that in an insane music industry of money and popularity. I hope and pray that God give all us the strength to become who we are today.