There’s a really great essay on the controversy over Paul Simon’s Graceland over here at the AV Club. My brother loved Graceland back in college, so I’m familiar with (and like) the music, but I’d never heard much about the controversy itself. Probably because by the time I was old enough to get it, apartheid had – probably regrettably – faded into the back of the national consciousness.
But the controversy itself brings up a good point: how much social and political responsibility does an artist have in creating art? I think the kneejerk reaction people assume is, well, plenty: artists, being creators of work that theoretically should enrich our lives and catalyze thought, should be thoughtful humanitarians in everything they create. It’s just assumed that artists, seekers of beauty and truth, would have to seek them compassionately and thoughtfully, making sure everyone is part of the conversation, that no aspect of human life is unexamined.
Except when the artist is told that in order to so, he or she has to compromise their work. This happens all the time, really – someone says your work should be saying or advocating This Thing, when in fact This Thing wasn’t on your mind at all, and it wasn’t on the agenda of what you wanted to accomplish with the work.
Now, the issue for me with Simon, then, isn’t that he didn’t credit or pay his artists enough – because I feel sure that he should have – but whether or not, because he used South African folk artists and violated an international humanitarian initiative in the process, shouldn’t his album been about apartheid?
And that’s the sticking point. It’s likely Simon didn’t start his album because he found a political stance he wanted to make: rather, I think he heard some cool sounds this country was using, and he didn’t see anything wrong with mixing those sounds into his own work for his own purposes. Should he have credited the creators of those sounds more? Hell yes. Should he have changed what he was trying to do because of the history and background of the place they came from? I’m not so sure.
There are times when I genuinely think art is superfluous, temporary, and superficial. Art frequently fails to move far beyond mere entertainment, and those that try for depth often go ignored. In such a case, I’d much rather try and produce real, progressive change than make entertainment, or a piece of work that will be massively ignored by the public and critical establishment.
But at the same time, I know that feeling where I’m convinced that This Idea Will Work And Is Worth Doing, where it’s not just something I want to try but something I have to try. It’s like tunnel vision: it doesn’t matter what’s outside the tunnel. There is this thing that can be done, and you are compelled to do it, to shrug off what everyone thinks of you, to spit in the faces of everyone who says you just can’t do that, and try for something new, something ingenious, something you’re sure will work.
So on the one hand, I don’t get what he did. It was a couple of pieces of nice music: matched up against the suffering and death of a whole country, it amounts to shit. It might have been better to try and educate people about what was happening, and try to help. (The cynic in me, of course, would refer to Papa Vonnegut, who said: “During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” So if you’re convinced of the awesome power of art, think again.)
On the other hand, I understand what he did. He saw something new, something he wanted to try, something that had the potential to be beautiful. That justifies itself, usually.