Inspiration: Guy Debord

guy-debord

The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.

— Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967.

A Note on Art and Maturity

Mark Strand once said that poets reach maturity when they move from saying private things in a public language to saying public things in a private language.1 I understand this statement to mean that a poet matures into not only a sense of scale wherein his/her work comes to describe more universal things than personal feelings or personal feelings as universal things; but, simultaneously, a style.2

We see this kind of development equally among all artists, I think, and a mark of the maturing, as opposed to fully mature, artist is that his/her work remains a kind of test, a challenge to the audience to decode and interpret his/her effort. Though this might yield some reward for artist and audience, s/he is nearing the state of maturity that will free him/her from the need to obscure his/her subject (frequently with objects) but isn’t quite there. My own maturation as an artist and an audience member has been characterized by impatience with this kind of obscurantism, even when I can parse the clues. One is always hip to some reference or other but it shouldn’t be the full price of the ticket.

For better or worse, I tend to approach most art literally and let it go to work on me from there. My own musical preference for ensemble composing and performing without vocals stems from this condition, as it supports an it-is-what-it-is art, contingent only on what the group plays, not on what the audience might think about what one of us is saying. In this way, my mature practice, such as it is, is marked by collaboration, understanding that what one is trying to get across benefits in every instance from direct involvement with and the ideas of others: the audience collaborates, exhibitors and distributors collaborate, one’s inspiration and aspiration collaborate. One way or another, the art experience is always shared.

That said, art work begins with inspiration and aspiration. One is moved to get something across, an image, a sound, a structure, or whatever else, as Denise Levertov put it, raves to us for release. In my work, what, exactly, do I try to get across? It’s fairly simple: we must be good to each other.

Two examples of the basic philosophy behind this idea take G-d as their object, not their subject. I suspect you’ll catch my drift when you have a look at them.

James Baldwin

The first is from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time,

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If he can no longer do this then it is time we got rid of Him.

The subject of this statement is our inspiration, aspiration, humility, and selflessness. Its object, on the other hand, is G-d, who we are free to embrace or deny according to our need. This sort of statement, a benevolent subject paired with a provocative treatment of an ideal object typifies certain of Mr Baldwin’s statements, especially as he reached his artistic maturity. During his peak, he was a master of this kind of statement.

Nick Cave

Another example is Nick Cave, who in a lecture he delivered on writing love songs said,

Actualising of God through the medium of the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist. The love song is perhaps the truest and most distinctive human gift for recognising God and a gift that God himself needs.

I won’t make any proclamations about Mr Cave’s faith but I will point out that the role he assigns to G-d is similar to Mr Baldwin’s in that they both invoke G-d’s mutual need for us, as conjurers or gift bearers.3 That they speak of G-d only matters here insofar as he represents an ideal, either an ideal inspiration (Baldwin) or aspiration (Cave). Each man’s use of a mutually held ideal — held, that is between the idealizer and idealized — affirms the necessity of striving or longing and a goal. In other words, the gap between the effort and the object is the subject. The effectiveness of the work is defined by the ability of its audience to recognize and identify with the effort, not the object.

This kind of connection speaks to the variety of music, poetry, or other art that initially captivates us: we respond to the uncommon relation of common reactions to common things.The things in question likely appeal to us specifically at a certain point in time, regarding death, injustice or oppression, a favorite location, a favorite car, or an especially difficult break-up, for instance, but the stuff that stays with us does so even after these events have receded into the past. So one might be struck by a poem that speaks to one’s immediate circumstance but what will keep one interested in the poem is what it tries to do, and as we mature, what it continues to do.

A related idea is the preference for genres. If we cling to the event or time during which we were first captivated by a work, we will seek similar-sounding or similar-looking material to repeat or revive both the original experience and the captivation. This is distinct from the relationship described above in that it asks art to seize an experience rather than develop as we ourselves mature.


  1. He called it a point of truth, not maturity; I take these terms to be synonymous.

  2. The poet comes to rely on her own vernacular, symbols, etc.; our recognition of her style is a result of her skill and, frequently, vice versa.

  3. Edmond Jabès: “Every god needs a witness.”

A Note on Art and Audience

Because our general understanding of humility is calibrated by its outward expression, it seems arrogant when an artist is sufficiently satisfied with her or his own work to eschew the conventions of approval and praise.

The failure in this understanding is to recognize that humility exists not in the face of praise or recognition for or of one’s work but rather in the respect for the work’s materials, deference to the practice of making art in the first place, the pleasure of the work, the labor, the creation itself.

Which is to say that there are reasons to make art independent of having its final outcome seen or heard by other people.

Some Thoughts on the State of Things after Re-Reading “Parker’s Back”

A piece on Christianity in contemporary fiction in last week’s New York Times Book Review mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” and subsequently sent me to my bookcase. I pulled Ms O’Connor’s Complete Works from the shelf, checked the index, and marked the story with the book’s ribbon. My apartment is small enough and the books organized well enough that the entire process took less than one minute. To read it took a good deal longer, not least because I have learned to read slowly but mostly because “Parker’s Back” is a frightening story about a man whose apparently misplaced faith yields cyclical resentment and crisis. Mr Parker’s judgment is not what we generally think of as “sound.” It’s an extraordinarily dense work, covers a great deal of time and space in fewer than 20 pages.

Another option under these circumstances might have been to search Wikipedia for the story, where one would find a synopsis of the work that not long ago would have met the inadequate-for-all-but-testing standards of Cliff’s Notes, and from which one might glean a vague idea about faith and identity, class and fervor, failure and aggression – at least enough to cover oneself at a cocktail party should the conversation veer into The American South.

Choosing the second option, I would experience only the shame or pride of passing muster at a cocktail party, nothing of Ms O’Connor’s work, nothing of the possibilities, depth, or range of human belief and expression. That this second option has become the norm is not an argument between reading or not reading nor exactly an argument between knowing and not knowing.1

I sense that in the last several years, these two phenomena, the concession to brevity and the experience of knowing a subject or object thoroughly, have become, in many instances, practically interchangeable.2We have come to trust the brevity of our exchanges, to assume a glance and a longer look are equivalent, because we are so rarely asked to take the longer look, to digest the experience before reporting on it, to have the courage to form a relationship with a work, our own or someone else’s, without fear of missing out on something else. We spend increasingly more time scanning short, discrete expressions in anticipation of meaning if not relation. I think we suffer for it, too.

My choice, as it happened, will not be unusual to anyone who has in the course of their life assembled a personal library, a large or small collection of books or other analog materials whose presence in one’s home serves both as reference and affirmation of one’s identity and sociability. Unlike the material in the current climate of electronic reading, these collections share our space with us, as do our friends, family, collaborators, guests, and co-workers. Books can be passed around with ease, unbound as they are to any proprietary format or device, and in so doing grant our presence to the receiver’s home or travel or wherever they might take the book in question. I’m open to but not aware of instances where digital media — files, that is — provide the same sense of intimacy. There are, no doubt, exceptions but as I say, they’re not part of my experience.

I should add, for what it’s worth, that I am not a Luddite. I’m typing this on an iPad Mini, a device for which my fondness so far extends beyond its novelty and from which, earlier today, I streamed Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to my television. I embrace such devices for what they can do but remain skeptical about their ability to replace the tactile relationship I have with my books. I am certain that this skepticism is not unique, nor is it limited to books. I have, for example, a similar relationship with records and CDs.

Perhaps it’s a generation gap but I doubt it. I know younger people, aged 25-30, give or take, who prefer vinyl or CDs to MP3s, theatrical moviegoing or DVDs (or even VHS tapes) to streaming. They’re picking up, I think, on the culture surrounding these activities and formats, which is essentially social and in-hand, and perhaps more importantly, has a history from which they can learn and grow and to which they can contribute.

Additionally, too much convenience and too many choices can be paralyzing. Sometimes the extra effort it takes to find a rare or elusive work in order to share it in person makes the experience more memorable or valuable. This is not to say none of us have benefitted from contemporary electronic correspondence, exchange, or collaboration. It is, however, to suggest that these latter relationships and their outcomes will likely remain fixed on their speed and superficial variety until such time as they resolve in a physical proximity.

In any event, “Parker’s Back” is a wonderful story and worth a read. If you don’t have Ms O’Connor’s stories handy, you can read it at Doral Academy Preparatory High School’s site.


  1. I don’t think there’s any particular harm in not knowing Ms O’Connor’s work nor do I think there’s any particular harm in cocktail parties. I do, however, think there’s a distinction worth making between knowing something because one believes it is worth knowing thoroughly and knowing about something in order to get over in a social situation.

  2. In fact, of course, they are not: the stages of a thoroughgoing learning process could be described as something like introduction, acquaintance, apprehension, understanding, and synthesis. Gleaning, I think, precludes most of these steps.

Some Thoughts on Ms. White, Mr. Lowery, and Getting on with Our Art

I.

My interest in the WhiteLowery affair has been driven almost entirely by my friends’ feelings on the matter. As for myself, I can only add or amplify that if one chooses to take part in the mainstream recording industry1, one is consequently subject to conditions characteristic of profit motive in all cases. Among the artists with whom I collaborate, however broadly, two axiomatic truths come to bear in this light:

1) There’s only so much money to go around and those who control the existing majority of that money will fight harder to keep it than artists will to get what they believe they rightfully deserve. I believe the reason for this is simply that the artists, at bottom, spend their time making art; the profit-seekers spend their time seeking profits. Opportunity cost dictates that one cannot devote one’s resources to both pursuits simultaneously.

2) One result of this separation is agency, whereby the artist enlists the aid of a person or organization that assumes the profit-seeking role, freeing up the artist to pursue her artistry. This agent could be Kickstarter, Jay-Z, a manager, a booking agent, Bandcamp, or even an experienced bandmate. But they will be primarily motivated to seek financial reward derived from the artists and their art. When the money runs out or otherwise fails to appear, so does the agency.

In the case of Bandcamp, for example, service and commitment to musicians and their output is contingent on profitability. Were the profits to dry up, I have no doubt that the people who put that service together would remain devoted listeners and/or performers but their resources would seek money elsewhere. I don’t hold this behavior in contempt. On the contrary, I understand as well as anyone that the rent must be paid. The recording industry, in this light, is as good a source of income as any.

So while most agents provide their service to anyone trying to avoid the distractions of moneymaking and, if their business heads south, abandon their field altogether for a different line of work, most of the artists I know make their art because they believe they need to.

What I learn from this distinction is that there will always be art and its creation will remain constant, essentially stable, and contingent only on the artist’s intent. Agency, on the other hand, will shift and morph and adopt new means as it adapts to new channels, media, and technology in order to secure as much of the available profit for itself as possible. There may be periods of common interest among artists and agencies but ultimately it resembles nothing more than casino gambling: some people win and even win big but most of us don’t. Most of us who frequent casinos know this and gamble anyway, though we do so with smaller stakes, commensurate with our means. We do it because it is fun, because it pulls us, temporarily, out of our quotidian routines and excites us with its possibility. But it is not art.

And though art can provide some similar reliefs, elevating us from our daily lives, providing thrills and a sense that risks are worth taking, it is, at least among the artists I know and work with, based on trust and inspiration, not compensation and profit.

II.

So much for business, I guess, which doesn’t address the matter of stealing music. Let me be frank on this subject: no one is stealing music. They’re stealing recordings.

Several people — in some of whose company or adjacency I have made music for several years now — have written variously about piracy or file sharing, home recording, shoplifting, and the making of mix tapes, so I won’t dwell on that here. 2 I will, however, point out that the relevant materials are not music, which I believe occurs in immediate time and space as a demonstrable organization of rhythm, tone, duration, harmony, and pitch.
Music is air moving towards a conscious receptor. If this effect is at a given time derived from an mp3 I found online, what I acquire is the encoding, the recording, not the music itself. What is being stolen are objects and instances over which a party claims ownership. They might as well be wristwatches, which is, as far as I can tell, precisely the point. I don’t, however, know anyone who would honestly claim that a wristwatch is time. 3

Further, not everyone stealing recordings would have paid for them otherwise. Torrents and download sites are, to my thinking, the equivalent of listening to or taping songs off the radio: one hears or hears of a recording and pursues it. Once it’s in one’s possession, one can decide whether or not to buy the recording.

This is not, as has been pointed out elsewhere, new behavior. That there are agencies in place to enforce payment to the artists (BMI, ASCAP, SEASAC) for conventional airplay, for example, is also not new. For what it’s worth, this sometimes-bullyish practice has, over the years, brought me nearly enough income from what will doubtlessly remain my best-selling group to pursue my subsequent music-making. This income, about which I am sufficiently ambivalent to exclude my current work, is nevertheless a double-bonus: not only do I receive a (very) modest income for work I did several years ago but I also have the pleasure of knowing that people still enjoy that music. For me it would be arrogant to presume that I deserve this income. I earn it according to the terms of a handful of contracts I signed, the agreements of which are between agencies and the members of my old band. There’s no mention in those deals of how our audience is supposed to behave. We get what we can from it and if we have listeners who don’t support us financially, we also have listeners who do and I’m grateful for all of them.

III.

Those binding conditions and practices, however, only exist within the established music business. Unions, agencies, and copyrights only apply to those who take part in their economy according to their laws; that is, if you want the wages and benefits these agencies can provide, you must adhere to their rules. If you choose instead to release your work outside of that system, you will surrender the ‘protection’ it provides but you’re also free to do whatever you want with your work, as is everybody else.

So what’s a mainstream artist or corporation to do to ensure the best return on their investment? I don’t care. I don’t care about the fate of the mainstream recording industry. Even if the bottom drops out of their current interests, which seems unlikely, they can turn to other media or industries for profits.

As for the artists, they might do well to seek sustainable income independent from their art, and like many of the most talented people I know, get day jobs.


  1. A choice which I insist is not endemic to listening to music, performing it, recording it, attending it, exhibiting it, acquiring it, writing about it, providing artwork for it, or reading about it.

  2. e.g. Gordon Withers, Matt LeMay (I’ve linked to this one here before), Travis Morrison.

  3. The *Rollex* and *Rolux* watches one used to buy on Canal Street come to mind. As far as I know, people shopping for watches on Canal Street were not deeply concerned with chronometric accuracy. They were looking for knock-offs. Giving money to counterfeiters is not the same thing as taking money from Anglo-Swiss craftsmen. Though this analogy is ill-formed, I suspect you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Home Viewing

It wasn’t very long ago that if one wanted to see films notable for their distinctly experimental nature and relative historical import, one had to:

a. attend screenings in major metropolitan areas;
b. rent prints oneself from The Filmmakers’Coop or Canyon Cinema, mostly, though New Yorker Films had an extensive catalog of European art cinema, and still might;
c. wait for a nearby university to host a screening.

There were occasionally other options but not often. When I first became interested in alternative cinemas 1, home video was still largely the province of mainstream work, though not entirely. One could find, here in New York anyway, films by Beth B. & Scott B., R. Kern, Vivenne Dick, Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and Mark Rappaport, for example, but the dearth of experimental work from 1960-1980 or so was, to me, remarkable 2 Because much of the work in question concerned itself with the physical properties of filmstock, it was frequently excluded from video release at the outset. Seems an archaic distinction these days but this was the 20th, not the 21st, century.

Public viewing has characterized nearly all film-viewing for most of its history. At the least, one invited friends, colleagues, or family to see one’s films, and in any case it has been unusual, until the last 30 years or so, to discuss a film without having viewed it in the company of other viewers. Which means, or meant, that unless one made a concerted effort to escape the screening venue in silent solitude, one was likely to end up talking to someone else from the screening for some period of time, however brief. Opinion or study was, under these circumstances, born of a combination of etiquette, remark, debate, and consensus. It was social.

As for myself, I’ve had the By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume 1 since its initial release and have never watched it alone. Though I pre-ordered A Hollis Frampton Odyssey the day it was announced, I have yet to view a single frame of it: I’m waiting until I can find a time that mutually suits my friends, that we might watch some of the films and discuss them together in person.


  1. Alternative was an adjective then, not a genre, and I pluralize cinema because my interest led me to many different kinds of filmmaking from many different times and places; like most of my friends at that time, it was important to see everything.

  2. That the work of these filmmakers has yet to appear on DVD or online streaming is a mystery to me, as is the current lack of L.A. Rebellion cinema, though that is a topic for another time.

Energies: A Note on Music and Disbeliefs

I do not believe that the act of making music, however deliberate or spontaneous it might be, aspires to a preordained ideal. That is, there is no perfect music, except insofar as a given musical piece or performance fulfills the needs of its participants — listener, composer, and performer alike. This fulfillment is, in the end, all that matters.

I also do not believe that all music aspires to art, nor should it, any more than any other activity aspires to art. I emphasize my use of the word activity because I believe music is something one does.1


  1. This idea will be familiar to readers of Christopher Small’s Musicking, a book I’ve only recently come across. I recommend it to anyone who’s interest in music is more than passing. His development of a theory of music-as-action has inspired rather than deterred my remarks here.