Artistic minds light up when life is disrupted and uncertain. Like a blind man’s supersonic hearing, or alcohol sales during a recession, art is at its best when everything else is at its worst.
Shitty circumstances might be a prerequisite for anything worth a second glance or closer listen—just look to the evolution of art and music throughout the 20th century. Disillusioned artists during World War I started to create anti-art such as Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” urinal, and Dadaism paved the road to Surrealism. Arthur Miller responded to McCarthyism in the 1950s with The Crucible, using the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the second Red Scare—and the script remains one of the most performed plays today. Similarly, Ray Bradbury’s contempt for government overreach during the McCarthy era, his disdain for the rising forms of radio and TV, and the looming threat of nuclear destruction throughout the Cold War inspired Fahrenheit 451. Maya Angelou wrote about her experiences with rape and racism in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was released after the civil rights movement (1954-1968). Around the same time, the counterculture crusade protesting the Vietnam War and advocating for minority inclusion gave us Bob Dylan’s revolutionary “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Jimi Hendrix’s screaming “Star Spangled-Banner,” which was followed by punk rock’s rejection of mainstream excesses in the early ’80s. All of this art sprouted from a compost of rotten matter.
When artists and musicians create out of boredom, they paint pretty pictures and write formulaic music for the masses. But when they create because they don’t know what else they can do, they make a statement.
But for every Game of Thrones, there’s a 90 Day Fiancé. Uninspired art may have all the right lines, colors, shapes and shadows, but it’s a flash in the pan—if it makes any flash at all. Tattoo art that was bold on skin lost its daring when transferred onto hats and shirts. Recycled stencil work, portraits of celebrities and cutesy unicorns and cats often hang on gallery walls. Superhero movies, remakes, sequels, prequels and spinoffs fill movie theater marquees. Generic DJs are playing beats by the numbers. For much of the past five years, art, for the most part, has been bland.
A default of being human is to create when we don’t know what else to do. When artists and musicians create out of boredom, they paint pretty pictures and write formulaic music for the masses. But when they create because they don’t know what else they can do, they make a statement. After a rough 2016, we’ve already seen a few quick reactions to the bullshit of the past 12 months: Beyoncé and her troupe of beret-wearing, Afro-rocking dance queens exhibited their black pride in front of millions on CBS during Super Bowl 50, a day after the release of her “Formation” video where the unambiguous message, “Stop shooting us,” pans across the screen. A “30 Days, 30 Songs” playlist was released on Spotify, leading up to the presidential election with contributions by Open Mike Eagle, R.E.M. and other artists offering their insight and concern on the current state of America. Westworld challenged audiences with existential questions on the nature of reality. Locally, a small group of actors performed a short piece on life with a Trump presidency during December First Friday’s $2 10-minute plays, and artist Gear Duran painted a Standing Rock–inspired mural after becoming fed up with violent headlines.
And equal to the artist’s desire to create something meaningful is the observer’s desire to digest it. A painting might look nice but inspires only a Facebook “like.” A song might sound OK but only moves one enough to tap a toe. That’s no longer satisfying. But if next year means taking a step backward, it also means art will jump forward. That’s something we can all look forward to.