Is Justin Bieber the Greatest Ever Artist?
Is Justin Bieber the Greatest Ever Artist?
I was discussing Justin Bieber recently – it came about because I made a face (scrunched up) and a sound (“uurrgh” or similar) when my friend said she liked him.
According to her, all music or art should be treated equally as it’s just a matter of personal opinion, so me making a face is wrong because I should accept and listen to all music and enjoy it, because it was all equally good, and in fact – all human activity has equal value.
I agree that all responses to art are equally valid – I have no right to say what other people should or shouldn’t like, and I don’t try to – perhaps if I make a sound and scrunch my face when you say you like something, you think I mean to cast aspersions, but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t like it. So in fact to some people, Justin Bieber can be the greatest artist in the world ever, and that idea cannot be challenged because you have the right to like anything you want.
I suggested there were quality aspects to artistic output though – you could not like something but still think it is well thought out, clever, brilliantly executed, an interesting and useful addition to culture that sparks debate and enriches humanity – just not personally your cup of tea, and you can think the opposite – you can enjoy your favourite tv programme free from whether it has any merits some may say it has beyond entertainment.
I feel like there is a good food analogy here – great art is challenging, shocking, astonishing, it changes how you feel about yourself and the world and humanity, the memory of it becomes part of you, it changes the world, it defines a nation or a culture – Guernica, The Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Liberty Leading the People etc. I feel that it’s nourishing – it’s good for you to see good art – it’s like eating a healthy and nutritious meal – it makes you stronger, I think to get the real value from it you have to see something that inspires you though – going and dutifully reading the labels at the museum is not seeing good art, it’s about believing in the art and sharing something with the artist and the world that she used to inspire her to create the art – an analogy for art is being a collector / dealer of beauty and truth – you go out into the world, find these things and bring them to the public – it’s not an ideal analogy, but it’s what I have at the moment.
Also there’s things you like – my food analogy works here I think, you like waffles with syrup and chocolate sauce, but to day it’s equally valid to consume that as it is to consume the healthy option – your body would disagree.
My friend said the analogy didn’t work because music doesn’t hurt people the way a poor diet would, you won’t suffer if you listen to what you like without trying other more challenging things, but art can hurt people.
Propaganda inspires people to commit hate crimes and acts of brutality – this is an extreme example of how art can be bad for you, but art that conforms, art that tells you that you should change yourself to be popular – this would be bad for you too. But wait, I’m not really knowledgeable about Justin Bieber, let me see what I think his message is…
So I watch the “What do you Mean video” – it sounds a lot like other pop music – Justin here seems to be saying that you should conform to the mainstream. The video is sexy – Justin looks very made-up and shiny and has a six-pack which he shows off – he is saying that looking like this is normal – also you should show off. The video has high production values – he is saying that surface appearance is important. The video has a “street” section with skateboarders – I feel Justin here is appealing to an urban audience and borrowing from the positive associations that young people have to edgy urban-ness to make himself appear more likeable.
The music sounds like an off-the-shelf melody which is executed competently with a high degree of professionalism, all the sounds are pleasant and smooth, it would be easy to dance to and is quite catchy – although I feel like I have heard lets of very similar tunes before, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The lyrics fit well with the music – he seems to be having a discussion with his partner where she is giving him mixed messages, but he doesn’t get into specifics about what may be the deeper cause of the argument eg:
“What do you mean? Oh, oh
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no”
If I hadn’t heard any other music before I would think that this was brilliant – it a sophisticated package – sexy, catchy, lively, up-beat, you can dance to it, hum it, be aroused by it – what’s not to like? Anybody can like this – I wouldn’t begrudge them that.
I personally won’t be listening to it again though, so why not? And why do I come to it with so much suspicion?
There are text-book answers – this kind of music will always be around – it’s the story of a musically talented and good looking person being groomed to be a pop success and everybody involved makes money from it – to be this popular and polished you have to have a lot of people in the background applying their expertise to create your product and control the packaging and delivery of your product – I find that Idea quite a turn off, it feels like a lot of compromise, and who likes compromise? I mean here that artistic integrity is compromised.
What is Justin Bieber really like? What does he really feel? I don’t think I saw or heard anything intriguing of that – not only was his appearance in the video an exercise in conformity as rebellion – doing naughty things in a motel with an underwear model, wearing a hoodie at a skateboard park, within the video he was also apparently acting in a movie – the video starts with a title sequence and features John Leguizamo, so we are not watching Justin’s real life here, but him acting as a character – none of this conceit has any lack of merit per se, but the real Justin Beiber might be impossible to spot beneath the layers of polish – is this a bad thing? If you think that polish is worth looking at or listening to.
Justin Beiber’s music is made up of the same notes and melodies as other music – what he uses those tools for is to make something that has taken the top spot on the list of what is mainstream, and this was what he was aiming for. Aiming to be the top of the charts means you must compromise your artistic integrity – you need to weigh up what is popular at the moment when you write your lyrics, purchase your melody and produce your soundtrack and your video – then market it. You also need to show the pretty face and stomach in all marketing channels – you’ll need to spend a lot of money on this to get the impact as effective as possible, but you’ll have done your spreadsheets and have a projected ROI – you’ll get rich, no doubt, and although Monet was well paid and Picasso was well paid and so on – they didn’t aim to be at the top of the charts – Salon painting was the charts when Monet was first exhibiting, he never tried to become one of those “You must paint a certain way” people and he never did – he and his contemporary impressionists and post impressionists and cubists etc redefined art.
My friend said that my adherence to ideas like this are suffocating and restrictive, but arguably it is mainstream culture that is suffocating – the same “look at me I’m as glamorous as a movie star, or a skateboarder, and I’m a great lover who can seduce and impress a lingerie model whilst having perfect hair teeth and abs” message. Is it harmful? Only if staying in your comfort zone is harmful because Bieber is doing what other people have already done – but more slickly, if not experiencing new things is harmful – believing that mainstream and conformity is best – is that harmful – will you make fun of people who don’t look as shiny as Bieber? Will you make fun of people who like different things because Bieber said that being popular was best, that being top of the charts was important, that compromising your integrity was the thing to do to succeed? If it restricts opportunities for original art because it’s reinforced the idea that there is a sort of “best”-ness – is this harmful? Will it stop you trying to create art because you are intimidated by the level of polish that Bieber thinks is necessary but you could never hope to achieve yourself without the resources of a major music label.
My friend says that all art is equal – the stick man drawn in a classroom is equal to Garcon a la Pipe by Picasso – in a way this is correct, because the people that created these works are equally human beings, and human beings are equal. Somebody could have more of an emotional reaction to and be more moved by the stick man than Garcon a la Pipe and again this is just as valid. Why do we think this though? Because we have to talk about the obvious here – clearly there is more in terms of actual content to Garcon a la Pipe than the stick man – in terms of effort, there would be years of labour, suffering, sacrifice behind Garcon a la Pipe, and it was painted by somebody that many consider a genius – a person who had mental gifts that they used to do things that nobody had before conceived of and which astonished contemporaries (and subsequent generations) because of their insight and relevance. The stick man was drawn by anybody, with no special mental abilities and no special insight, but it had your name on it and there was a heart there – you were touched by it.
So you can keep looking at stick men with hearts and never see Garcon a la Pipe – is this okay? If you’re happy, and you never see a better artwork … you’d certainly be missing out on some of the richness of life and the things humanity can do – like if you’d never left your house, wouldn’t it be good to go outside for the first time? There’s a very good chance you’d like it if you see other artworks – the stick men should still have a place in your heart, but there’s other things… You might look at the other things and think that Garcon a la Pipe’s head isn’t as round as your stick men and that the arms and legs weren’t as straight, plus there is colour! So he’s not very good as a stick man – you’ll be happy not to look at him again, you have all the best stick-man drawings already.
But should you tell me that I should like the stick man drawings, that I should spend just as long contemplating them as the Picasso because they deserve as much attention by both having the virtue of being artworks and I should seek out and look at stick man drawings as much as I should more sophisticated art and I would disagree. They may to you – you have the right to respond any way you like to art – that’s one of the freedoms art needs – the freedom to create anything and the freedom to react any way to the thing – both artist and observer have that freedom.
Equally should I tell you to why not try other things? What arguments could I make to suggest that your artistic experience would be enriched by looking at things other than stick-man, if the stick-man oeuvre was all you knew.
But classroom stick men are common, there is a very low originality factor, very little chance of being impressed or moved or seeing new ideas or being challenged or stimulated. I only have a limited amount of time on planet Earth – and everybody selects things – to get groceries you go to the supermarket, you don’t go to a town and start knocking on doors to see if they sell groceries or have any, you go straight to the grocery shop. You might get exactly what you wanted by knocking on doors, but it could take a long time and you are only alive for so long… so – you obviously go to the shop. Same with art! If you want art you go to an art gallery. There you will see artists work who have passed through various selection processes to get into the gallery, the gallery might be selling photos of New York in Ikea, or it might be more challenging work in a back street where people spend more to get art that meets more specific criteria than Ikea’s photographs. If you like art and look at art a lot – maybe you are art educated, you will know that some art is decorative – the Ikea photos, but other art can do more – it can be a “good armchair”, it can be “an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy”, it can be of historical and cultural significance. The fact is if you’re into art you’ll be familiar with the 10000s of decorative New York photos and it won’t impress you – perhaps you’ve lost something in the process of becoming art educated – a joyful naivety perhaps? And you’ll have better luck finding what you want at degree shows, art fairs, and you’ll sift though lots of stuff that you think is bland before you find something special that changes your life.
But once you’ve received an education in what makes art – the integrity of artists, the freedom to do anything, the absorbing and channeling of zeitgeist to expand and enrich humanity, which is a vital function of art – you’ll be compelled to seek out the new, the original and the world-changing – this is sort of not really connected with what you like – you’ll still like things that you know aren’t as technically perfect as others or took as long as others, or are as well regarded by critics as others – you’ll like those things and enjoy your freedom to do so. I wouldn’t want to take away anybody’s freedom to like Justin Beiber, but I don’t think he’s good for music and music fans will probably seek their music elsewhere the same way that art fans don’t make a beeline for the Ikea photographs. Music may find the idea of Bieber-like hegemony, and chart-topping idol-worship is distasteful, although again, they may like him and they may be missing out on an appreciation of his music, and this is sort of a prejudice, or a selectivity – one the one hand you might believe that artists musical or otherwise should try new things, should innovate should be honest to you and yet you can still like something that doesn’t do any of those things – but if you care about whether an environment exists where its harder for exciting new artists to emerge because all music labels are focusing on what makes them money rather than fostering new talent, or if you care that you are challenged because you want to grow and learn and develop and have new experiences and be more enlightened, and because you know that not every body has had the education you have and you want them to experience new things too because you believe that it enriches them, then you might take a political decision that Bieber is bad and when somebody says “Bieber” you might make a face and a noise.
Will it loose you friends? I really hope not.
My friend has an amazing gift for empathy who genuinely sees everybody as equal and all human endeavor as equally valid. To her, Justin Bieber’s music is equally as good as any other music – and where she comes from I absolutely agree with. It’s right to accept people for who they are, and you should accept the good in Justin Bieber as much as you should in anything. But I believe that Justin Bieber stands in the way of truth and integrity and the world is made culturally impoverished and less colourful and ignorant because of his type of product, and his activities are the way they are because of the amount of cash, and the other perks of fame that are available for him and the individuals that profit from his success.
So I’m at a bit of a crossroads – there’s good in everybody, don’t judge them, don’t evaluate what they do… this is correct, this is how you can empathize.
Some pieces of art simply have more too them than others though – but it’s horses for courses. German soldiers used Pissarro’s paintings to keep the mud off their boots because they had no idea of their significance – perhaps the same gentlemen would have preferred Ingres, but anyway, once you stop thinking that Pissarro has the same value as some old sacks and start selecting some art as better than others (eg Pissarro > sacks), are you inexorably drawn to be the same way towards people? If so – does it make the endeavor counter-productive? Do you make some art that makes people happy, but makes yourself miserable because you wanted it to be better, and your concept of better has made you select only a very few people as worthy of being your friends – other people you’ve selected out because they were German soldiers who would use your art to keep their boots dry – for example. Perhaps you liked the German soldiers but when you saw them invading your country and ruining those paintings – things you thought were sacred and valuable – you decided not to continue your friendship for something like political reasons.
So what do you do? Perhaps… I might try this… The idea of quality is non-productive and anti-social. All people are equal, all art is equal. I should look for art in a variety of places – national galleries, small galleries, student fairs, children’s drawings, prisons, hospitals. All human endeavor is equal from the perspective of the individual themselves. There was a lady on the train last week speaking in a loud voice about how those with an Oxford education wouldn’t be able to survive in South London streets – I wondered about the presumption that would have to exist for somebody to compare their existence “surviving on the streets” with that of a student pursuing the highest level of academia and find not more merit in the other’s case, but this is correct from the point of view of all endeavor being equal. I think the Bagavad Gita agrees with this “To each is given his own work” – to reach enlightenment one of the things to do is to do what you are meant to do. Endeavour that doesn’t suit you that you are doing because of financial gain or some other incentive is dark, doing what you are meant to do is light – whatever the work, surviving on the streets or pursuing a doctorate, these are the same, being this year’s pop sensation and being David Bowie are the same – if this is what you are meant for.
Liking what you like is also light disliking things for political reasons is dark therefore. Like many religious works you could use the BG to justify various activities – for example your political stance taking precedence over your meant – if your meant work was to foster music and art and encourage a world where there was freedom to create without the fear of mainstream culture stifling artists.
That way you could avoid making the noise and the face when you hear Bieber – you could listen to Bieber, dance with Bieber, talk to Bieber, even like the man, and try to stop him just the same.