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Art and Artifice

The why of art is more important than the how.

Art communicates. The core message might be as simple as “I like Slayer” or as complicated as “Let’s begin reversing centuries of female marginalization.” The work’s context and various expressive textures contribute narrative layers that enrich that core message. The more we identify with the message, its layers, and their convergence, the more we like the art, even if we can’t explain what those things are or how we connect with them.

In the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a work’s context, the how tends to be the most contentious for me, because I often feel that any attention it draws to itself is too much. A gasp of “How’d they do that?” loudly acknowledges the work’s artifice; these are the words of someone on the outside looking in rather than someone who has been absorbed.

Several years ago, I took in a performance from beatbox virtuoso Rahzel, and had this to say:

[…] while Rahzel’s human beatbox is astounding in its simulation of an actual DJ at the decks, it doesn’t simulate a particularly inventive DJ, and craft is only as valuable as the art it serves. […] The result was generally so self-congratulatory, I wasn’t sure why it was even being performed for an audience.

Virtuosity becomes problematic when it wants its hard work to be appreciated as much as (or more than) the product of that work.

Filmmaker Greg Jardin recently released a stop-motion animated music video for pop singer Kina Grannis’s “In Your Arms.” The three-minute video’s production took two years and a team of three dozen people. Surely no one will argue that this is an impressive amount of dedication, but Jardin tips his hand at the end: “This video was made using 288,000 Jelly Belly jelly beans and 1 Kina Grannis.”

Sure enough, a short documentary about the incredibly laborious process behind the 2,300 frames of “In Your Arms” is more interesting and memorable than the video itself. This is a celebration of the hand more than the handmade.

A similarly juxtaposed pair of videos featuring saxophonist Colin Stetson yields a different result. The first video is a captivating live performance of Stetson’s “Judges,” as honest and purposeful a musical performance as I’ve seen.

In the second video, Stetson breaks down his music’s rich sonic palette and explains how it comes together live without accompaniment or overdubs. The sound he accomplishes with just a bass sax, a few well-placed microphones, and his own respiratory system is amazing, but at no time do his methods overwhelm their product. My appreciation of his process reinforces what I already love about the music (which is admittedly hard to articulate) without supplanting it.

Of course, art’s most central trait is its subjectivity. It is not impossible for Greg Jardin’s and Kina Grannis’s work to speak to someone else the same way Colin Stetson’s speaks to me. And I hope it does, especially to Jardin and Grannis themselves. Because doing something just to say you did it seems like a pretty empty endeavor.