Reporting Courtney E. Smith
Pablo Picasso is said to have once quipped, “When art critics get together they talk about form and structure and meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”
As it goes in art, so it goes in music. While critics of today try to ascertain where an artist’s work will place them in the pantheon, the musicians themselves would rather talk “turpentine.” And rightly so, because the creators are probably the last people who should analyze their own work.
The problem with critics, of all arts, is that there has never been a singular bar they can measure work against. The critical stance that one would view Radiohead through is not the same as Carly Rae Jepsen, although both are award-winning artists who’ve created music that has reached and enthralled mass audiences. The majority of music critics would agree that Radiohead is an important band and that “Call Me Maybe” is a classic pop song — that both are good, in their respective areas.
And so, with no uniform measure to compare apples like Radiohead to oranges like Carly Rae Jepsen most critics rely on crafting a story around an artist to give their music context. This new “critical” angle is often created by working with a narrative drafted by a band, their management and their publicity team, forming a melting pot of competing interests. So today, the ideas of criticism and narrative and publicity are very intertwined. But this was not always the case.
Foals, Jessie Ware and Airborne Toxic Event were posed the same question by Radio.com about the state of art criticism, through the lens of a particular scenario. These three acts, with very different backgrounds with a variety of musical ethos, have been press darlings and press derelicts. All three gave answers that started out the same, but ended up in entirely different places.
The artists were asked to look back to the era of Impressionist artists. Through the lens of history it is one of the most beloved and most lucrative periods in the history of art. But in their own time, the Impressionists, including the father of Impressionism Édouard Manet, were panned by their critics as talentless hacks. In fact, their very name was a diss — critics and contemporaries of the first wave of Impressionist painters used the term to indicate that they weren’t good enough at painting to create a lifelike picture, which was the preferred and lauded model at the time.
The Impressionist artists had a different relationship to critics than do artists of any style in modern times. In their time, a person simply exhibited their art, leaving it to tell the story. It was the job of the critic to interpret it and attach cultural value. There were no celebrity interviews with the artists, no exposés in which post-Impressionist Gauguin would have
been asked to explain how he contracted new and bolder STDs while he hung with man-eating cannibals and painted his island life series (which had to be a million times more interesting than the pears and French countryside in which he’d largely specialized).
We presented the three groups of musicians with a conceit: should art stand on it’s own or would they prefer to create, craft and participate in the stories told about their art?
Foals, whose third album Holy Fire was released in February, have received uniformly good reviews from the majority of music outlets. They are also known, especially in the British press, to give sometimes outrageous soundbites, especially when prompted. They told Radio.com, unprompted, that they sent an intern to gather bones from a butcher shop that they then attempted to use as percussion instruments. The experiment was unsuccessful, but the story becomes part of the lore about the artists. It helps to paint a picture of them as innovative and slightly dark.
These personality quirks as storytelling devices make them a hot commodity among journalists, which can mean long and repetitive press junket days for the band. And so, first, keyboardist Edwin Congreve addressed the hassle that self-promotion can be.
“I’d say that art, our art as music, is also a commodity,” Congreve said. “We’re enabled to make it via the commercial entity of our record label and so on. So it’s a very big world. There are requirements made of us, to make the whole thing work. I think it’s mature of us to accept our position in that world. I think if Yannis were to make some kind of like…if he could make a piece of music that was representative, like a work of art on a wall, then maybe he could walk away and be like, ‘There it is.’ But music works in a very different way.”