Why Artistic Integrity Is Overrated

Why Artistic Integrity Is Overrated

The other day this bearded dude I was friends with in college told me that his weekend prog-rock project had broken up. I got sad for a second.

“I’m sorry dude. That’s too bad.”

“Yeah, we just had artistic differences.”

Wait. Artistic Differences? You hadn’t played a show! You hadn’t made a shitty Garage Band file? You hadn’t even gotten a name and an empty MySpace page!? How the hell could you break up?!

This sort annoyed me for most of Sunday.

But then I realized that I was being stupid. Why? Because really, if in the wide world of music there has to be some groups who fold and break-up and storm out on each other in the middle of practice, it really should only happen to bands that suck, practice in basements every other Saturday, and will never have any impact on the world beyond maybe a February mini-series at the Nomad.

In fact, I began to realize that the converse theorem of my initial outrage at my bearded friend who plays the theremin (you guys shouldn’t break up; bands that are good, popular, and meaningful to other people beyond themselves should break up) was deeply flawed. Because these bands—bands that tour, practice regularly, maybe sell merchandise in the back after shows to people who don’t have the same last name as their drummer, and sell out large clubs—should actually be the bands who suck it up and stay together through thick and thin, and that includes when the proverbial band-killing “artistic differences” raises its head.

Why? Because people (i.e. fans) actually count on them to stay together!

Case in point: R.E.M. I never really liked them much. This isn’t a knock. It’s not a knock on Texas Toast to say I don’t like it. It’s just not for me. But, I do think R.E.M. did something that was sort of magical by staying together through six U.S. Presidents: they actually considered themselves to be a necessary part of their fan’s lives. They saw themselves as utilitarian. And I like this. I wish a lot more artists saw their work in this context. I watched Ben Folds play with the Minnesota Orchestra earlier this month, and it was amazing to see a working musician continue to pound out his craft nearly 14 years after the only major hit he ever really had left the Top 40 radio waves.

This is why artistic integrity is always (or should only be) a chimera left for small-time, bush-league hacks and other phony-gebronies. Once you begin churning out songs (or paintings or black-and-white photographs or blog posts or poems about drunken trysts with guys with toe-nail fetishes, whatever) then you have a civic duty to your audience. You have entered the system of durable goods, supply/demand, and you can’t in good conscious step out any easier than an accountant can say to his client, “sorry, but I only work for people who allow me to sample new algorithms on their annual returns, dude.”

This is why artistic integrity is overrated. Because ultimately the only people who I ever see seriously talking about “art” are stinky underweight boys whose prog rock will disband before it ever sees the light of day. The few people I know who actually have an audience for their talent are generally much more ambivalent about whether people will “see” their music or postmodern cave paintings in the right context.

They’re usually just worried about getting paid.

~Dunstan McGill

Photo courtesy Raul A.