Paul McCartney once defended "silly love songs," on the basis of some sort of squishy universality, and in fact some people would, given the opportunity, fill the world with such things.

And there are people who wouldn't. The A.V. Club popped this question to Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor:

There's an argument that the best art comes from being miserable. Now that you're, by all accounts, relatively happy and getting married, is it impossible to be the angry young man?

The artist struggling against adversity, and all that. It's a cliché, of course, but it wouldn't have achieved that status unless there was at least some truth to it at some point. But I'm starting to wonder if maybe that particular cultural artifact has outlived its usefulness. Certainly it informs all manner of political art, which explains much about why so much overtly-political art is simply bad: once you've condemned The System™ and demonized The Oppressors™, where do you go? And come to think of it, if there are so many Oppressors, how come all this stuff never gets oppressed out of existence? How is it that we always hear so many complaints about the abridgment of freedom of speech? The artist may tell you that it's the purity of his vision, his willingness to "speak truth to power" or some similar sound bite, but it's more likely the fact that oppression is largely implemented through bureaucracies of some sort or other, and bureaucracies tend to be something less than efficient. If these folks were actually being silenced, we'd never hear their complaints, would we?

At least with Nine Inch Nails, the angst was personal, not institutionalized. (Well, there was that swipe at All Things Organized in Year Zero, but that was atypical for NIN except for the level of disgruntlement.) And Trent Reznor isn't the angry young man anymore:

To be honest, I'm not particularly angry, at least to the level that I have been. But what I noticed is, because I went through this big question mark of things over eight years ago, I'm wondering how much of that fueled good things I've done? That argument that tortured artists have to throw out at you. But what I found and realized is that the focus of Nine Inch Nails when it started out, pretty much up until recent times, was a way for me to cathartically get this out of my system. You can punch a wall or write a song. Just as painful either way, but you have something to show for it at the end of the day with a song. Seeing that it resonated with people made me feel like I had a purpose in life. It really was taking something fueled by negativity or anger or loneliness and funneling it into something good, and I think the fuel for that fire has run out. That's not a bad thing.

It's also not a bad thing that Reznor recognizes that potential for cliché, and is wise enough to resist it.

He's a long way from being whimsical, however, which, to hear some people talk, is an automatic disqualifier for an artist:

I keep thinking, again and again, of a quotation from one of those back-of-the-magazine essays in Interweave Knits it was one that ran in the issue that came out after September 11, 2001. The writer of the essay made the comment that she tended to think of art as being the human attempt to understand tragedy, and craft, being the human celebration of our creativity and what we can do.

Got that? If it's not somehow interwoven with tragedy, it's mere craft. Forget about the Guggenheim, and go peddle your tchotchkes on Etsy.

This is not to say, of course, that we should wallow in despair because we have tragedy on the brain:

I still struggle with the evil in my own heart and mind and with the idea that I should care about anything in the world at all. Also I know that I am personally capable of truly heinous acts. People are NOT basically good.

To someone like me who grew up in a relatively-impermissive branch of Christianity, this is not some sort of twisted allegorical, phantasmagorical hell on earth: this is, in fact, the world we have, and these are the deeply-flawed people which is to say, all of us who must make the best of it. It's only nihilistic if we lose what faith we have.

Sometimes life indeed sucks, and sometimes that suckage inspires art. But it's not an exclusive relationship by any means, unless you want to argue that Michelangelo, who did some of his best work in church, is a mere craftsman. Not even Trent Reznor will buy that:

I found that if you just go into it and open up the color palette beyond one emotion, it's actually kind of fun.

And fun, to some people, is the shortest four-letter word of all: how dare we have fun when [fill in name of ongoing tragedy]? This, to me, is precisely the time to bring out, say, the old joke about how Helen Keller fell down a well and broke three fingers calling for help. It's not exactly artistic, no it's not even all that crafty but it might help drag someone out of a wholly-internalized funk, and what's wrong with that?

The Vent

  17 September 2009

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 Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill