Learning from David Bowie: The Labours of ‘Real Art’

Bowie
Ron Frazier. David Bowie, R.I.P. 2016. Web. Flickr.com. 26 Mar. 2016

Like many people around the world, I was shocked and saddened by the passing of David Bowie in January. It wasn’t that I listened to so much of Bowie’s music, but he had come to exemplify a unique and charismatic man through the interviews I’d read, the songs I knew and the part he played as The Goblin King in the movie, Labyrinth. Whenever I use the words ‘miasma’ and ‘gunge’, words that Bowie used to describe his 1970s self, I use them with him in mind.

Now, nearly three months on, Bowie’s death has led me to a dedicated discovery of his music – in particular, what I’ve got to so far, his prolific output from the 70s. Varied and unique, much of it both impressively catchy and timeless for how long ago it was made, Bowie appears in the post-haze of his life as the largely matchless figure he was, and the loss looms ever larger.

At the recent SXSW festival in Texas, Tony Visconti, the record producer behind fourteen of Bowie’s albums, discussed the legacy of the Thin White Duke and used his keynote to read a short story about the possible future of the music business. As imagined in Visconti’s fiction, 10 years from now there will be one worldwide record label that deigns to make shiny, shimmery, seemingly-soulless pop tunes that are sold through a lottery. Given the current woes of the music industry, it doesn’t seem an unlikely end.

From sleek-haired celebutantes to presidential hopefuls that chime out rhetorical platforms whose depth could fit within the parameters of a Tweet, there is a jump in our culture toward what’s most easily sold. The type of consumptive patterns that pertain to cars and commercials, though, are very different from those that should perhaps be used when approaching art, music and literature; these things are generally at their best when they sit outside the familiar diktats. But, if all there is is what is familiar and easily known – if the questions asked by art are too difficult to broach – must we preserve and protect the things that are not so easily understood?

Ironically, Bowie calls up another specific memory for me. A few years ago, I came across “David Bowie’s Top 100 Must Read Books List” where the book The Age of American Unreason is listed. Exploring education and culture in the United States, the author Susan Jacoby briefly discusses the time she spent in Russia in the late 60s, stating that:

“The Russians I knew were true intellectuals–men and women who lived for ideas and beauty and cultivated both under great duress…. For a fortunate young American, free to come and go as she pleased, there was great value in living for a time in a world of scarcity, in which serious men and women, bound by external constraints unimaginable to most Westerners, sought and maintained inner freedom.”

While Jacoby talks quite admirably of the ability to preserve art she witnessed, and with it inner purpose, it is this type of dedication that makes Visconti’s fiction of the future world all the more harrowing. I’m not always in the mood for ‘real art’, I’m not always in the state of mind where I want to question, but consistently being in a place where we demand nothing of the things that feed us – art and literature and music – is dangerous. There are human hungers we will never be able to fill, but art – art that questions – at least cuts closest to the root.

An icon like David Bowie cannot be replaced, an artist who created visionary music that was welcomed and adored by the masses, but the times we are headings towards – as Visconti imagines them – should not make such a musician impossible. If it is, as Jacoby suggests, inner engagement that entails true freedom, perhaps we cannot find our answers in perfectly primped pop songs. Perhaps if we wrestled harder to preserve our art and what it means, it would – in turn – preserve what is best in us.

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