Thursday, June 19, 2008

Scott on Art and Revision

[Scott uses musician Daniel Johnston as a jumping off point for some questions about art and revision.]

For those of you unfamiliar with the film or Daniel Johnston, he was an aspiring musician in the mid-late 80's famous for his homemade recordings. He made dozens of albums on his own over the years, only making one professionally recorded album. He gained fans among a lot of indie-punk artist around this time including the members of Sonic Youth and, most notably, Kurt Cobain (who has famously been photographed wearing one of Johnston's "Hi, How Are You" T-shirts). He also did his own doodlish artwork for his album covers and, currently, continues to make art which incorporates Superheroes (a lot of Captain America) and other pop-culture icons. There are times throughout his life when he was on the cusp of some sort of success but it becomes painfully apparent that he is a classic paranoid schizophrenic (a condition exacerbated by experiments with acid) and he always ends up melting down instead.

Ok, so if this story weren't a documentary it could have made for an interesting little indie film. starring Jason Schwartzman or Jake Gyllenhaal as Johnston. Johnston obsessively recorded most of the significant moments of his life on both audio and video tapes. I heard that it was a sad tale but it actually has a, relatively, happy ending. It would seem that his art and music do well enough to afford him a decent income and, while he could never be a self-reliant member of society and his elderly parents won't be around for much longer, it does seem as though he has enough close friends and relatives who have his best interest in mind so that he will always have someone to look after him.

But here is the greater question: Is his work all that brilliant? The main praise it seems to get is for its 'rawness'. However, as far as I can tell, 'raw' here means 'the work of a precocious twelve year old'. His art, which meshes pop-culture and comic book cartoon iconography with, sometimes, disturbing images, looks like the kind of stuff that the quiet kid in middle school would have scrolled on his notebook. The same goes for his music (which I can't completely judge without hearing it professionally recorded or interpreted by more able musicians).

Now, oftentimes, that quiet kid grows up and becomes a great artist but their work evolves from scribblings (which could also be used to described Johnston's music as well as his art); Johnston never does. I suppose there is a freshness to that. The guy has no filter. I am actually quite envious of the fact that this is a guy who obviously never revises anything. (Especially when one takes into consideration the fact that I have already stopped about five times while writing this blog to revise myself and am currently painstakingly-well maybe not painstakingly- researching events for a short story I'm working on). Does that make his art more true? The fact that he makes it for no one but himself? Or, is part of what makes a work of art great the fact that others can find enjoyment in it as well? Part of me wants to agree with the latter statement since I have always felt that part of the greatness of artists like The Beatles was the fact that they had mass appeal while still managing to push certain boundaries... on the other hand Nickelback are very popular, too.


scott91777 said...


I think you cut off part of my last sentence there.

it should have read "while still managing to push certain boundaries... on the other hand Nickelback are very popular, too."

Geoff Klock said...

My bad. Fixed.

Jason said...

I've always been fascinated by the "first draft vs. revision" debate. Alan Moore is my favorite contemporary writer, and has been quoted as saying, "Everything of mine you've read is first draft." Dave Sim, another comics genius, doesn't seem particularly big on revision. It's not as if, for example, he went back and altered the early parts of Cerebus to make all the women into vile bitches to match his political agenda in the latter half.

Moore has also commented that one of the reasons he dislikes Hollywood is because they "seem to think that if something has been written once, it is good, but if it's been written twice it's better, and if it's been written fifteen times it's excellent." (Or words to that effect.)

M. Night Shyamalan, by contrast (since he just came up), has been quoted as saying that he was on the fourth or fifth draft of The Sixth Sense before he "figured out" that the lead character was dead, and that it was another half-dozen drafts or so before he nailed the execution of that twist.

Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity," "About a Boy," etc.) said in an interview that he thinks authors are disingenuous when they claim that they are only "writing for themselves," because if that were true, they would never revise anything. They are writing to be enjoyed by other people, hence the sweating over jokes to make sure they work properly, and whatever other revisions are necessary to make things clear and to get the proper emotional effect.

As for as Johnston in particular ... he is certainly no genius, but he's written some good songs. But with pop music there are two distinct "revision" processes ... the actual re-writing of lyrics and chords, i.e., work done on the "text" of the song -- the nuts and bolts -- and then there's the production side, which is to do with packaging the song for public consumption (although revision of the text can happen at this phase as well). Kinks frontman Ray Davies has commented that this distinction isn't often made between a song and its produced, recorded version -- even though it should be. He's said that most people, when they say they love a certain song, are really saying that they love a particular *recording* of the song. Scott, I'm sure you considered this, since you note that you can't fully judge Johnston's work without hearing it "professionally recorded."

Johnston completely foregoes (or forewent) that "production" aspect -- he takes what most would call "demos" and presents them as product. On that score, certainly some of his songs are just as strong, structurally, as some of the demos a person can listen to on the archival Beatles Anthology CDs (albeit The Beatles play their demos better, just by virtue of being practiced performers).

The other thing about pop music is that, as Ian MacDonald said, "It's by and large a very simple musical genre and its possibilities are necessarily limited." When questioning what pop music is more "true" or artistic, one wonders how much truth can be gleaned from a pop song? It's like when Andy Partridge was asked by the Onion AV Club about XTC's most popular song, "Dear God." He commented that it was of necessity a very shallow observation about pop culture because it had to be: It's a three-minute pop single. He said, "Imagine someone told you -- describe human nature. You have three minutes. Go."

So, given that even the "truest" example of pop-music is only going to be so much about artistic expression and still primarily about entertainment... I think, ultimately the only test of quality in Johnston's work is whether it's enjoyable. Personally, I enjoy some of it. I love "I Had Lost My Mind," and there are a couple others -- recorded with better musicians than himself -- that bounce along catchily. And, indeed, "rawness" is part of the appeal, just as it was for lots of 1960s acts. (Bob Dylan, for example.) If it doesn't appeal to a person, I think that can be put down as much to personal taste as anything else.

scott91777 said...

Excellent points there Jason, certainly personal taste plays a factor. One thing that I should have clarified is that It would seem to me that a lot of those who like Johnston's work seem to like it because it's 'different' or 'fresh.' For music fans (as for fans of any medium), there is always an eternal quest for something 'different.' I'm just a bit suspect as to wheter difference necessarily means quality.

Just from watching the film, there are certain Johnston songs I find appealing but, then again, given the size of his body of work it kind of reminds me of the old line about '1,000 monkeys at 1,000 tyepwriters'; at some point he's bound to come up with something good. This also makes me think of Prince's whole battle with his record label from about 15 years ago... part of the feud was that he wanted to be able to releas music more frequently which the record label didn't like because they felt this did not give them enought time to promote each album. Prince has gone on to be quite prolific, and I once read a review of one of his albums that said something to the effect of "What would you rather have: a mediocre Prince album every year or two or an excellent one every five years?"

You also made me think about something Pete Townshend once said about The Who, I think in reference to Quadrophenia, to the effect that he was writing these very personal songs that just got transformed into something completely different once they were reinterpreted by the band. So, are the 'truer' versions his demos (available as part of his Scoop series) or the Who version? I'm not really sure but, from what I've heard, the Demo versions certainly aren't The Who... they didn't become Who songs until they were filtered through Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon.

scott91777 said...


another thing on revision and editing:

In your X-men posts, you have brought up on story points were often foisted upon the creative team by Jim Shooter. At times, this can be annoying (i.e. Dazzler) but at times it results in something better than what the authors had originally intended (the death of Jean Grey).

A more subtle example that I can think of comes from Sandman. While Gaiman was given quite a bit of artistic freedom, he still had to go through an editor, Karen Berger. Gaiman had originally intended to kill Matthew the Raven at the end of The Kindly Ones but Berger stepped in and wouldn't let him and I think the story and the Wake are made that much better for it.

Jason said...


Funny thing that you bring up The Who; I just kind of on a whim this morning picked up my copy of Andy Miller's Kinks book, released as part of the 33 & 1/3 book series. Fantastic book, and it talks about how Ray Davies, the Kinks' frontman, had a kind of obsessive hold on the band, and the Kinks' records were always done exactly as Davies wanted. But, he still did write with an eye toward what he knew they could play well, and was not adverse to integrating the bands' ideas into songs -- as long as they were still HIS songs.

I don't know. There's something to be said for utter creative autonomy, just as there is much to be said for "openness to influence," as was discussed by Doug and Geoff in a recent thread on one of the Claremont/Phoenix Saga blogs.

Maybe it's just down to how much of a purist one is. Did you ever see that episode of Mr. Show where David Cross plays a purist who hates anything that has 'a"pproval of the masses"'? He puts an old scratchy record from the 20s on, and it's just a tinny piano with lots of pops and skips, and he says, "God, it's so pure, it hurts!" I can sort of imagine someone listening to Daniel Johnston and having that kind of reaction.

Meanwhile you've got the Type B fan who is more attracted to polish and pristineness. The thing is, the ability to polish and perfect something is a skill -- an art -- in and of itself, so it certainly seems unfair that a "purist" would look down on something just for being more rounded, full and "produced."

It's a fascinating question. I'm glad you brought it up in a blog entry, even though I feel like my replies thus far have just been wheel-spinning that comes nowhere near answering it. :)

scott91777 said...

Sometimes it is not the answer but the discussion of the question that matters... how very Zen of me.

I really need to get me a good Kinks collection (any reccomendations?).

On the purist note, think about what Jack White does with The White Stripes... I don't think Jack White himself is that much of a purist as it is that's what he sees the White Stripes as being and allows himself more excess over at the Raconteurs (new album is amazing!). Also, the White Stripes can have those songs or lyrics that, like Johnston, can seem like the work of a 'precocious 12-year old' the difference, I think, is that with Jack White I think that factor is very calculated... which of course would make Johnston the 'purer' of the two... yet, I don't think it makes it any better.