[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.