Honestly, folks, I'm a bit tired of this. It seems I can't crack open a jewel case, read an interview with an artist, or listen to a concert nowadays without being told what I should think or do or who or what I should vote for. Frankly, if I wanted an education on social issues or on moral conduct, I prefer to hear it from someone knowledgeable about the issue or, in the case of conduct, from, say, my pastor. Instead, I have to hear it from artists! it's the difference between art and propaganda, even if the propaganda is true.
This came to mind recently as I discovered and listened to the superb new CD by songwriter Adrienne Young and her band, Little Sadie. Gorgeous music, creative and award-winning packaging, and (here we go) a wholesome message -- The Art of Virtue. I was absolutely blown away by the music (a bluegrass-folk-country mix) and the lyrical content (great stories, and songs affirming virtue!). Who, after all, has a problem with songs that commend virtues like chastity, sincerity, justice, humility, and tranquility, among others? What a novel idea!
But here's the rub: As I begin reading the extensive liner notes, a sinking feeling came over me. I counted: There are approximately 592 words extolling virtue, a couple of prayers, a booklet with all the virtues listed and a chart where I'm supposed to write down how I did today on one of the virtues, and, then there's more admonitions about why and how I should support locally grown food, and so on. 592 words.
To make this argument, I could have taken a cheap shot at those artists or CDs that contain anti-Bush songs, anti-war songs, or some issue I may disagree on (there are plenty of those) but the argument here is not over content but form. In doing so, it's helpful to use an artist whose content I largely have sympathy for rather than one whose content I largely disagree with. The problem is this: art is not propaganda. Art teaches through metaphor, symbol, and story, not didactic prose. This is what Flannery O'Connor was getting at when she said that "the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction. A work of art (and the album is that) is weakened when the artist merely uses the art as a foil for a message. In other words, art is prostituted and made to serve the message, ascribed value only to the extent it serves the message rather than being recognized as having value simply because it is good art.
There's much to be said about this topic, and some fair disagreement, but I'll leave it here: In his excellent book called The Liberated Imagination, author Leland Ryken tells of an exchange with the composer Schumann that seems to say it all. After playing a new composition, Shumann was asked what it meant. He replied, "It means this," and simply played the piece again.
So, Adrienne, just give me the music -- thoughtful, rich. and deep music that makes me think about the profundities of life and the value of virtue over vice -- not 592 words. That's really the more difficult task -- to be blunt, to know when to speak and when not to speak. Just sing it to me.