Should art have any kind of moral compass? I’ve mentioned in recent posts that I’m currently going through a thrash metal phase. I’ve been listening to albums by the Big 4, which is Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Many songs by these bands depict the horrors of this world, and the next one, without any kind of commentary on how they feel about these horrors. That’s not to say that these bands don’t also have socially conscious lyrics as well, but there are many that simply paint a picture and leave it up to the listener to interpret them.
In particular I am thinking about the Slayer song Angel of Death. The song is about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. This song talks about the horrors of the Holocaust without any kind of commentary by the band telling the listener if those deeds were good or bad. Although Slayer would later go on to write things that had more of a point of view, at this point they were just writing brutal lyrics filled with horrors. Because of listening to this song and others I have begun thinking about whether or not this kind of thing is responsible.
In thinking about it I have decided that art, as long as it is art and a form of true expression, does not need to have a moral compass in the standard sense. An artist’s only responsibility is to express themselves in the truest way that they can. I would like to explain why I think this.
First of all I am talking about art and not about commerce. If something is done just to make money this is a betrayal of the talents of an artist. All artists are lucky and are blessed with a talent. Whether you deem that that talent is the result of hard work, DNA, fortunate circumstances, or some higher power, the ability to create something is a gift. Using this “gift” for anything other than creating something that is true is not valuing the talent that you have been lucky enough to have bestowed upon you. I am a realist. I understand that in this day and age there are circumstances where the artist might have to occasionally cash in so that they have the freedom to nurture their true gift. In the music business, for instance, it is growing harder and harder every day to make a living. To create something to make money, so that you can survive, take care of your loved ones, and nurture your talent further, may not be ideal, but it may need to be done on occasion. The line where this goes from being survival to exploitation of your talent is a murky one. At the end of the day each individual needs to live with their own decisions.
Also, there are plenty of things out there that have no artistry to them whatsoever and are simply done to exploit the public in some form or fashion. Most reality TV is like this. It creates the opposite of thinking. It leaves the mind in a dulled state so that it can be more easily influenced by the advertising that is this forms true aim: To make money for large corporations. Plus these things take many people that may have talent, and while possibly providing them with a living, uses those talents towards an idiotic end.
So let’s get past that and take the exploitation of talent by commerce out of this. Should an artist use that talent to try to make the world a better place, and if so how do they do that? Again, I have already answered no. That is not to say that I don’t idolize people like John Lennon and Bob Marley who inspired people with their calls for social justice. But I would say that the art that they created was a natural extension of who they were and what they believed in. Because of this their work is organic, full of passion, and rings true to this day. If an artist gets to a place of enlightenment where they can write about topics that bring light to the world, then I am all for it. If this kind of art comes from a true place it will have weight and validity.
As an artist I think you should, despite the television and your gut often tells you the opposite, treat people like they are intelligent beings capable of reasoning on their own. Another way to exploit talent is to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. If you are creating something you should not let your ego tell you that you are smarter than everyone. You should assume that there are enough people that are as smart or are smarter than you that will get what you are doing. If you look out at the world and see some kind of void in what you want you want to hear or see, then you should try to fill that void as best you can. Even if this provides you with a smaller audience it is out of your control. Sometimes, like Bob Dylan, the world will reward you. Sometimes, like Vincent Van Gogh, the world may not catch onto what you are doing until you are long gone. And there are sometimes when you may not ever be acknowledged, but that is ok. At least you were trying to do something of value. Success is not an indicator of anything. The Backstreet Boys sold way more albums than The Velvet Underground, but only one of them moved the cultural needle.
So now let us get back to Angel of Death. Is a song morally reprehensible because it depicts a real world horror without any social commentary? Again, I say no. In doing so you would wrongly be assuming that everyone was stupid. In doing something like this you are causing people to think for themselves. Someone may or may not want to listen to something like this, but in hearing it they have to at least confront the issue. They can’t ignore that something like this happened in the world. This is not escapism, which too has its place and time. I know enough about Slayer to know that they are not Nazi’s and that they actually wrote songs later that did express a point of view which was in no way associated with fascism. They were simply depicting something, which in and of itself means that it is not necessarily moral, but it is not immoral.
Two of my favorite bands of the last year have been The Angelic Upstarts and The Cockney Rejects. These are two second generation British punk bands that are often associated with the Oi! Movement. The Oi! Movement is really misunderstood as it was primarily a working class movement. However, there were Oi! bands that were racist skinheads. The Angelic Upstarts and the Cockney Rejects both actively fought against the right wing aspects of this movement, sometimes literally! The Angelic Upstarts in particular were very political and often sang about supporting unions and other important working class topic matters. They even have a song called Anti-Nazi.
But what about the bands that were racist? Should this music have been prevented from being made? Although I would never listen to such things, I would say that art, if it is true expression, should never be censored. If someone has a feeling, even an ignorant backwards feeling, if it is expressed truly in the public eye than it brings it out of the darkness. Art is a conversation that often takes place in the public eye. Where hatred and the less noble human emotions can often fester in back rooms, if it is created as something for mass consumption, as something tangible, it has to at least be acknowledged. If you know something exists you can fight against it. It has been given a form and a name. All censorship does is give more power to those that are being censored. It makes it a cause for those that are being censored, instead of maybe a silly little group of idiots on the fringe of society. It also is an attempt to whitewash something that may exist. It is far better to confront things and try to prevent what is causing something, then to ignore its existence. It may someday, if not acknowledged, become a problem that you can’t ignore.
So I started talking about the morality of art and ended up at censorship. I always like to remember the Flannery O’Connor quote, and I’m paraphrasing here, that if an artist writes about dirt it is often because that artist despises dirt and not because they love it. Although we should want love and joy out of art, we should also realize that those that are diving into the darkness of the human condition have a value as well. We live in a capitalist society where you often vote with your dollar. You should only vote for things that you think bring value to society, but that is for you as an individual to decide. More often than not I would rather hang Vincent Van Gogh on my wall, but occasionally I want to stare transfixed at The Raft of the Medusa. The duality of man fascinates me. The world is such an interesting place!