Yeah, raise your hand if every time you hear “Welcome to the jungle, you’re gonna diiiieeeeeeeee!“, you think, “hmm, that singer’s an interesting sociological metaphor”.
Or, on the note of a different pop star, I refer you here:
While I may be hard pressed to find any use or interest in celebrities most of the time, the celebrity-as-parable has seemed to find a way to capture my imagination. True, Michael Jackson, as a parable of the child star may be too complex for this here MFA sociologist-pretender. But, if there is one redeeming thing about Britney Spears, for example, it is in a conception of her as a warning about not being allowed to mature and direct the formation of your own identity through some normal courses of childhood. In whatever way it came about, she was fabricated into, um, Britney… Then, wham, she was the age of an adult, and in the tabloid spotlight, without any of the life skills of a half-wit college freshman. We all know what happened, whether we wanted to know or not.
By the way, I for one thought she was totally hot with a shaved head – way better than with hair. Maybe that’s just me.
So, back to Axl Rose, as parable that is. He is no more and no less than an open question about whether or not art and successful integration with the middle class (and up) are compatible. He’s that and the guy who I thought was the single coolest thing in rock n roll until I finished Jr. High.
For me, Axl Rose is the most articulate representative and embodiment of the white trash experience to step forward during my generation. Furthermore, I grew up in SW Ohio with white skin and not a whole bunch of money which sort of means that, um… well, there’s some shared resonance. Anyway, Axl grows up what he was, where he was, and whoever he was. He goes to L.A. (metaphor?) and rocks out with big (then long and flat) hair exactly in the way he thought best (see post on sincerity in art). And millions of kids across America’s cultural backwaters (me) and probably in mapped places too, banged our heads with a collective fuck yeah! We heard our “less-than-high-cultured”-yearnings and anxieties articulated verse chorus verse.
Yeah, we loved him and his band because they created a manifest expression of the white trash experience. But then, then, because of that, Axl became a celebrity. And celebrities can not be trash. They are mutually exclusive idioms. Like a lot of rock stars and other celebrities though, he did indeed continue to be his non-consonant-with-celebrity self. The makings of tabloid fodder. We saw not a worldly, educated and polite roll model. And who wants to aspire to be uneducated and disillusioned? But, we were uneducated and disillusioned (bitter with guns and religion anyone?). That’s why we responded to his music. A conundrum arises: dear Axl must be two things that are not mixable. Axl was no longer permitted to be who he was. He did, something… nobody knows – just that he’s no longer in the public eye and no longer a musician who releases recordings. My guess is that once faced with no choices, it’s a logical path to choosing none. Collapse. No art. No middle class integration.
So, if you’re an artist who’s experience is not founded in the polite classes, or if you are focused on the difficulties and pitfalls of the contemporary social experience, how do you occupy a safe middle class social-pillar-type position (such as a professorship) and continue to make your art as powerfully and sincerely as you might?
This is, by the way, more or less the thought process that brought me to using images of cutesy domestic tripe (like soap dispensers shaped like teddy bears) in my art work.
Clearly the “professor who lost his/her edge” is a well-worn cliche. Of course, enough faculty also find a way to avoid becoming said cliche to demonstrate that it is possible. Academic culture is not reassuring though.
A case study: at the end of my second year in grad. school, the dept. interviewed the guy who made this:
an artist whose work I had and continue to admire, for a spot on the painting faculty. What ensued was no less than an implosion. You see, the Candidate’s art was about “problems” – awkward social interactions, crappy relationships, a divorce, etc. There are other artists who can define it as a legitimate “branch” of art, Simon Evans for example.
The Candidate was honest and open and down to earth and intelligent about his art. He described a painting that told a story about telling his wife to take her chopsticks with her as she went out the door. Hmm, trouble… Well OK, I’m in a cross-cultural, interracial marriage and I got it. In fact, all of the studio art students and faculty got it. It was a first-hand account of the difficulties and pains of separating from someone and the parts of your own identity that you acquired from them. It was a comment about about a desire to be insensitive that seemed ironically consequent from sensitivity. The non-studio people, apparently, were abhorred. How could a faculty candidate present himself like that? Well, what the heck did they think his art was about in the first place? Did they expect him to be something distant from the content of his work? Are there limits on what faculty can rightly make art about? I’ve never heard anyone say there should be, but there we were.
In short, the studio people wanted an artist, other people wanted an intra-university ambassador (or something like that). Certainly, both are part of the job. But when you make art about how insane committee meetings are, you may be able to be both, but you cannot be conceived of as being both. Hmm… which faculty among you haven’t been in an insane committee meeting? Why can’t we just come right out and make paintings about it?
To be fair, as a graduate student at the time, I don’t know what happened during other parts of his campus visit. I’ve met the Candidate since then (not that I can say I know him, I don’t), and I’ve been an Asst. Prof. since then and can only say that he seems very friendly and there’s no way to know how the alchemy of hiring committees evolved that day. And, he is, as far as I know, still and I assume happily on the faculty at a different university. Short end of it though, they didn’t hire anyone that year.
So, there it is: Axl Rose. It’s not just about art vs. professorhood – though that was this here artist’s heretofore only window to middle class things such as matching bathroom decor, acting like I could be a role model to 18-22 year olds, and health insurance. I didn’t figure out how to stir them all together with any kind of pointed creative production. I just know that the dilemma didn’t wear well on Axl, and that choosing neither didn’t seem to do him any better.