Dawes, Art, and Good Criticism

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So, I’ve been listening to an album recently, and it has me thinking about the purpose of “art.”

The album is perkily titled, We’re All Gonna Die, and I’m thoroughly obsessed with it. I’ve spent hours unpacking the lush orchestration, focusing this time on the perfectly liquid bass parts, next on the engrossing and sensitive drum tracks, and then on Taylor Goldsmith’s quietly pitch perfect voice. I just can’t seem to get enough. But, being a reader by nature, I also can’t help but be confronted with the sadness written into each track.

Goldsmith presents a series of vignettes, some taken from what you could easily imagine to be his own experience and some obviously from imaginary but all-to relatable stories: a tired middle-aged man confesses to his wife he’s decided to leave her, an older brother coaches his younger brother out of listening to his elders, a nameless narrator begs the listener to ditch religion, work, family, and find something he’s truly passionate about. In each of these, an unmistakable current of nihilism spiders its way along. Goldsmith’s lyrics are fabulously poetic. He is direct, spare, and emotionally intelligent, and the more you listen, the more you can hear him weeping, in a sort of jaded way, at the world he sees around him. He has questions, and he poses them in an undeniably beautiful way, despite their chilling candor.

The closest he ever gets to offering himself or his listener an answer to these questions, however, is a mere shrug of the shoulders in the title track “We’re all Gonna Die” and a sarcastic twinge in the album’s final entry, “As if by Design”:

Try not to get upset. Everything is fine. Because how can it be that bad, if we’re all gonna die?
The stars are just holes punched in a shoebox that gives a creature all the air he needs to breath, as if every constellation was just a form of inhalation from a captor too enormous to conceive...When you stare off in the night sometimes you see a little too much. Sometimes there’s a world behind the mirror, sometimes a razor and a toothbrush. But in those fleeting moments, when the stars all seem aligned, it all runs together as if by design.

Between the two lines, first the resigned rhetorical question and second the Melville-ian jab at an unseen power, Goldsmith’s own pet peeve seems pretty clear: how on earth are we to make sense of an apparently meaningless world? Are we merely too close to a pointillist masterpiece to see the hand of God, or do we see it all too clearly in our pain? If we could only step back and blur our eyes just so, would it all make sense? Is even the fact that we desire to do this evidence of a higher power torturing us, dangling enlightenment just out of reach?

So, I told you this whole thing made me think about art, and I’m coming to that. You see, when I get obsessed with an album, I listen to it over and over, and I started to wonder with this album if perhaps I was spending too much time in a pretty desiccated worldview; was it smart or healthy to lay my mind and heart open to something this dark on a regular basis?

This is a question I’m betting some of you are familiar with, particularly as we all feel the responsibility, whether for ourselves or our students or our children, to fill our lives with positive influences. As a result, I think many of us fall into a misunderstanding about the role of art.

It’s a vicious but attractive trap to think that proper art either gives an answer we don’t agree with, or an answer that we do agree with, and to furthermore think that a “good critic” ferrets out the answer, weighs its merits, and decides whether he agrees or disagrees. This trap is particularly seductive to those who espouse a particular worldview, or a social cause of some kind. We’re fond, we culture of wannabe aesthetes, of choosing hills to die upon, and promptly mistaking those hills for our own selves. We then defend them with a vigor generally only found in self-defense…telling of an insecurity that absolutely cannot benefit a true critic.

This may seem a harsh perspective on a lot of well-meaning writers and thinkers, but consider this: it’s a frightening thing to be faced with a brilliant intellect that likely doesn’t share your worldview. I submit that we are all, natively, far more comfortable rejecting nuance in favor of hyperbole so that all our tiny perspectives on the world seem diametrically opposed to one another. It saves us the trouble of acknowledging the pesky underlying similarities between our own experience and the experience of the authors we read, and allows us to remain, unchallenged, in our ivory towers as the ones “in the know.” It allows us to feel we are right. And so, we take up our pens like swords and approach the wide world of the intellect like the Templar, hacking our way through a forest of infidels in search of someone who “gets it” enough that we can listen with our walls down, all the while secure in our identity as “critics.”

Contrary to the manifest opinion of book clubs, movie reviewers, and music beat writers all over the country, however, good criticism has little to do with critically evaluating a work of art. This isn’t to say that a critic never undertakes to pan a failed offering of some kind, but rather to point out that the primary role of a critic is to partner with the artist in delivering the thematic content of the work. A good critic presents his readers with a lens to focus their attention on the portions of the piece he finds most compelling, and to help his reader understand the power and meaning of the work in its larger context. A critic is one who, among all viewers, is most qualified to take the author’s part; after all, they have made it their business to know as much about the landscape of that artist’s art form as possible, which of course makes them the most qualified to welcome other readers into their cultivated appreciation. Viewed in this way, a critic is simply another artist, tasked with presenting his viewers with an idea, and doing so skillfully and precisely. A far cry from the fearless and discerning defender of truth I described above, wouldn’t you say?

The reason I draw this distinction at all is because proper art isn’t only present in works that give us answers. In fact, it is far more likely to be present in works that ask questions. This is why a critic looking to works of art to secure their identity, or to lend them a secure belief system, will be incapable of doing their work well: good art isn’t intended to pat us on the back and give us a foundation on which to stand. It is intended, instead, to challenge us with our own condition as creatures, a condition that once fully grasped, can and will scare the pants off of anyone with a whit of self-knowledge.

The best artists, it turns out, know only one thing well: they do not know. All other truths besides this one reside in the realm of hope and faith, which, depending on the day, are more or less empowered to color our outlook. It is from this well of need and sorrow that the greatest works in any tradition (including the Christian one) were written. Anyone who wants to defend the arts, or to engage with them authentically should start by acknowledging this fact.

But, the linings are silver, despite all that! Taylor Goldsmith may not have any answers, but his yearning for them is among all signs, the most hopeful. The fact that we all, mired in our helpless estate, instinctively turn to the stars, blurry eyed and expectant, looking for a design, draws us together inexorably. As hard as we may try to oppose one another, we are asking the same questions, and will have their answers in the same fashion when the designer steps back onto the stage at last. In the meantime, let’s not underestimate the power of a piercing question. And let’s not forget to put down our swords, and hold one another’s arms up as we wait.