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Making Art and Taking Punches

The most difficult part of making things isn’t in the actual making. It’s in the unmaking.

The unmaking is the way the audience or media takes apart what an artist has put together. They do this through critique and through derision. They do it by praising and by razing. The listener, viewer or reader will take a work of art and make it their own by bending it to their will or, much like my cat does, pissing all over it.

This act of unmaking doesn’t do much to change the work of art. By the time the reviewer or the consumer is granted access, the work is done. And even after they have ravaged it or exalted it, it still stands, as whole as it was before, ready to be consumed by the next.

The unmaking does affect the artist, though. A person who creates for an audience must decide what to do with the feedback he or she receives. In the last week a few examples of this struggle have come to my attention. So now is maybe a good time to try to learn something from a couple of these artists. This is a study in contrast. One of our subjects is a deflector. The other is an absorber.

Our deflector is Maya Arulpragasam, a British artist of Sri Lankan descent who raps under the moniker M.I.A. Arulpragasam is a lightening rod for criticism, her art often held up for its revolutionary zeal and censored for poking society in the eye. She has also been criticized for being a hypocrite, most notably following a revealing May 2010 New York Times article. It was just months after that article that Arulpragasam was interviewed by Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi. The interview arrived in one of my social feeds from a Seattle musician. “I want to have a conversation with this girl,” he declared. "I feel like she's the only modern high-profile musician talking about any of this music industry/internet stuff..." I watched. After Ghomeshi’s introduction, filled with accolades, Arulpragasam comes on like a fighter.

“I’m just takin’ the punches,” she says about the reaction to her third album, Maya. “You know, sittin’ back, seeing what happens.”

“What do you mean by taking the punches?” Ghomeshi asks.

“I don’t know. I feel like a lot of people have been taking cheap shots because that’s how it goes, but the whole point is to show that. But it’s good. It’s my version of collecting data.”

Throughout the rest of the interview it becomes clear that Arulpragasam is not collecting that data to recalibrate her pop songwriting machine. She is using it to identify her enemies. Later in the interview, she returns to her persecutors:

“Every day I say this stuff there’s another publication, another politician, another journalist, another, you know, who’s gonna try to cut you down because it doesn’t go with the status quo of being an artist who just sells products who’s just like ‘buy this, buy that.’ I don’t sell things well.”

Soon after that statement, Ghomeshi pushes her.

“You’re a global pop star. Don’t you have a lot of power? You’re powerful at this point. You have legions of people who listen to what you say, that come to your, they pay, they pay to hear what you have to say.”

“Of course I’m not," she responds. "The day I jump down and say, ‘Hello, here’s my name on the Coca-Cola fucking promotion,' yeah I’ll be like that, but I do turn, I turn down practically everything and that’s the difference. If you don’t compromise, then you’re not going to get to reach out to a lot of people. The less you say, and the less you stand for and the less you mean nothing, the more successful and the more powerful you are. That’s how it works, and I have a big mouth.”

Arulpragasam has defined her unmakers as the forces of commercialism. It's difficult to know how resilient she truly is to those forces, but the message she is espousing in word is that her power as an artist is inextricable from her resilience. Rather than break her down, her critics seem to feed this resilience. Yet, her purist pronouncements are strictures that leave her art little leway. So, when she decides to appear during the halftime show of the superbowl — one of the largest commercial enterprises in the world — she will again be called a hypocrite. She will raise her middle finger at the camera, but she will, in my eyes, resemble less a fighter landing a punch than a dog chasing its own tail. 

Ben Haggerty, the Seattle artist who raps under the moniker Macklemore, is a slightly different case. Last week, Haggerty released a single “Same Love,” which, both lyrically and financially, supports Referendum 74 (recognizing the right of all Washingtonians to marry). Yesterday, The Stranger published a story by Larry Mizell Jr. that addresses the rise of Macklemore, Haggerty’s colorful and complex back-story, and the artist’s knack for writing the right topical song at the right moment. It’s an insightful piece of journalism in which Mizell sets the context expertly before getting out of the way to let the articulate artist speak for himself. (You should read it.) Not surprisingly, Macklemore has been criticized, not only for supporting gay rights, but for what some view as blatant opportunism. Mizell ends on Haggery reflecting on his unmakers. I am going to quote it at length here, because his response is instructive.

"Everybody is going to get criticized, put in a box, pigeonholed as this type of person—you can even do it to yourself, know what I mean? With this song, if I would have listened to those voices in my head, the ones telling me what people were going to say or think about, then it would never have gotten written. I would have gotten in a place of fear and gotten distracted. Thankfully, I have little breakthroughs of not listening to those voices, because they're there, and I try to combat them however I can. Whether that's exercise or service work or meditation, I work to not hear that shit. Because that shit is real, and the bigger you get, too, the more challenging it is to tune that out. Y'know, without giving anybody more credit than they deserve—there's been pieces written about me, in Seattle, that I'd be lying to say I wasn't a little bit rattled by. That I wasn't like, 'Okay, shit. Let me do some soul-searching and remember who I am, and remember why I do what I do, and who it speaks to.' And that's the most important thing. Everybody else... fuck it."

There is contradiction in what Haggerty tells Mizell. He is resilient in the face of critics, yet he is deeply affected by the criticism. He is taking the punches, yes, but he isn’t calculating a counterpunch. He's looking deeper within. Maybe there’s something wrong with the way Haggerty reacts to his opponents. Or maybe boxing is just a really poor metaphor for making, and unmaking, art.

Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears on City Arts Online every so often. If you have something — anything — you think Mark should write about, email markb@cityartsmagazine.com and tell him.

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