To Progress You Must Experiment
Art is a large part of our lives whether we like it or not. From the paintings we have hung up in our homes to the acting we see on television or even the music that we are constantly subjected to, art is everhwere in our lives. This is one thing that has always made us unlike any other species. We are able to enjoy things purely for aesthetics and not because we need them. Steven Mithen has gone as far in saying, “that a holistic protolanguage of musical emotive expression predates language and was an essential precursor to it”. All mediums of art have had very polarizing pieces that have challenged consumers and these pieces often force you to set boundaries on what you can consider art. Music is no exception. Music has always had experimental characters, but more often now artists are feeling more and more complacent and want to try unorthodox things. Although we may think that music has changed a lot, in reality there has been no major overhaul. Music (and art in general) evolves through very small changes at different times, as opposed to one large change at one time. These changes are not always well received by consumers, but it is necessary for artists to be experimental in order for their craft to evolve.
Modern art is very interesting, to say the least. Many art forms are in a transitional period where artists are expressing themselves in unorthodox ways that many people find ridiculous. In the case of visual art, there are museums filled with blank canvases and pages from books. And many people think it is completely ridiculous to have blank canvases to be considered artistic. It doesn’t take any skill to leave a canvas blank, right? Unlike visual art, you don’t need to go to a museum to be subjected to music. There is music playing in the background of television shows, in the lobby of doctor’s offices, and echoing down the aisles of grocery stores. Since music is nearly inescapable, it is under the most scrutiny when it comes to modern arts.
One thing that is important when thinking about the word experimental is knowing that experimental is a relative word. What is experimental for someone may be completely unoriginal for another based on what is happening in that art right now. And by definition experimental means, “involving a radically new and innovative style”. Let’s use Pink Floyd for example. At the time albums like “Meddle” or “The Wall” were released, those albums would have been considered experimental. Arguably, no artist up until that point had made an album as psychedelic as Meddle and The Wall is considered the first concept album to ever get released. While everyone looks at those albums in retrospect saying how great they are, upon their release not everyone liked or understood what Floyd was doing. Melody Maker said Meddle sounded like “a soundtrack to a non-existent movie”, and Robert Christgau said The Wall was “too-kitschy minimal maximalism with sound effects and speech fragments”.
There is probably a myriad of reasons these critics didn’t like these albums, but there is a chance the albums took them off guard because they were expecting something different than what they heard. We can relate this to when a kid tries a certain food for the first time. If you were to give a kid a tomato and say it is similar to ketchup, the kid would have a high expectation of what it would taste like. This same kid would probably come to find they do not like the tomato, not because it is a bad tomato, but because they were expecting it to taste like ketchup. Later in their life, that child will mature and come to like the taste of tomatoes.
Let’s apply the same principle to art. Let us take Kanye West for example. I know you’re probably rolling your eyes right now because it is admittedly hard to take anything he does seriously nowadays. Before Kanye had a complete lack of self control when it came to expressing himself in the media, his music addressed very serious social issues including the importance of religion, stereotypical living circumstances, and tackling why people are self conscious. He even advocated for sexual equality in 2005 when he said, “Like, seriously that’s really discrimination. To me that’s exactly what they used to do to black people. And I’m just trying to tell people just stop all that”. Because of reasons like this, Kanye is considered one of the most progressive musicians of his time.
When Kanye released his fourth album 808’s and Heartbreak, fans were absolutely torn about what they thought about him. There are may critics that praised this album upon its release, but there were many hardcore fans of Kanye that did not like this album at all. With this album, Kanye exposed his most personal feelings and started to sing. These were not only new things for West, but these were new ideas to rap as a genre. After this album was released, a slew of rappers started to take the aesthetic of the album and apply it to their own work. In 2014 Rolling Stone declared 808’s and Heartbreak one of the top 40 most groundbreaking albums ever.
All of this goes to show that polarizing art is not always received right away. This also shows that art which pushes the envelope can pave a way for the art that comes after it. Pink Floyd was the first band to conceive a concept album, and now concept albums are very common. Kanye West proved that it was acceptable to show your soft side in rap music which was something that rappers rarely did before he did. Experimental art may not draw many similarities to it’s predecessors, but that does not make it bad. Just because art does not make sense does not mean it is meaningless.
Mithen, Steven J. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. 1st ed. Vol. 16. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006. Print.