Reflections on a comment by David Bowie

“Yes, never play to the gallery. I think. But you never learn that until much later on. But never work for other people at what you do.

Always… remember that the reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt, that if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. And I — I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations; I think they produce — they generally produce their worst work when they do that. And if — the other thing I would say is that if you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in, go a little out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

 – David Bowie, 1997, when asked for advice to artists

Disregarding the irony that he was producing some of his worst work at the time he said that, the quote’s worth inspection. Particularly interesting is the way that Bowie immediately steps over the question of social and personal art, and just goes right ahead and assumes that everyone knows they’re the same thing. Yet there’s something a little presumptuous about the second sentence – the reason many artists started working wasn’t always necessarily because they wanted to understand themselves and society. Occasionally there comes along the rare breed of artist who believes he knows everything. Ha ha ha.

Everything else seems sound, especially for David Bowie. It remains consistent. Which is again ironic, given his love of progression.

Bowie’s unthinkingly created a framework with the second half of the statement which idolises progression in art – if you’re slightly out of your depth the art has the potential to move beyond you and become something universal. Yet he’s consciously made a mistaken assumption that every artist works in a similar way, or could communicate their message better if they were slightly uncomfortable – a notion challenged by Frank Zappa. Zappa knew exactly how he wanted something played and he knew the exact message he wanted to convey and how to convey it. People have called him ‘progressive’ and yet Zappa, in an ’84 interview, discarded the label. He also, interestingly, commented on the major prog rock bands from the previous decade, when asked if they were ‘progressive.’

“King Crimson?”






And so on and so on.

It was confusing until I remembered that the interview had been conducted in ’84, a full decade after many of the bands he mentioned had produced their best work. (Especially Yes.) But, (and here’s the part where I finally get to the distinction between Zappa and Bowie) Zappa didn’t idolise the label of artistic progression for its own sake. His attitude seemed to be something along the lines of ‘even though it wasn’t progressive it wasn’t necessarily bad either’ which fits perfectly in with his sort of free-form approach to classifying art.

Not that it’s a waste of time to classify art – it makes things much easier to discuss – but when I’ve read enough discussions of what ‘progressive rock’ actually means to match the length of a fucking Proust novel the debate becomes a little smaller. It’s the kind of ‘general-public’ debate where a simple heuristic applies. “The more discussion exists, the less of your time it’s worth to wade in.” If everyone on the block’s got an opinion, well, there’s no need for us to have one too. We don’t need to say anything.

We’re all better off the Zappa way – just ignore ‘genre’ and remember art for what it is. This has the added benefit, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by reading this far, of avoiding placing the work into an unnecessary framework and stunting your expectations.

Now I’ve mentioned frameworks an awful lot on this site. And mostly in a disparaging way – I’ve mostly assumed that there’s something limiting about them (which is true) but limits create definitions. So you can, and should, use frameworks to answer questions – it’s just important to note when you’re using them.

What, you might ask, are some reasonable or necessary frameworks? Since it’s impossible and ill-advised to avoid them all, what should we have in mind when approaching art? This is worth its own discussion. If anyone actually decides to read this far, which they probably won’t, they may care to send in their own suggestions. At the moment I can think of:

Context of artist – an absolutely necessary consideration if only to avoid getting offended at crass references to certain racial groups in older books. Context includes the author’s identity (we’ve been over this – Barthes is a moron), personal history, bibliography if they have one (or discography or photography or – previous body of work etc) and society.

Publisher (or record company, or whatever body is responsible for the work outside the artist) – this mostly feeds back into context, but you can apply all the same questions you’ve applied there to the publisher.

Conventions – if you know the conventions of a certain art form you can recognise when a piece fits them – or doesn’t.

The goal here is to approach the work with a mind to ‘getting it’ – it doesn’t matter where you need the information to end up. Maybe you’re writing a review or a report. You might be interested in the work or the movement (New Romantics? Modernism?) for its own sake. And taking the above considerations into account, you’ll get a far better idea of the facts of things than some clod who unthinkingly applies standards to things that don’t need them or that don’t enhance an understanding of them.

The answers this person is looking for are ultimately shielded from view by their own questions.


2 comments on “Reflections on a comment by David Bowie

  1. zumpoems says:

    Very well written!


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