Something I’ve been thinking about…

Art (and therefore music), at it’s foundational level, is expression through non-standard means.  For example, email correspondence isn’t artistic, but poetry is.  Even though both email and poetry use the printed word, nobody uses poetic cadence and rhetoric when all they want to do is deliver facts.  Similarly, singing to someone can provide a different message than simply speaking to them.  So art is expression of more than just facts, and it uses more than just language.

It seems to me that the advantage in using non-standard means to communicate artistically is that art aims at an emotional level, not just a factual one.  In other words, when artists work at making their art, they are striving to communicate emotion.  Artistic mediums provide a new/unusual method of communication (over standard communication), which lends itself to the expression of emotion rather than facts.

That’s my starting point in this discussion.  Bear with me for now if you happen to disagree with any of that.

What I’m really thinking about in this post is how to determine an artist’s success at communicating the emotion they intend to communicate.  My thoughts on this are stemming from last weekend’s discussion on good songwriting.  If we are to call songwriting an art form (which I wholeheartedly do), then as we attempt to judge the effectiveness of the art we are really just trying to determine the artist’s success in communicating emotion.  Regarding that, I think we have to recognize a few different levels of artistic success.  Here’s what I’ve come up with…

Level One: “Get It Off You Chest”
Artists don’t make art simply to make money.  If that’s what you do then you are merely an entrepreneur and a business.  True artists always make their art because they have an emotion that they want to express, so the first level of success in that effort revolves around the artist as an individual.  Does the artist feel like they said what they wanted to say?  Does this song send the message that you wanted it to send in the way you wanted to send it?  For me, as a drummer, I always immediately feel good or bad about a performance – like I either accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, or I didn’t.  I don’t really need to talk to anyone in the audience in order to determine how my heart feels about the performance.  The first level of success in art is achieved when the artist feels good about their work.

Level Two: “Somebody Else Gets It”
The next stage in successful art is realizing that other people now feel the way you felt when you made the art.  So, if a songwriter is sad, and they write a song that they think communicates sadness, and people listen to it and become sad, then the songwriter has achieved this second level of artistic success.

Level Three: “Other People Not only Get It, They Like It”
This level of artistic success mostly revolves around subjective taste and other people’s opinions.  For instance, if I have an emotion in mind that I want to communicate, and I perform something that I feel successfully communicates the emotion, and the emotion is successfully communicated to others… and they couldn’t care less… then I’ve failed at the third level.  In other words, people can get what you’re saying without digging it.  If they understand your message AND they like it, then you’ve achieved the third level of artistic success.

Level Four: “Everybody Loves It”
This level of success is pretty self-explanatory, and is normally parallel to fame and fortune.  Somebody who makes art that everybody loves will soon be a big deal.  The Beatles, for instance, are almost universally loved, and it’s because they achieved the fourth level of artistic success.

Now, the interesting part to me in all this is that the levels of artistic success aren’t a ladder.  Despite my misleading use of the word “level,” you don’t have to accomplish the lowest one in order to get to the higher ones, which I think provides important clarification on the “good songwriting” issue.  I constantly hear about bands who are not happy with the music they write/produce, but they keep doing it because so many other people like it.  In addition, most well-known artists have to deal with the fact that many listeners get things out of their songs that they never intended (i.e. they like it, but for different reasons than the writer likes it).

It seems important that these varying levels of artistic success be considered in weighing “good songwriting,” or even “good art” in general.

UPDATE: Another Twin Cities music blogger read this post, picked up the baton on the idea, and re-wrote the four levels in a very clarifying way.  Nice work, Ari.  You can read his full post here, but the meat of it is below…

Level 1: Reach Yourself
What you created are satisfying and fulfilling to you, the artist.  You feel good enough about it that you start to share with other people.  This is the foundation of artistic success — of course, perfection is seldom attained, but we must be good enough so that we ourselves think our output is satisfactory.

Level 2: Reach Others
When other people like what you like, then you have created an effective piece of art.  It communicates something.  Now, what is being communicated is in the eye of the beholder — ultimately, it is a self-conversation that is sparked by the art inside the receiver’s head.  But the more people get it, the better, at this level.

Level 3: Reach Experts
Elementary art is easier to understand, but it takes a certain level of mastery to reach others who are experienced/masters in the art.  Now, these “experts” don’t necessarily mean other artists — they can include critics, fanatics, and other enthusiasts.  When you start to reach these people, you begin to be regarded as a mature artist.  But many artists who reach this level, unfortunately, lose touch with the foundation and cease to create art that can also be appreciated by the mass/uninitiated.

Level 4: Reach Everyone Where They Are At
This is the ultimate, and only precious few artists attain this level.  The Beatles, Beethoven, Bach…. they were able to create art that the uninitiateds and enthusiasts alike marvel at, for different reasons.  It has layers that appeal to more people, wherever they are at.