By Wil Forbis
(Before I get into the nuts and bolts here I need to clarify my use of the term art in this piece. I use it to denote all forms of art---paintings, film, comics, books, music and so on. I am not just referring to the visual arts, which the term is often limited to.)
I came of age during the heyday of the D.I.Y. movement. D.I.Y., of course, stands for "do it yourself" and the acronym lorded over a specific aesthetic of art and culture that was popular in the late 20th century. It's hard to clearly summarize the D.I.Y.* concept in a paragraph but it generally stood for the idea that it was better to make rough, simple art than to make well produced art that needed to be validated by the mainstream to be considered successful. If you were a musician, the D.I.Y. ethos screamed, "don't wait to be signed to a slick record label, just record your own album." If you made comics, it said, "don't wait for Marvel to hire you, go out and produce and sell your own comics." If you made movies, "just make movies, even cheaply, and get them out there!" was the order of the day.
* The acronym is still around though I feel it's lost some of its rebellious flair. I was just in a auto parts store and noticed some D.I.Y. windshield wipers.
The D.I.Y. movement was doubtless responsible for a lot of the art and music that came out of the 80s and 90s. I remember reading how Les Claypool, founder of breakout band Primus, borrowed money from his dad to record his first album. Much of the music out the Northwest, from Nirvana to Bikini Kill, wore the D.I.Y flag proudly. Comic artist Dan Clowes, who went on to develop the movie "Ghost World" and draw covers for the New Yorker, started with an essentially self-produced comic called Eightball (which I love to this day.) Zines---self-produced, often photocopied periodicals---flourished during this time. D.I.Y. cinema thrived under the helm of indie auteurs.
There was a political aspect to D.I.Y. It was an art movement of the left, as most are. More specifically it was a movement against corporate control of entertainment and culture. And I'm the first to agree that it was sorely needed. While I feel the culture of 80s gets unfairly maligned, it is doubtless true that much of the era's entertainment lacked excitement, innovation or gravitas. There was a tendency towards safe, formulaic music and art and it was exactly this trend that D.I.Y. challenged.
Music offers a good arena for specific analysis. I'm on the record as being a big fan of 80s hard rock. Bands like Guns-n-Roses, Metallica and Van Halen put down some awesome shit in those days. The problem was that, after their success, the music industry signed every hair sprayed, hackneyed heavy metal band they could find. Instead of 5-10 great bands in circulation there were suddenly 50-100 mediocrities. Separating the wheat from the chafe became a monumental task. So it was no great crime when many of these bands were suddenly challenged by more organic, less formulaic acts like The Melvins or Faith No More, groups closer to the D.I.Y aesthetic.
But, as the title denotes, I think there was a dark side to D.I.Y. Part of my problem is that I think D.I.Y. makes an argument, however implicit, that D.I.Y. art should be considered good simply for being D.I.Y. That art should not be judged simply on its own merit, but judgment should be colored by the observation that the D.I.Y. practice is in play. To give examples, the argument says we should view a D.I.Y. comic as being better than a Marvel because it is the work of an independent auteur. We should view our neighbors in a struggling punk band as being better than Katy Perry because they are a struggling punk band. In this view, the trappings of D.I.Y. products, which usually are a certain kind of cheapness, low quality materials, unrefined technique and so on are actually preferable to their more traditional counterparts.
There's some legitimacy to this point of view. I would argue that a cheaply printed zine probably is "better" than People magazine or Rolling Stone. But I would be less inclined to say it's better than The New Yorker. And I would not argue the zine is better than some celebrity obsessed shitstain of a magazine like People merely because of the zine's cheapness. Rather I would argue it is better because zine writing is often bolder and certainly free from the sales agenda of a mainstream mag. Of course, there are plenty of zines that are actually worse than People. Simply being unattached to corporate machinery does not a genius make and just because something is glossy, or refined, or produced in a skilled manner does not mean it is bad.
There's a kind of corollary debate here that I would call Minimalism versus Hackism. To explain that, let me first define my terms.
Minimalism is an aesthetic with a long history, and it argues that beauty, truth and the usual goals of art can be found by simplifying, pruning, and breaking artistic productions down to their raw components*. In visual art, this might be done by presenting raw and basic shapes and simple colors. In writing it may involve simplifying language. With music, it's be about going for less ornamental melodies and less ostentatious arrangements.
* I'm fully aware this definition of minimalism doesn't perfectly match the definition of the term as used in the visual arts (e.g. the art movement from the 1950s forward) and many could bicker with it. This is mainly my personal definition though I think it aligns with other people's thoughts.
Like D.I.Y. there's a political aspect to minimalism. High art (and by this I mean sophisticated, often ornamental and usually non-minimalistic art) does require a certain amount of education to fully appreciate. (For example, to fully appreciate the work of Hieronymus Bosch one must have a good understanding of the Christian symbolism of his era, plus uses of allegory, satire etc. You can't just look at it.) This education is out of the reach of the poor and the lower class*. Minimalist art speaks on a more immediate level and can thus can be appreciated by those without the education needed for high art. Minimalist art in this sense is more egalitarian, more "equal access." And minimalist art is often (not always) easier to produce than high art. It's easier to paint a Mondrian than a Renoir.
* This isn't so true anymore, with the advent of the internet, but has been for most of history.
To return to music for examples: I would consider Minimalist rock bands to be The Talking Heads, Devo, Depeche Mode and those of similar ilk. Unlike, say Led Zeppelin and Metallica, these bands stripped rock music down to a bare bones, simple presentation. A lot of punk and rap could also be considered minimalist.
So what is hackism (my term)? Like minimalism, it is simple, unostentatious, and easy to comprehend. But hackist art is not created in a simple form in the interest of making a political or aesthetic point but rather out of laziness.
You are likely now saying, "how, Wil, does one tell the difference between minimalism and hackism? How can one tell the intent behind the art?" Well, uh, it's very difficult. For one thing, the two philosophies probably regularly stew together in the same piece of work. By this I mean a creator or group of creators can fluctuate between minimalist and hackist inclinations during the creative process. For example a film maker might start a simple, minimalist film with the purist of intentions and then run out of money and throw together a hacky ending. A musician may attempt a large scale work and hit a creative wall and attempt to wrap things up with a minimalist facade. (I've been guilty of this.)
On top of this, all art is fundamentally subjective so whether something is minimalist or hackist is in the eye of the beholder. One person may see a brilliant aesthetic statement in a work while another sees the output of a lazy bastard. (The aforementioned Mondrian is often caught in this debate.)
Nonetheless, I trust my artistic judgments. When I feel like I see hackism, and I do fairly often, I disparage it and cast it into the pool of mediocrity.
So is there some take-away from all of this? A lesson to be learned? I would hope that as a society we begin to recognize artists that use D.I.Y. and minimalism as an excuse for weak production values and cast these artists into a volcano filled with shame (and lava). But that will probably not happen. However I think artists can guard themselves from these tendencies. And consumers of art can cast a critical eye on artistic products in an attempt to ensure that sophisticated and refined art is not damned simply for being so.
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Wil Forbis is a
well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending
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he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.