In the course of a recent discussion, a friend of mine made the observation that the album Tommy, by the Who, was ahead of its time. I began thinking about this, and realized that I could not disagree more completely.
I don’t believe Tommy was ahead of its time at all. I believe it was 200-500 years behind its time. It belongs, in terms of its vision and scope, to an era when people invested HUGE amounts of effort into their artistic endeavors – consider The Sistine Chapel, or Michelangelo’s David, or any of Beethoven’s symphonies. Work of such value, I believe, is not done now for several very important reasons.
First, there is the pace of the market: mass production demands instant art. Art today is disposable. It gets huge exposure – over exposure – and, like a candy bar, it is gets quick consumption. Each piece is old almost before it is discovered, due to the nature of mass media. The pace of the market creates a dilemma: HOW can one create great work, when it will be instantly demolished by over exposure?
Secondly – and this is the obverse of the last point – there is the pace of creativity – again a reflection of mass media. Artifacts are created at a pace that precludes great endeavor. You can’t mass-produce things of great quality. You can make formula work that has a wide appeal, but not great works of art.
Together, these factors have a mortifying effect on artistic endeavor: why labor to create a work of the scope of Tommy, taking many years of work, when Who’s Next will make a comparable amount of money? Why be at pains to create great art, when – in fact – a lesser work may well have greater appeal, simply because it is more amenable to those addicted to disposable music. Gourmet food is wasted on the pallet of people in love with McMusic.
A third reason, more debatable, but I think still valid, is that great art demands a great theme. For many reasons, I think most artists have nothing GREAT to say. They have great ambition, great angst, great anger, great frustration – all of which amount to a great itch. However, they have nearly nothing of any value to say.
I realize some would violently disagree with this third point, but if you think of the theme of Tommy – it’s hugely philosophical. Let’s face it: most artwork today is trivial – hugely farcical.
I wish Tommy had been ahead of its time. We could look forward to great works of art. Instead, I hear the retreating echo of greatness, something lost in the past – while we dine on synthetic morsels that approximate greatness.
Cam Bastedo, reviewer and editor, GOM