The question many artists are compelled to ask themselves at one point in their artistic careers is; what can I do to make my art more appealing to my fans? This question is usually an afterthought to another question every artist who feels they aren’t achieving the romanticized success we all believe artists who are at the height of their careers revel in. A question of why am I not as popular as I’d imagined I would be when I began my career in the arts? As many artists ponder on these questions and consider the stakes they have in their art, interesting choices present themselves, choices that ultimately determine the quality of the careers of these artists.
The first one is the choice to create art with a purpose, an underlying message in it, a message that exposes society to itself and forces us to address uncomfortable truths about our condition. Art that questions our hypocrisy, our unconscious biases, and the darker side of our humanity and our world, a side that we often prefer to repress. Art that makes us feel unwanted emotions like resentment, guilt, anger and stirs up discomfort and shame.
We fondly refer to this kind of art as ‘conscious art’. However, with this kind of art, there is an inherent risk, it lives on the critical side of life where fun comes to die. No one likes to be reminded all the time that we live in a highly corrupt and unequal society. No one likes to be reminded of the amount of work we need to put in to move our world closer to what we idealise as a perfect world. Instead, we prefer to be distracted from these hard ‘truths’ and perhaps this is why we subconsciously resent the guts of artists who have the audacity to keep reminding us of these issues from time to time. Maybe this explains why we have pushed these artists to the periphery of our society and labelled them as ‘underground artists’, the same way we have repressed the uncomfortable message they compulsively share with us through their art.
The second choice always sounds much more appealing. With this choice, the artist sees the risk of the first choice and makes a conscious decision not to follow that damned narrow path. Instead, he chooses a more acceptable form of art, art which I will refer to as ‘populist art’. Populist art is appealing to the creative because it satisfies a core need every artist arguably has, that of validation. In pursuit of this validation from the fans, the artist packages himself attractively to gain maximum appeal. He follows the latest fashion trends, courts controversy and negative publicity because at the end of the day, negative publicity is still publicity. His fans love him (or love to hate him) for two reasons, one, because they can control him. Control is seductive, and he has given away this control to his fans and made a subtle promise to always dance to their subjective tune of what’s hot and what’s not. Ultimately, their wishes are his commands. Perhaps this is what we mean when we say ‘he sold his soul to the devil’. The fans are the devil, and the artist willingly gives out his soul by showing them that he is willing to do anything to please them. Who would resist the allure of wielding such power?
Reason two is because populist art is a distraction from the painful awareness of our conscious existence and the crisis it presents to us. Picture yourself in a popular club in this city, it is Friday night, and you have intentions of unwinding after a long week, forgetting all your troubles and giving away control to the intoxicating hold of alcohol, glamour and the promise of getting laid by the end of that night. On the decks, the DJ is playing a set of music with no lyrical content but the beat is so good you can’t help but shake your head to the rhythm…
Now contrast this to the option of chilling indoors, still on a Friday night, but this time, the only choice you have is some reflective hardcore hip hop music from ‘Kitu Sewer’. Which option would you fall for?
You can argue that for many of us, it is easy to move in between consuming conscious art and populist art depending on the mood and setting, for there are times when all you want to do is unwind over a cup of coffee and a good book whose content is our political history, and there are times when you’d rather hit the club and whine your body to the beat of a song whose lyrics do not make sense to you in any other setting. There are times when mood dictates that if you must read anything then it would have to be something comical and ‘meme-ical’ as opposed to a depressing book on institutionalized corruption in our country. And we should have the freedom to traverse these various forms of art at will, and fortunately, as consumers of art, we can have our cake and eat it.
However, creators of art do not enjoy the same kind of priviledge. Can an artist move between the realms of ‘conscious art’ and ‘populist art’ at will and still maintain his authenticity as as creator or will he be dismissed as being unsettled and unsure of his craft?
As a final note, is an artist obligated to create art that compels us to look at the critical issues in society, or can he use his talent to pursue fame and publicity? Are these two pursuits mutually exclusive? As much as I hold nothing against artists who pursue popularity, fame and publicity exclusively, it would be pretentious to not point out the gap that has been left on the other side of the coin, the side where fun comes to die, where we are forced to relive the pain and trauma of our human condition and allow for transition to healing. This is why art should be more conscious, even if it seems less appealing at first.