Last October I had the privilege of experiencing three piece experimental hip-hop act Death Grips at The Academy in Dublin. Before materialising on the stage, a droning synth scaled ad infinitum in crescendo. The nauseating effect on the crowd started to cause noticeable discomfort as anxious concert goers demanded the performers emerge. It sounded like a hyper extended intro to one of their own songs, “Inanimate Sensation”. When they finally appeared they didn’t even open with that song. Death Grips produced an avant-garde adrenaline fuelled performance that for many appeared to be a transcendental experience. No other band has pushed the creative envelope as much as Death Grips have in the last six years, and seeing them perform live brought home how important they are as poetic theatrical artists. Their Beckettian theatrics and wonderful cryptic lyrics combined to form a unique narrative.
It was a beautiful coincidence then that as I ventured home by train I read the news that Bob Dylan was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. While many people praised the decision and hoped it showed a new modernising approach to the infamously anachronistic Nobel committee, for many it was an erroneous decision. That one cannot see the poetic worth of Dylan is staggering. Other than Seamus Heaney, Bob Dylan is arguably the greatest poet of the last fifty years (admittedly this is my own biased opinion). For many the argument was that musicians are separate from poets and writers. This reductionist pap was countered best by a twitter comment from New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch:
“it’s been a big mistake to consider the lyrics of influential blind singer-song-writer & lyre player Homer as literature.”
Interestingly the majority of writers seemed to praise the awarding, bar a Will Self here and there. Most of the scorn came from critics or those offended on behalf of people who can actually create.
Why are people so afraid of the new? When film first started to take off in popularity the censors did all they could to prevent people from actually seeing films. In Ireland they would not allow adult only certificates for decades, as they felt it would encourage children to see salacious material (Martin 153). A similar ‘’logic’’ reappeared nearly a hundred years later with certain countries taking decades to adopt adult only certificates for computer games for much the same reason. The logic went something like, ‘if we restrict these artists’ works to adults, children will still get access, therefore we shall have no restrictions allowing them to experience them unimpeded.’
People fear the new in art even though it is actually not ‘new’ at all. Art is ever evolving techniques for constructing narratives. However the underlining narratives are merely reproductions and new ways of saying the same things our species have been saying for thousands of years. People made facetious comparisons to awarding the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Sting and so on after Dylan’s award was announced. That fundamental misunderstanding belies the ignorance of poetry and art in general. Much like dismissing Homer as a singer-song-writer lyre enthusiast, it is equally ignorant to think of someone as influential as Dylan as ‘just a songwriter’.
Much of the reticence to accept Dylan’s nomination stems from a penchant for categorisation. He does not fit into the intended category for many people – hence the facetious analogies. I would imagine these people would equally dismiss Death Grips or the idea that computer games can tell wonderful stories.
Computer games have developed along similar lines to film in the early twenties and thirties. People spent the first few years seeing what they could physically do. Subsequently they began marketing the created works for profit, categorising the different kinds of creations and exploring the nature of the art form. Gaming now has excellent meta-narratives like that of Undertale, which is a game about games, or Hotline Miami which is a hyper violent game about how boring debates on violence in gaming are.
The times they are a changing, and the times they are the same. We reject the perceived ‘new’ because for many the unknown is scary. But in reality the new has been with us all along. Opening up to new experiences and not limiting yourself to one form of story telling will allow for a far richer experience of narrative. Not everyone has to enjoy Death Grips, agree that Bob Dylan deserves his award or that gaming is a worthwhile art form. However, closing yourself off to self contained categories is absurd and limiting what could be a limitless enjoyment of endless creative potential.
Martin, Peter. Censorship In The Two Irelands 1922-1939. Irish Academic Press, 2006.
@PGourevitch “it’s been a big mistake to consider the lyrics of influential blind singer-song-writer & lyre player Homer as literature.” Twitter, 13 Oct. 2016, 12:10p.m., twitter.com/pgourevitch/status/786645288517853184.