THE ARTIST'S ROLE IN SOCIETY
Every successful dictator/control freak/power monger knows that the masses can be controlled if the catalysts of freethinking are removed. That is why in any repressive movement it is the artists, regardless of their race, ethnicity or religious affiliation, that are neutralized first.... either by physical or mental imprisonment. Without the artistic community and their works, urging society to remain open minded and examine all issues from all points of view, the controlling powers can easily sell their ideas with little resistance.
Artists are scary. They celebrate individualism. They portray the nuances and emotions of life in abstract terms. Music is the most abstract art form and improvised music creates the intangible in the moment. An artist's mission is not to entertain although entertainment can be a desired by-product. Their mission is to give the receiver of the artistic statement emotions and impressions to reflect upon. Whether the receiver likes or dislikes the statement is secondary.
This is an enormous point of confusion. Often an artistic statement's worth is judged by its marketing ability and selling power. Unfortunately, the lower the quality, the higher the sales. (for a great dissertation on the subject of quality please read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). Although there are some incredible artists in the pop music (the Beatles, James Taylor, Steely Dan, Moby, the Police), they are in the minority. And, in the era of formula bands, the same franchise business groupings every five miles and the lowest quality food being offered, society is loosing its taste and appreciation for diversity and quality.
A major reason for this is the stressful everyday with little time available for contemplation and reflection. Listening to Coltrane at the Village Vanguard or a Bruckner Symphony is rewarding and enriching in the long term, but it's easier and more comforting to play something familiar that one can sing along with. And again, there is nothing wrong with entertainment statements, but the balance is way out of proportion.
The artist's role in society is to remedy that balance by making statements that demand attention. Statements that inspire the receiver to examine a subject from all angles, that encourage confidence in one's own interpretation and that encourage flexibility and allow change in those interpretations. Otherwise, a society will base its group decisions on 10 second sound-bites, half-truths and fear-based initiatives. The loudest voice will be assumed truthful and, most tragic of all, beauty, the underlying common denominator in all art, will go unappreciated.
At a workshop in Reno, Nevada a few years back, a gentleman asked me what the point of Re:Animation Live was....a Blue Note recording that I can best describe as free electronica. He said he had listened to the recording several times and still could not figure out what was going on. He said that he didn't even know if he liked it and had to come to the workshop to ask me for an explanation. I replied that he had given me (and Bob Belden) the greatest compliment. Better than great reviews, this is the desired reaction....a musical statement that requires repeated listenings. In fact, I replied that I had no idea what the recording was about either. It was a musical description of how six musicians interpreted their collective life experiences leading to and including that exact moment. I improvised abstract emotional statements that influence the thought process. No wonder artists are so feared.
For students sitting in practice rooms wondering what the point is, for music teachers discouraged that their message may not be valued , for performers who are tired of the hustle and the travel.... please remember....any thing as feared and uncontrollable as art must be an incredibly important force and a vital ingredient for a healthy society and cool place to live.