Artists As Foragers

William Easterly in yesterday’s Post:

For so many of my generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Lennon was a hero, not just for his music but for his fearless activism against the Vietnam War. … The closest counterpart to Lennon now is U2’s Bono, … championing … the battle against global poverty. But there is a fundamental difference between Lennon’s activism and Bono’s. … Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not. Lennon’s protests against the war in Vietnam so threatened the U.S. government that he was hounded by the FBI, police and immigration authorities. … Bono, by contrast, … does not challenge power but rather embraces it; he is more likely to appear in photo ops with international political leaders – or to travel through Africa with a Treasury secretary. … There is something inherently noble about the celebrity dissident, but there is something slightly ridiculous about the celebrity wonk. (more)

If you thought artists had special insight into politics, policy, or their underlying morality, and so sought political info from them, you would not presume to know the info they had to convey in particular cases. You would wait to hear from them if they thought any particular power should be supported or criticized. Instead Easterly here is disappointed that today’s artist celebrities criticize today’s policies, not its powers, because he thinks artists should always criticize power. Artists are so much not info sources to Easterly as allies he wants to rely on to support his anti-power political side. Why?

Artists are iconic foragers, seen as promiscuous, leisurely, non-materialistic, non-domineering, well-traveled, etc. In our great political conflicts between forager and farmer styles, we expect artists to take the forager side. So Easterly complains that the politics of celebrities like Bono doesn’t seem sufficiently forager-like. The great divide continues.

More Easterly quotes:

In the 19th century, the celebrity activists were not musicians but writers. Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other authors loudly supported the abolitionist crusade against slavery. … Mark Twain denounced American imperialism and atrocities. …

Bono … believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise – doing things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants or solar-powered drip irrigation. … Bono is not the only well-intentioned celebrity wonk of our age – the impulse is ubiquitous. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (seriously) in addition to serving as a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Ben Affleck has become an expert on the war in Congo. George Clooney has Sudan covered, while Leonardo DiCaprio hobnobs with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at a summit to protect tigers; both actors have written opinion essays on those subjects in these pages, further solidifying their expert bona fides.

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  • Marcus

    Bono and Lennon: A sample size of 2.

    Because I listen to a wide range of music I have some bias, so I’ll enlarge the sample size using only the top headliners from one of the top music festivals of 2010:

    LCD Soundsystem: Heavy critics, semi-abstract
    Them Crooked Vultures: Not sure
    Muse: A little weak, but arguably more substantive than Bono
    Faith No More: Heavy critics
    Tiesto: Kind of like Bono, “let’s just love everyone”, but still critics
    MGMT: Heavy critics but using an abstract technique
    Pavement: Not sure
    Gorillaz: Highly respected and heavy critics of power
    Thom Yorke: Highly respected and heavy critics of power

    Headliners at the major festivals are considered the top tier at any given time, especially if you sample over say three years, you’ll pretty much hit anyone who’s anyone with the exception of the top 40 of the year. It’s very interesting to explore their lyrics for a perspective of what’s going on. Gorillaz at present is mostly anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism, and anti-racism toward Arabs message. Thom Yorke is pretty much the same and only slightly more abstract.

    In general it’s safer to use the large music festivals as an accurate gauge of who’s influential in a given year because they more or less don’t advertise. Stadium shows on the other hand are supported by a much larger commercial ecosystem with significant amounts of multi-channel advertising which artificially alters their relative influence upwards.

    Now, looking at the top-40 it’s an interesting picture, there’s I have two teenage daughters who both bounce around the top-40 and indie, so I benefited by learning about what’s going on in the highly commercial world, and the social criticism is certainly there, and often much stronger than Bono’s and often enough actually criticizing Bono in their own lyrics. And some big names are putting out some social critiques in particular, and their message seems to be getting across, at least from very lightweight observations. For example Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lada Gaga, and Beyonce all have a focused message lately that even appears coordinated, perhaps subconsciously. And well packaged to appeal to a cross section of cultures.

    • burger flipper

      Faith No More heavy critics? I missed that. (But not as much as I miss the likes of Angel Dust)

    • Robert Koslover

      Marcus, thanks for making me feel really, really old. So those groups are the “top headliners from one of the top music festivals of 2010?” Sigh. I don’t recognize any of their names.

      • Chuck

        Do some searches on them on
        MGMT’s Indie Rokkers is one of the best songs of the last decade.
        I would like to comment that Tiesto really is the current mainstream personafied. Faith No More are outdated.

  • Marcus

    Speaking more to the point of how direct an artist should speak: that can be a live grenade, and he may be overestimating the influence of artists once they venture out of their artistic zone. Even Lennon was derided and marginalized plenty as he became more vocal.

    And then there is the simple obviousness that people are different. Bono has a platform, but he also has a personality that is clearly not interested in anything other than what he’s doing. One could may any number of guesses why, but that’s beside the point.

    Just enlarge the sample size.

  • Marcus

    Sorry, just have to add, does this perhaps say more about what William Easterly is *looking for*.

    Just like your post says what you’re looking for, as you fit his perspective into your perspective that artists are foragers. Which I fully agree with, although don’t just look at the artist, look at who they are playing to because that’s who it’s designed for. It’s pretty clear that the many subcultures surrounding the arts, particularly the less commercial than Bono arts, are forager communities. And many are also reactionary. I live in an area with a lot of tribes, this place could easily be a petri dish for 21st century western tribal culture.

  • It may be my technocratophillic lense, but what Bono, Clooney, etc. are doing (Angelina Jolie is more contradictory) seems to me to be more on the side of angels than Lennon -who seems to be engaged more in hedonic gentrification of the moral high ground.

    Clooney in particular seems to me to be sacrificing hedonic enjoyment for maximizing his impact in improving the larger social welfare. I don’t think he plays the celebrity-as-wonk role, at least in his current incarnation. I think he plays the role of celebrity-bringing-attention-to-wonks, which seems to me to be a virtuous calculation.

    I don’t know enough to know if Bono is as much on the side of angels as Clooney, but he seems obviously more virtuous than Lennon was to me. Although it’s probably a bit unfair to compare across generations, I think it’s necessary when Easterly claims greater virtue for Lennon.

  • Sigivald

    Lennon didn’t threaten “The US government”.

    He threatened Nixon’s re-election, and mostly in Nixon’s mind.

    Easterly is confusing his hippie-era hero worship with real-world efficacy.

    (And Artists are iconic foragers, being promiscuous, leisurely, non-materialistic, non-domineering, well-traveled, etc. ?

    I must assume this is meant not as a description of fact, but of a common stereotype?

    Because as a statement of fact it’s utter bollocks.)

  • Andy McKenzie

    Haven’t agreed with all of your forager vs. farmer stuff, but I think you’re on to something in this particular application.

  • Thursday

    Artists tend to be really high in the personality trait openness to experience so the average artist tends to be on the forager side, but a lot of the very greatest artists seem to be more on the side of farmer values. I suspect that in order to be among the very greatest you have to have a rather deep respect for tradition and restraint, as well as for freedom and innovation.

  • GaryP

    You have an interesting blog but this article is more of a symptom of why our society is so screwed than anything else.

    Traditionally, artists were seen as too disreputable to taken seriously. That attitude was prevalent for a number of reasons but principally because of their lifestyle and habits.

    The lifestyle and habits haven’t changed, however, in the current age of celebrity, we hang on every action and ape every attitude of these people like earlier eras did that of royalty. The morals and accomplishments of royalty and modern celebrities are roughly equivalent.

    While I can understand why children idolize ball players (or tweenie singers, or whatever) why any adult cares one whit about what opinions celebrities hold on any important subject is beyond me.

    One can admire their singing, their acting or their athletic ability but why their views on life, politics, scientific issues or world events are treated with such respect shows the intellectual vacuousness of our society. Their opinion is validated by nothing other than their celebrity and the desire of “fans” to think (as well as dress and live) like the fantasy alter ego that the celebrity seems to represent in our degenerate age.

    Read and try to think for yourself. Don’t let the fact that these people can play a scientist, a lawyer, a president and the pope all very convincingly trick you into thinking they combine the attributes and knowledge of all these people into a more charming package.

    Our society seems to regress more and more into childishness. I guess the perpetual children with the most toys seem like great role models in that case but we need adults leading, assuming we can find any. Jeez!

  • Some readers may be interested in how Lennon’s views changed near the end of his (short) life. Via, oddly enough, the American Conservative.

    burger flipper, a really early Faith No More song is “We Care a Lot” which mocks celebrities like Bono & Geldof who pose as trying to save the world.

    Sigivald, art students have more sex than other majors, and it is a notoriously unrenumerative career, which starving artists purportedly put up with because they love their craft more than money. I suppose really good & dedicated artists are not that leisurely. Don’t have much to say about non-domineering & well traveled.

  • Evan

    This relates to a theory I’ve had that for some reason artistic types tend to be high in Neuroticism (or vice versa). Bryan Caplan has pointed out that neurotic people tend to be left-wing and anti-market and I’ve noticed that stereotypes about artists include that they’re emotional, impulsive, and have a lot of mood swings (i.e. neurotic).

    Some other evidence of this comes from the SF field, which is famous for having a strong libertarian tendency, rather than the leftism of most of the other arts. Most of the writers from the Golden Age were fairly emotionally stable people, and tended to write stories that glorified science and reason and were often distrustful of power. However, in the 60s a movement called the New Wave emerged when a large amount of “mainstream” and “experimental” artists emerged into the SF. These authors were much less emotionally stable and tended to be of the far left. The stable, libertarianish community of authors have since reasserted themselves in the field.

    So does being neurotic make you more forager-like, or more artistic?

  • …art students have more sex than other majors, and it is a notoriously unrenumerative career, which starving artists purportedly put up with because they love their craft more than money. I suppose really good & dedicated artists are not that leisurely. Don’t have much to say about non-domineering & well traveled.

    I live with a bunch artists. Very true. Zero lack of interest in commitment is some times substituted for promiscuity, which are related, but the the non-materialism is spot on. I suppose one could say artists are alternatively materialistic, in that they fetishize commodities like, say, some vintage synthesizer or a dusty old book on an obscure topic, but we all know what is meant by “non-materialistic.” These people are alienated by popular culture, don’t own televisions and would rather live without central heating to save some scratch.

    As for traveling, not all can afford it, as their time preference some times prevents them from saving just enough to go road tripping…on acid (lol), but generally speaking yes I’ve noticed this.

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