Music, Pop Culture

Can Musicians Be Artists Too?


I have a Google Alerts set up for David Byrne.

Unfortunately, a lot of people on this planet are named David Byrne.

Sometimes I am alerted of news stories about David Byrne the musician.

Like about how the soundtrack for “This Must be the Place” has been released, even though the movie hasn’t been released yet because it supposedly sucks ass. It upsets me that something named after the greatest song on the planet can supposedly suck butt so badly.

Most of the alerts are crap, but once in a blue moon I get an interesting story about David Byrne in my inbox. One that caught my attention recently was from the Spectator Arts Blog (an UK publication) and titled “An Inflated Sense of Their Own Artistry“. In it, the writer, Niru Ratnam, lambasts musicians like David Byrne, Ron Wood, Iggy Pop and David Bowie for- get ready for it- making art!

Imagine for a moment the following grouping: David Bowie, the former Clash bass player Paul Simonon, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and Bon Jovi’s drummer Tico Torres. What do you get? Not just a creaky rock super-group – but also a shockingly bad group exhibition. For all four musicians, along with the likes of Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop and David Byrne, fancy themselves as artist and are more than happy to display their wares in public,” writes Ratnam.

I can’t speak for the other musicians/artists, but I know for one that David Byrne is one of the busiest thinkers, creators and artists out there.

David Byrne went to Rhode Island School of Design, honed his chops in East Village late 70’s, has written numerous pop, classical and Latin records, has written and directed a movie, has written multiple books, has designed bike racks, won an Oscar- and the list goes on and on.

If David Byrne doesn’t optimize the word “artist”, then who does?

David Byrne’s work has never been a display of genius- though maybe one can argue that his discography is pretty impressive. He is no Da Vinci or Picasso or Van Gogh. What David Byrne is good at is making his audience think outside the box. Think differently about the world we live in. David Byrne sees the norm in a unique light and he wants to share that with his audience. His film True Stories has slowly but surely worked it’s way up to cinematic masterpiece status with Byrne’s equally subtle and flamboyant take on Texas life and culture. His songs are both abstract and relatable. “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down“- what does it mean? Who the hell knows, but deep down we understand.

What else makes David Byrne an artist? He’s never given up. He’s always evolving and trying something new. Sometimes they’re stinkers and sometimes they’re not, but he keeps trying.

I slightly understand where the writer is coming from- it’s easy to attack celebrities when they try to do something other than what we’re used to them doing, but celebrities are creative people. Why should they ONLY be good at one thing? Can’t they be musicians AND artists AND actors AND writers? Why do we have to attack them if they go outside their box? Unless it’s Heidi Montag or Paris Hilton recording albums- but they’re not masters of any craft to begin with.

Ratnam states, “Of course, it’s unfair to expect rock-stars to be any good as artists. They haven’t been through the filtering process of the postgraduate school and the commercial gallery system that gets rid of 98 per cent of prospective artists. Instead, most have been to art school at undergraduate level but made it no further.” So, just because you haven’t gone to art school at the graduate level makes you not an artist? I’d say it makes you silly for spending that much money on an art degree! To me, hanging out with the artists of 70’s East Village is priceless compared to an art degree. Meeting thousands of artists, creative people and human beings through your decades-long career of touring the world as a musician and having countless life experiences definitely puts you ahead of what anyone can teach you in art school.

What do you think? Do you agree with Ratnam? Do you think most musicians are artistic hacks?


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  • Reply TB December 1, 2011 at 2:58 am

    Wow. That guy’s an idiot. Music is an art in itself, and the fact that this guy thinks that one must complete some sort of a vetting to be called an artist just shows you how little he knows about art.

    Artists are writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers…and not just the ones who are making a living at it. Maybe he doesn’t think David Byrne is a great painter, but I doubt David Byrne gives a crap what this reporter thinks anyway. That’s the thing about artists: we don’t create for other people, we do it for ourselves.

    • Reply hipstercrite December 1, 2011 at 4:05 pm

      Haha. Excellent way of putting it!

  • Reply Courtney December 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    I’m sorry, but this is bullshit. (Also, I’ve loved David Byrne for a very long time, so I’m afraid I’m a bit biased.)

    On the one hand, someone who is famous for one thing, in this case music, will obviously having an easier time getting into another area, say acting or art. They can utilize their fame for music to open doors for them that may have otherwise been difficult to break into.

    But that’s not to say that their other artistic endeavors lack merit. This might be true for some, but to make the broad generalization that this is true of all musicians who make art…well, it makes the writer of the article sound stupid.

    Also, advocating the “filtering process of art school” just sounds elitist. Also also, plenty of legit, well-regarded artists have been called hacks by others, so I think that should be taken with a grain of salt.

    • Reply hipstercrite December 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm

      I’m a little biased too, but I think the article is ridiculous. It was really ballsy of the writer to say what he did. I always appreciate when journalists share there opinion, but that wasn’t even well thought out.

  • Reply Ben December 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    This journalist sounds like someone who’s bitter about his own failed MFA in art. On the other hand, I understand where he comes from. I think David Byrne is himself a super interesting all-around artist, but I definitely identify with that suspicion of already-famous people branching out just because they know they’ll have an audience. You could argue that it hurts art made by non-celebrities, just as the current trend of movie stars on Broadway (they didn’t used to) makes things worse for working actors who aren’t movie stars.
    I guess I’m bothered by this guy’s attitude because there are plenty of legit reasons to hate on the exhibit… but he doesn’t seem that legit.

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