Art Isn’t Dead, We Are

June 6, 2018

I’ve come to know what I call the “millennial applause” and it’s creepy as hell.

Aside from being a snarky blogger on the internet, I play music 3-4 nights a week at local bars and clubs and I’ve been doing it since college. Since my job is to engage the audience, I basically stand in front of a room for 3 hours and study people’s attention.

Here’s what it looked like 10 years ago when I did something awesome.

Yes, that picture is from the 1950s but it very well could have been the local bar my band used to play at college (shout out to everyone who came out to Armadillo’s back at Annapolis).

Those three dudes on the right are in total ecstasy — look at them. They look like the saxophone player is literally saving their life. They are dying with every breath and being saved with every note. They aren’t thinking about their crappy job, or their ex-girlfriend who just dumped them — they are free.

This is what musicians live for. To move someone so profoundly that they lose themselves. Just seeing this picture gives me butterflies.

Today, this is what I see.

Remember that guy from American Beauty? Well, it’s still just as creepy, we’ve just made it more “normal”.

That’s what I call the millennial applause — because even though I know this person is liking something I’m doing — there’s no clapping, no hooting or hollering, and no dancing uncontrollably. Nope, just a weirdo with a camera trying to stand as still as possible.

But it gets worse.

It’s not enough that they look like a futuristic zombie statue, what’s worse is they think capturing the moment on their phone is equivalent to being totally present and letting the experience move them, and let me tell you something.

It fucking ain’t.

You could be front row at a concert with a DSLR camera and the best audio equipment money can buy and still, whatever you capture on video will never in a million years compare to the actual experience. Not even close.

In fact, I made a graph.

It’s like that.

Now some of you may see that graph and think to yourself — wait a minute Dave, isn’t the person taking the video also experiencing it live?

Absolutely not. In fact, you might as well not even be there. If you think that you can enjoy whatever you’re filming while you film it, you’re either lying to yourself, or you’ve been so numbed to the experience of being moved by art, that you don’t even remember what it’s like.

So let me remind you.

I’m going to talk about music because it’s what I know best, but all art shares this quality — it gives you a momentary break from your self.

All existential human suffering can be boiled down to one simple thing — over emphasis on self. Self-consciousness, self-righteousness, need for approval, protecting our fragile egos, jockeying for status — everything that makes our life a pile of meaningless shit is all rooted in our obsession with “self”.

Great music, and I mean great music — is a temporary relief from all that.

It won’t cure you, it won’t transform you, but it’s the best drug you could ever take. It transports you, sometimes to a place you’ve never been, but sometimes to a place you’ve been all along, but have completely forgotten about.

It’s the original religious experience. Before we had words for “God”, before there was dogma or religious texts — things like singing, dancing and drumming was the way we transcended, the way we completely let go of our “self” and dissolved into nothingness, oneness, and everything in between.

So you think you can do that while you’re working camera angles and thinking about the best hashtags for your Instagram post?

Fuck no.

You absolutely cannot. In fact, social media is exactly the opposite of everything art is intended to do. It increases your awareness of self. It takes your “self” and injects it with steroids.

It rips you away from the moment, and as if that’s not bad enough it lingers in your brain and incentivizes you to do things that would make good Facebook posts, as opposed to things that would nourish your life.

Art Isn’t Dead, But You’re Killing It

Here’s an experience I had a week ago, and I’m not at all exaggerating when I recount this story.

I was playing at a local bar when a woman approached the mic to request a song. She said it was her “favorite song” and it just so happened to be one of mine as well. I was excited, because typically when I play people’s favorite song they sing along and get lost in the experience.

She eagerly returned to her table, which was about 40-feet from the stage. As soon as I started the song she pulled out her phone and held it directly in front of her face. She recorded about one minute of the song, then spend the next two minutes with her head down, posting the video on social media. After she was done she put the phone down, looked up, and I was playing the last chord of the song.

I felt like I was inside a Banksy live art exhibit.

At this point I’ve mostly learned to laugh it off, or if I’m feeling particularly frisky I’ll heckle people from the stage, but let’s face it — it’s no fun performing for the back of someone’s iPhone.

Part of me is upset at this woman, but part of me is also sad. Art isn’t dead — what’s dead is our attention spans, and maybe what art means is the ability to be present with something long enough to be moved by it’s beauty.

Art isn’t dead, because it was never a one-way relationship, and that’s what we don’t get. Art has always existed in the relationship space. It’s a conversation between the artist and the witness, and if you’re not listening, it doesn’t matter who’s talking.

The richness, the depth and the power that can transport us is right there, but it’s gone the next moment.

Don’t Ruin the Magic

People ask me why I don’t take more pictures or video, and it’s always the same answer. I choose to experience things rather than document them. It’s not that I don’t value documenting things — I do — but these two things are not mutually exclusive, we’re always choosing to do one or the other.

Fortunately, thanks to other people’s obsession with documenting everything I’m pretty much covered in that department. Someone will always get pictures, someone will always shoot some video — and when they don’t, that’s even better.

You see, there’s a secret desire among musicians that we all talk about. We whisper about it backstage and get nostalgic at the times it happened.

It’s when time stops, because everyone in the room is feeling the same thing at the same exact moment. Not 99% of the room, 100% — and we know it. I can’t explain how we do, because it’s just a feeling. To me, it feels like everyone tied a string to their heart and gave me the other end. It’s vulnerable, it’s exhilarating, and it’s unforgettable.

There’s no app for it. There’s no way to capture it on video, and there’s nothing you can do to make it last longer than that extended moment in time, because the moment you start thinking about it — it’s gone — and we feel that too.

When you choose documentation over experience you’re not just missing out on your own opportunity, you’re affecting the other people in the room as well. Have you ever noticed why watching movies with other people is more powerful? Our bodies act as amplifiers for each other. We feel more, experience more and ultimately enjoy the movie watching experience more.

At the end of the day, I’m not asking you to never use your phone, or to give perfect attention to every performer, that’s totally unreasonable, and I certainly don’t do that myself.

What I’m asking you to do is not ruin the magic.

When something is happening and you start to have those “oh boy, something is happening” feelings, don’t pull out your phone, don’t go get another beer, just sink deeper into your seat, and let yourself be moved. It could be at a music concert, but it could just as easily be something cute your toddler is doing, a touching moment with friends, or a beautiful sunset.

It will never be the same if you watch it later on video, but I promise — if you record it with your heart — it will last forever.

Get new thought-provoking essays that question the status-quo
(and question questioning the status-quo).