At one stage in my prehistory, any public drinking establishment which failed to necessitate the roaring of verbalised communication over at least 110 decibels of pre-recorded classic rock music would be the victim of a bitter neglect. Obviously, I had less to say for myself back then. But it would appear that some of the dens of excess which I was happy to think of as home for some considerable portion of my youth must have been engaged in sociological experiments designed to determine the importance of non-linguistic components in modern mating rituals. For example, an affirmative response to a query concerning the god-like prowess of Jimmy Page was a pre-requisite standard for marriageability. Courting habits in such places have evolved to the point where short questions requiring monosyllabic answers can determine your success or failure. It was not only the case, however, that these joyous Edens’ philosophy of providing free permanent hearing damage struck a chord with my perspective-lacking youthful psyche, but also it was abundantly clear to me that any other approach to an evenings entertainment was sadly flawed and that any incomprehension of this stemmed from some pathological deficiency of the intellect.
Intrinsic to my ‘world view’ at the time – and I must warn you that solipsism was not a million miles down the road – was the luminously evident distinction between what constituted ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ music. The boundaries between this distinction and the ever-evolving chasm between that music which I did and that music which I did not like grew so blurred so as to convince me that they were the one and the same thing. So I found myself, at the tender age of 17, in the enviable position of Music Ombudsmnan of the World and my brief, should I sober up for long enough to accept it, was to inform the ignorant masses that what they had deluded themselves into thinking was music happened simply to be noise, but that I was in a position to enlighten them, and the music was made flesh! It was all so simple back then, but then, so was I!
The theory that anyone’s taste in music (or art, or literature, or food) is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than that of another individual is infantile and damaging, but consistently evident in the modern method of art appreciation. It is a consequence of this notion that we defer judgement in matters artistic to a (real/imagined) panel of experts. We hold our tongues and appear to admire that which we secretly do not, we pretend to understand the point of particular artistic pieces because we fear that our viewpoint is less valid than an ‘informed’ conventional one and that to question artistic authority is a heresy punishable by a branding of stupidity. I have a problem in art galleries, I never know whether to read the title before looking at a piece, I’m never quite sure if I’m standing the correct distance away from a painting, and if I see a lengthy concentrated observation of what appears to me to be an explosion in a paintshop, then I’m convinced that I have missed something, that some particular innate appreciative ability is sadly lacking in my character. It has gotten to the stage that even when my taste and that of the critical consensus collide, I still feel ignorant of the secretive and mysterious standards that separate the product of a great master of the modern painting school from that of a delirious child with a broken crayon. This feeling of intellectual inadequacy can equally apply to literary or musical appreciation and acts as a rigid contraceptive against the conception of art.
‘Art’ can often be a haemorragingly intimidating term and a great many people believe that it is not something that has any place in their lives. It is considered high-brow, an intellectual pursuit of the upper echelons, a pastime for the monied, a bastion of rigid societal hierarchy and a waste of bloody good drinking time. Any subject about which we know little can be a scary one, but the pandemic fallacy here is that we think that we do not know about ‘art’, when the fact is that all of us are ‘artists’, we have just spent too long in awe of the mysterious ‘Art’ establishment to realise it.
For our purposes, ‘art’ includes innumerable forms, from sketching to wine appreciation, from gardening to architecture, from fashion to, most relevantly, music. In all of its forms however, I wish to draw a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘Art’. ‘Art’ (large ‘A’) is the ‘Art’ of the academic journals, the university symposiums, the clinical critics, the wine-infused gallery openings, the prodigious youthful talent honed by decades of practice. It is this ‘Art’ which is a scary term, it allows a secretive enclosed sect of experts to dictate that half a sheep preserved in formaldehyde is now a necessary cultural metaphor, and reinforces the idea that ‘art’ has little to offer you and me. It is the study of this ‘Art’ that third-level institutions provide. They also furnish the ‘Artists’ with the necessary equipment with which to play the game of corporate sponsorship. In order to make a living, understandably, certain rules must be adhered to, certain subjects attended on, certain bottoms carefully indulged. Occasionally it strikes me that the fire of modern capitalism is hot enough to mould ‘Art’ into whatever shape it pleases. Four years in ‘Art’ college will also increase the awareness in an individual as to the function of her/his own work while all the while hammering home the notion that Artistic standards come from outside the individual and must be imposed rigorously. Perhaps the structure of the Art industry is dependent on such rigorous impositions, but it is not true that four years in an academic institution are a necessary pre-requisite to the appreciation of ‘art’.
As always, I was delighted to inhale inspiration from a most unexpected source recently – a source which I am currently unable to locate and which I have a sneaking suspicion has been consigned, in error, to the new green wheely-bin with which I was recently presented as a token of the high esteem in which I am evidently held by Dublin City Councillors. That such a powerful message was contained within the covers of the JMI came as no surprise, but to experience the immediate transformation of a character which I had previously connected only with scruffiness and childrens’ television (terms more mutually exclusive now than they once were) into an intellectual mentor, and all in the space of seven lines, well, that’s why books are better, and will always be better, than television! Pat Ingoldsby’s poem about writing, ‘A Very Short Writing Course’, encapsulates succinctly, clearly, simply and brilliantly the effects of confusing ‘art’ with ‘Art’. The objectification of ‘artistic evaluation inhibits the production of ‘art’, because people feel that they do not have the required skill to express themselves, and, as a more dire consequence, this feeling is often equated with the idea that these individuals have nothing worth expressing. Ingoldsby advertises a concept the amplified echo of which can be found in Kenny Werner’s music bible (Effortless Mastery) and which has a fictional proponent in the guise of Sean Connery’s character in the film Finding Forrester when he reveals to his eager initiate that ‘the secret to writing, is to write!’ I truly believe that it is in the effort that ‘art’ is produced and that this effort becomes easy when you free yourself from the notion that there are others who are better able to judge the fruits of your effort than you are. To take one foot off my soap-box for a moment, I took time to introduce Mr Ingoldsby’s poem to certain close friends, all of whom thought it was ‘nice’, not ‘inspirational’, not ‘thought-provoking’, but ‘nice’, which is exactly my point, their lack of enthusiasm neither indicates their ignorance of the accepted command codes of poetic practice, nor does it contradict the existence of real and important truth in the poem. I think that it is a fantastic piece of work, but hopefully for Mr Ingoldsby what I think is worth less than a punt-cheque-book, as the allowance of my opinion to excite or demoralise would be to propagate the precise demonic objectification of values which I am trying to exorcise. So if ‘Art’ (large ‘A’) is the Art of the lecture halls and the standardised testing what can be said of ‘art’ (small ‘a’)?
‘Art’ (small ‘a’, but it’s at the beginning of a sentence) has no concrete definition here. To offer one would be to attempt to set a new standard which individual endeavours would have to reach before being considered ‘artistic’ (small ‘a’), but I hope that if I can suggest what I feel that ‘art’ is not, then at least debate on the matter, and specifically individual contemplation of what it is to be ‘artistic’, can direct itself toward a more fulfilling and productive future.
I am not proposing a revolution here. I realise that a standardised evaluation system is process integral to the vast functioning organism that is the ‘Art’ industry. What I do question, however, is the insistence that this process is exclusive, that certain individuals opinions concerning ‘art’ are more valid and valuable, that the creation of ‘art’ is the sole preserve of a secretive gifted sub-class, that I, or anybody else, has a better idea of what is artistically exceptional than you do, that any observed stimulus which elicits a positive emotional response is not ‘art’!
All of which may not be the most likely introduction to a CD review, but having argued at length for the thesis that all opinions are born equal, I think that it is about time I re-occupy the evaluative high-ground safe in the knowledge that the discerning readership of the JMI will ruminate carefully on my casually tossed comments and will then listen to the The Josephine Marsh Band and make up their own minds. I must offer a printed apology for the tardiness with which I approached this assignment. Five months of intensive aural research on a single CD is a little far-fetched even in these post-Tolkien times, but I’m afraid the enthusiasm with which I have applied myself to studying for a doctorate in procrastination have kept fingers from keyboard, and indeed ideas from brain. The marriage of ‘Art’ and ‘art’, or ‘Music’ and ‘music’, is an infrequent event to which few of us are privy, and, as a consequence of this, each of these rare occasions is an excuse for a celebration. I Can Hear You Smiling (puts you in a good mood even before you listen to the music) is one such crack-open-the-bubbly-esque event. I could list the exploits and the pedigrees of the numerous prodigious instrumental acolytes who accompany Josephine Marsh on this musical journey, but each one would deserve a full review of their own, suffice to say that much of the extensive planning which has obviously gone into this debut offering was directed toward honing a cohesive musical unit, each member of which lends a distinctive direction to proceedings all the while remaining tightly within the boundaries of the overall band sound. Nor am I going to list at length perceptions of individual sets, although the exceptional variety of expertly tackled tunes on this album was pleasantly unexpected, and the original compositions blend deliciously with refreshing renditions of time honoured standards. What I will say is that I like this album a lot! It is one of the few albums which I can sit and listen to sans distraction. It is seldom that I have an urge to sit down with a cup of Barry’s (or perhaps something stronger) and simply listen to a CD; normally there would be homely banter, or the Sunday newspapers, or staring at my reflection on the white screen of a blank word document, or another gripping page in that book which I started reading in 1995. It is even rarer that I should repeat the occasion using the same CD, but that is precisely what I have found myself doing with I Can Hear You Smiling. Just to sit for an hour and get lost, for me there can be no greater recommendation of an albums’ musicality. I loved the songs on this recording and I am on a quest to discover the particular genetic remodulation which Tommy Carew utilises to make his voice sound about thirty years older than he looks. In particular, I feel obliged to warn potential listeners about track number seven, which must be avoided at all costs should you wish not to have the melody of this J.J.Cale classic trapped in your head for the next six months – a woman crossed the aisle to avoid me as I unconsciously warbled the chorus of ‘The Rose in The Garden’ in the frozen foods section of Superquinn on the Sundrive Road this morning. I’m sure that she would have shown more appreciation for the song had she listened to The Josephine Marsh Band – and so she should – and so should you.
Published on 1 May 2002