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Sunday 21 Jul 2024

Art Culture Madonna
dr george pollard

This article originally appeared in RPM for 23 March 1991, pp. 10 and 15. It is reproduced, here, with corrections of minor typos, spelling errors and punctuation.  A few sentences were rewritten for clarity. The substance is not altered.

The most striking human activity is the arts. Those unique, skilled and creative cultural products that range from jazz to tribal dance, vampire movies to disco light shows, Shakespeare to Stephen King, classical music to blues. Whatever the form, art is meant to inspire, entertain and educate.

Some art is high culture, for example, classical music, ballet, sculpture and masterpiece paintings. Most art is popular culture, such as romance paperbacks, sitcoms, break-dancing, rap and country music.

Art reflects the values of the culture and society that produces it. Religious societies produce religious art. Traditional societies produce traditional art. Conformist societies produce conformist art. Diverse, pluralistic societies, like Canada, produce a cacophony of art forms.

Art flourishes in a climate of peace, prosperity and intellectual freedom. So, Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice, Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York are or have been hubs of artistic endeavour and success. Societies that repress or overly control the population, such as Nazi Germany, produce uninspired, dreary, banal art. Even in repressive societies, some artists, such as Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov, refuse to conform and are highly creative, productive and receive worldwide acclaim.

Art needs more than talent. It is a social process. Art and its acceptance are influenced by the social environment. What artists can create depends on available technology. An artist with only clay pigment, a chisel or flute has vastly different creative options and opportunities than an artist with computer graphics, lasers or a synthesizer. The medium, to a point, is the message.

Artistic success also depends on what audiences can or will accept. Movie Westerns once depicted good white settlers inexplicably attacked by cruel, savage Indians. Today, we’re more sensitive to the plight of native North Americans. So, the Western has bitten the dust. Movie makers apply the themes of the Western to a topic of greater interest outer space. Luke Skywalker and Jim Kirk replace Roy Rogers and Lone Ranger, Hans Solo and Spock replaced Pat Brady and Tonto. Special effects, unnecessary in Western, lend a sense of realism to the extra-terrestrial locales and characters.

Rock is a good example of the social process of artistic production. It reveals the interplay of culture, society and technology in the creation and acceptance of art. Rock emerged in the US then Britain during the prosperous late 1950s.

Rock is mainly a US and British art form. Canada and Australia supplement the mainstay of the art form. Artists from other societies and cultures usually write in English, the language of rock.

In the 1950s, the word teenager came into common use to signify the largest youth audience ever, baby boomers, who had plenty of money to spend on the artistic products that interested them.

Rock art drew from existing pop music traditions such as rhythm and blues or rockabilly). Technology played a key role in its creation, acceptance and spread. Without successful technological developments, such as amplified guitars, synthesizers, digital, multi-track and layer recording techniques, rock artists would have been creatively stymied. Without radio, especially FM and portability, television and ultimately cable and its marriage to video, such as MuchMusic and MusiquePlus, rock artists wouldn’t have the opportunities that accompany profit-seeking.

Madonna-bashing doesn’t necessarily hinge on a controversial video. It seems to be generalized, not a video-specific, bashing.

The success of rock is a social process. It involves artists, such as musicians; producers, writers, engineers and arrangers; businesspeople, such as A & R and other record workers; radio programme and music directors; booking agents, managers, publicists, lawyers; roadies; retailers. journalists and audiences. Rock is first and foremost a business. Creativity is driven by marketability of perception of marketability.

The appeal of rock lies in its musical qualities and the energy flowing from an aura of rebellion. Rock always risks becoming stale.

This is partly due to changing audience interests and tastes; partly due to the rock-business agenda that seeks to package and market music and musicians to appeal to the widest possible audience, even if creativity and vitality are lost in the process.

To create and maintain vibrancy, rock artists challenge social convention, usually those related to dress and behaviour. Challenges are evident in lyrics with implicit messages, often lost on older generations, dealing with sex, drugs, politics, materialism and whatever, is of topical interest.

Rock artists also generate excitement through behaviour, deliberately calculated to outrage the middle-class establishments; for example, Elvis the pelvis; long haired Beatles; surly arrogance  of the Rolling Stones;  the raucous lifestyle of Janis Joplin;  Drug lyrics of Jimi Hendrix;  snakes used as props by Alice Cooper;  the rebel-rebel persona of Iggy Pop;  the elaborate makeup used by Kiss; the profanity of the Sex Pistols; erotic innuendoes of Donna Summers; the gender ambiguity of Boy George; and Madonna, generally.

The recent Madonna-fuss is a good example of how rock affects society land produced the assertion that is okay to take charge of your own life, make your own decisions and not be bound to what is thought, believed or held out as right. To paraphrase a line from a song, poor is the person whose life depends on the permission of others. Conformity is an option, not a duty. Given the option, most conform. It’s a simple message.

In September, Spin magazine called Madonna a “media whore.” That was months before the Justify My Love video. Last year, her Blonde Ambition Tour was trashed in city after city by all hue of critics. So, Madonna bashing doesn’t necessarily hinge on a controversial video. It seems to be a generalised, not a video-specific, bashing.

Madonna, as Lynne Layton observed in the Boston Globe, “sincerely believes in the 60s philosophy that sexual freedom and honesty are the key to liberation,” which is an ingredient of all twentieth century avant-garde credos. So, it’s no surprise she creates a video that explores sexual fantasy and experience.

MuchMusic, MusiquePlus and MTV won’t air the video. MTV does justify its love with a two Madonna tribute. Nightline, on ABC Television, airs a censored version of the “Justify My Love” video and invokes critical outrage.

What’s the issue? Censorship? Maybe! Only Madonna talks about it. She’s right when she tells Forest Sawyer, on Nightline, rock video channels air product that is violent and degrading to women, 24-hours-a-day, without criticism. She’s serious when she suggests MTV has a violent hour and a degradation of women hour. Critics overlook these aspects of the debate.

Such oversight isn’t limited to rock, as Lynne Layton notes, “Jean Kilbourne’s slide show on women and advertising. Still Killing Us Softly, painfully demonstrates ads in mainstream magazines must… contain sadomasochistic, violent images.” Women are usually the victims in these ads. Indeed, sadistic, violent imagery from the realm of art photography often creeps into mainstream magazines, especially fashion magazines.

Still, only Madonna talks censorship. Her critics focus on how much money she makes and if she’s doing it for publicity and record sales. Artists need to eat. The criticism’s empty.

It’s more useful to question Madonna’s view that the more open we are about sexuality, the less vulnerable we’ll be to teenage pregnancy and the spread of AIDS. It’s also more useful to question her brand sacrilege. In the “Like a Player” video she’s not content to hold simple supporting status, such as sharing the name of the mother of Christ, she cuts her palms to present herself as Christ.

What Madonna suggests the church is doing is simply what society generally condones. Is this what outrages critics? A woman depicting herself as Christ?

Maybe! It’s never mentioned. Not even the Catholic church has anything to say about Madonna’s thinly disguised attacks. In the “Justify My Love” video, an image of Christ on the cross is shown as the sings “poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.” Madonna’s campaign for sexual liberation, as Layton notes, is intimately tied to an implicit belief that the Catholic church is the judge of what pleasures are and are not permissible. Most catholic school graduates would agree.

There may be more far-reaching implications. The church is a social institution. Social institutions, like art, reflect social settings. What Madonna suggests the church is doing is simply what society generally condones. If so, this level of criticism is most damning. It may be what her critics intuitively recognize and thus focus on as a reflexive defence of society.

Understanding how children are shaped by family, church and school is the key to why Madonna isn’t alone in creating pop and avant-garde art blending erotic, violent, sadomasochistic and religious images. Fantasies of domination and submission, of victims and violators, aren’t the result of watching MuchMusic or MusiquePlus. They are dredge-up representations of the hurt, humiliation and inequities implicit in our most precious social institutions, such as family, religion and school.

Few critics consider the content of Madonna videos. They focus on tacit morals and concern for image and money. Would the reaction to be the same if this was a male rock artist? Doubtful. Prince does essentially the same things as Madonna. If “I Built This Garden” is any indication, Lenny Kravits, who co-wrote “Justify My Love” with Madonna, is on the same track.

So, the underlying issue may be the gender. Madonna’s a woman who runs her own show. She’s immensely popular among young women and girls. She dares to brazenly display her sexuality and sexual fantasies in public and enjoys it. She’s successful in the extreme.  Madonna has bested men at their own game, using their own methods, such as sex and power. JR could learn from Madonna.

The evidence is in the criticism. Lynne Layton says analyses of Madonna by male writers reveals a level of anger disproportional to with the subject matter. Mike Barnicle, of the Boston Globe, a normally sensitive and empathic writer, wondered “if they make a shoe big enough to fit over her fat, sick head.” From David B Wilson, also from the Boston Globe, a conclusion about the Blonde Ambition Tour, “cold, deliberate, premeditated, apparently interminable, eventually repulsive profanity that seems to capture the imagination of the American mob.”

This raises the question of why artistic representation of violence and degradation to women are generally okay, especially if created by men, but other forms of erotic expression, such as the “Justify My Love” video, aren’t okay if created by women. Madonna raised the question on Nightline. Her critics ignore it.

The answer may be simple. Western hypocrisy reveals unequal gender status. At the centre of the issue is an open distaste for any version of femininity that doesn’t know its place. In other words, femininity that doesn’t first and foremost, defer to men.

Art and artists help expose gender and other inequities. Artists, through their art, play a vital role and we pay attention when they alert us to something important. Artists, like humourists exists on the periphery of mainstream society. They see the world a little differently than the rest of us. This helps them identify and understand hypocrisies we are too steeped-in to notice. Artists see the forests and trees. If what they express disturbs us, it’s our reluctance to face ourselves that leads to a level of anger disproportionate with subject matter. Mainstream society habitually shoots piano players.

Over time, renegade art is modified and incorporated into a re-defined social mainstream. In cold-war 1950s, the embrace-on-the beach sequence in From Here to Eternity was virtually pornographic, But commercially viable and thus acceptable to most. So, too, the pelvic gyrations of Elvis. Most raunchy 1960s rock, today, is venerable golden oldies. In a few years, another generation will muse on the fuss over Two Live Crew. Madonna will be no exception.

It is, however, the irreverent, iconoclastic, rebellious nature of rock that tells us why it’s created and performed almost exclusively in democracies. Rock can only flourish in an atmosphere open to diversity of opinion and lifestyle. Authoritarian regimes call rock immoral and depraved for fear it will introduce youths to ruinous social influences that foster diverse opinions and lifestyles. Plato was put to death for exactly this, 2500 years ago.

As with all art forms, the emergence of rock and its subsequent development, spread. Its acceptance can only be fully understood in a cultural, society and technological context that rewards monetization. Madonna makes $30 million a year.



dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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