The Artist As a Multi-Hyphenate

Above photograph adapted from Daniel Kramer’s original. Assumedly copyright of the latter.

News from Stockholm this week (I think word first appeared on Thursday) that Bob Dylan would be this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature was met with much media buzz. Critics debated: is he– a poet or bard, at best– deserving of the esteemed Prize? Does Dylan hold a candle to past recipients; is he a prosaic match for Toni Morrison, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Many, like Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, embrace his anointment (after all, the publication’s epithet is, in part, a Dylan homage). They celebrate his uniquely American scope, the possibilities Dylan brought to music as a genre and a form and his endless, Picasso-like ability to reinvent himself, stemming from his intimate knowledge and vocalization of the frustratingly familiar. The award even begs the question: does the Nobel Committee listen to the NY Times (given an Op-Ed piece from 2013, though it veers into cynical paranoia to consider whether yet another feted institution has become a partisan progressive mouthpiece, despite a reasonable supporting argument)? Well, either way, the NY Times contradicted itself in referring to him. And then again, kind of, ending one of its write-ups, unsurprisingly, with President Obama’s Dylan endorsement.

Each editorial outdoes the other in showering praise on the singer-songwriter of 75 years or burying him in scathing criticism. It is as if the Nobel Committee decided 2016 was barren enough journalistic territory that, for fun, it should throw a match at the press and watch it fan its own self-righteous flames. One wonders whether Stockholm is having a laugh at the vast levels of Dylan-driven contention spanning the internet’s expanse, then remembers that the Swedish are notoriously dark-humored: is this whole affair a polished exercise in sadism?

For a moment after I heard what happened thoughts like these materialized, exorcised speedily through the imaginary balloon above my head. Then I took to Twitter. “Hey, this is news,” I wrote concerning the announcement, redundant in the narratorial spirit of the medium. In shorthand: “And remember when Dylan collab’d with Gagosian?” I linked a review of 2011’s The Asia Series, a Dylan show at the famous gallery, also besought by much-covered controversy. The viewer cannot knowingly deny the parallels between his paintings and famous photographs of the Orient, despite Dylan’s defensive statements to the contrary: “I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that… I have the cause and effect in mind from the beginning to the end. But it has to start with something tangible.” According to Politico, his 2012 exhibit– entitled Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan– in attempts to overshadow or transcend the plagiarist flavor of its antecedent by riffing on Americana such as Babytalk magazine covers, for which Dylan has a soft-spot, an almost nostalgic penchant. Here, too, the oeuvre of notorious borrower artist Elaine Sturtevant, who received a retrospective at MoMA relatively recently, comes to mind.

The thing is that, unlike some ArtsBeat assignees, I don’t really care whether Dylan’s pieces are cheap or dull imitations or blatant copies. Even Chuck Close, great portraitist of our times, models his work on photographs. Another oils novice, Bush II, was not any more inventive than Dylan, clumsily drawing on results from Google Image search for his portraits of world leaders, all of whom he was in personal, often fleshly, contact with during his tenure in office. Rather, I am referencing this facet of Dylan’s career to spark a dialogue, much in the same vein as that about his Noble Prize in Literature, regarding the merits of having more than one finger in more than one creative pot. I could start spewing facts and figures about various cultural icons who have followed this path, or tell you to read “I Love Dick” by Chris Kraus, in many respects devoted to the subject of aesthetic interconnectivity, the bridging of the intellectual with the experiential and sensual, and what got me considering the quandary of the artist as a multi-hyphenate in the first place. Instead, I open it up to you, dear readers. This time, it’s me that’s asking: do you think Bob Dylan should be recognized for more than one thing, or heralded under the broad characterization of the literary arts, when he’s dabbled in other stuff, too (even sculpture, as of late)? To what extent is his sideshow a perpetuation of his whole act, and to what extent should it be divorced from his folksy protest anthems? Dylan is a case study, a test-run or microcosm of a large-scale issue that weaves the legacies of video art, performance art, slam poetry, and a thousand other movements, with their contexts and attached personalities. If 2016, year of newly discovered fluidity (between genders, especially), can be rebranded by 1964’s Times’ They Are A Changin’, maybe our approach of benign-neglect to how we look at innovators in numerous fields– e.g. through the singular lens of what they pioneer, rather than what they lightly toy with– should be, too. Let’s forgive Dylan for exploring, seeking to sow his wild artistic oats.

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