“Check out this track my cousin made”
Recently my dear friend (and musical better half in Rich Fish) Samuel (@skillick) and I were trading in profundities as he drove us down Parramatta Road with a glove box full of rancid burgers. For us, the quasi-ironic exchange of nebulous generalisations about society, life and work is in no way trivial: we are two among thousands in Australia who have emerged from the chrysalis – or sarcophagus – of music school during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, at a time of high un- and underemployment (6.8% and 9.4%, as of November 2020). Like many music graduates, Samuel and I have each spent slightly over a decade obsessively honing our skills in a field of inquiry which has been wonderfully upheld by the education system from which we have been ejected – into a world which to begin with never held music work in particularly high regard, and more to the point, is now completely different from the world we were preparing for. Two generations above us, federal and state governments gut education, arts and (predictably) arts education spending so that we can’t just turn around and step back into the classroom for a postgraduate degree, because there’s no sign that we’ll be better off when we come out again. And so our search for meaning has become a purpose unto itself: a little nebulous profundity can go a long way.
Anyway, we’re driving along and Samuel questions the validity of enjoying and favouring a work of art (or music, or literature) just because it was made by someone you know.
I think is a really important idea to consider. I suspect that some point in our lives, many of us will see an artwork created by a friend, feel genuinely moved by the piece and tell her what we honestly think: “This is brilliant – you should have it published/book a national tour/do a gallery exhibition.” Logistics be damned! I’ve often heard responses like this in adolescents, and more broadly in anyone who hasn’t become slightly jaded by constant exposure to extremely skilled creatives (for example, through a creative/performing arts degree). However, the extent to which such overwhelmingly positive responses are widespread is telling: we have been moved by a piece of art which was created by someone we feel connected to, and we want to see her and her work celebrated around the world and held up to pedestaled classics.
One could consider this response pattern to be a projection of a phenomenon I will call collective ownership: the responder is emotionally moved by the piece, and so it (and to an extent, the artist’s persona) becomes a part of his identity. The responder subconsciously predicts that he would take vicarious pleasure in the artist’s wider success. Perhaps this is because [wild speculation] her success could create new opportunities for him to connect socially (i.e. subcultures); and/or because the responder experiences personal validation in tandem with the broader social acceptance awarded to the artist’s work. Consider how you feel – and why – when your favourite artist or content creator receives a significant award, tops the Triple J Unearthed charts, or starts trending on social platforms. This is the sense in which I mean collective ownership – to connect emotionally with a cultural product is to become invested in the longevity of its symbolism. If you’re not sure, just ask anyone you know about their favourite music. (If you really must test the theory, tell them “[their favourite artist] is nothing special.”)
The term ‘validation’ appeared above, so let’s address this quickly: I don’t personally believe that it’s inherently selfish to champion a cultural product that you are emotionally invested in. Yes, it absolutely suits me to adopt this stance – let’s talk about this another time.
We could go on at length about collective ownership, but I think this is all peripheral to the real issue which Samuel is concerned about – read on in part 2!