Buried somewhat in this week’s awful national news was an item about the entire White House Arts Committee resigning in protest to Trump’s defense of white nationalists in Charlottesville. The committee was made up of 17 national artists who were appointed by Obama during the last administration, and hadn’t been called upon to convene at all during Trump’s time in office (and with Melania acting as honorary chair no less). This got me thinking about an artist’s sense of integrity, and what exactly we expect of them when, so to speak, the rubber meets the road.
A few months ago the New York Times made a list of movies its gathered critics consider the best made in this century so far, and number 11 on the list is Inside Llewyn Davis, a Coen brothers film from 2013. I was surprised to see it on the list, not because it’s not great (it won the Grand Prix at Cannes that year) but because it felt like the US didn’t like it much at all. I saw it by myself in a big art house theater in early 2014, walked out of it completely shaken and traumatized, and then thought about it every single day for the next two years. I still think about it.
The movie, which is really a very dark comedy, is about an artist who can’t reconcile his considerable talent with his own poverty, his disdain for mediocrity, and his lack of glamour. Oscar Isaac, in a career-launching role, plays Llewyn, an undeniably talented West Village folk singer-songwriter in 1961 who, while grieving the suicide of his writing partner, can’t seem to reach the next step on the ladder of success on his own terms. He’s so good at self-sabotage that you wish he could bottle and sell that, given that his albums aren’t doing so well.
The movie follows him over about a week of his couch-surfing life in a bitter northeastern winter. This is interspersed with his mesmerizing live filmed music performances, and so the movie audience is treated to an especially cruel rollercoaster of both the miserable and the sublime. The soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett, is so good it makes my entire body ache. (To this day I listen to it on my long road trips.) One of the only people I knew who at the time had also seen the movie in a theater told me he thought it was too emotionally manipulative. To which I ask: What great narratives aren’t? I think the movie’s American audience didn’t want to face its own hypocrisy about wanting The Real Thing without being challenged by the intentions of its maker (which in this case could mean either Llewyn or the Coen brothers).
A side plot of an endangered tabby cat possibly played a role in my own elevated blood pressure when I watched it, but the bottom line is that I felt like I was watching most of my closest friends up on that screen, negotiating the hard reality of being a sincere and practicing artist while staring down the greedy and merciless maw of late capitalism. Self-sabotage, in Llewyn’s case, is staying absolutely true to the music, and not changing his own public image or disposition to make the music, or himself, more palatable for a populist mainstream.
I had to brace myself to rewatch it recently, and frankly, Llewyn seemed far more relatable and lovable to me than he had even on first exposure. He’s punished again and again for not having any money in the first place (he has to make decisions on the fly that give him short-term and urgent relief instead of long-term reward), for not being generous enough to lesser talent, for not being shiny and new. He’s on the wrong side of the cusp of a folk-music explosion that Bob Dylan would usher in within a couple of years. There’s a scene early in the movie when Llewyn is watching another performer give a questionable performance in a small, dank club, and he’s not convinced. His friends at the table, on the road to selling out themselves, are validated by it. Llewyn’s environment is one of politeness and props, and it’s killing his sense of what really matters, which is the music itself. Everyone around him seems to have forgotten that in their rush to get a record deal. Like visual art, folk music turned out to be surprisingly gimmicky, and Llewyn wants no part of it. The end of the movie is intentionally vague, but many interpreted it as Llewyn missing his window. He’s over before he got started.
When I was starting out as a music, movie and art critic in the late 1990s, there was a consensus in the editorial offices where I worked that the best stuff always rises to the top and is discoverable, that there’s no such thing as the secret basement genius or the truly hidden talent. At the time I chose to believe that because the notion was a relief. But I don’t believe it anymore.
I think there’s talent everywhere that we don’t get to see, and I think that there are artists who are truly deserving and fascinating who we don’t discover, because they are poor and desperate, because they are bitter, because they don’t play the game of social media and consumerism, because they are uncompromising. A lot of people would label them “difficult” or “complicated,” but I think we should roll back our expectations that artists be well-rounded social butterflies and take a harder look at the work itself.
Artists are being asked, even by the art world itself, to make work that’s easy, digestible, good for short attention spans, Instagrammable, marketable. Even the political stuff needs to be something one can “get” through the equivalent of a Hollywood pitch. Where does that leave the majority of our most dedicated artists?
I’m certainly not saying that all successful artists are sellouts. I am saying that our world is increasingly eager for pre-disposed sellouts and marketable work, and that artists with any profound integrity or vision are more endangered than ever. Just ask the White House Arts Committee.