I went to see the Rolling Stones’ concert-film Shine A Light this past weekend, and even without having to later restrain a Spectator editor (who shall remain anonymous) from picking a fight with a gentleman at least double his weight, I found myself perplexed by the experience. I was entertained, sure, and it was awfully tempting to leave it at that. But this was a film by Martin Scorsese, the director who won the Best Picture Oscar for The Departed last year, and whose critically acclaimed films are permeated by the popular music of the Stones. When does entertainment become art? Is it not only artists but their audiences that must suffer to reach cultural watermarks? Is this a uniquely American phenomenon, without such august institutions like the Louvre in Paris to guide us?
What the Rolling Stones make is not regarded as art, despite a pair of Andy Warhol-designed album sleeves, an inspiring collection of artistically inclined devotees who include Tom Stoppard and Václav Havel, and now this new Scorsese film. It is, however, plenty entertaining. There’s joy in watching sixty-year-old men power their way through their back catalogue. Sometimes they stumble, sometimes they succeed, but you can’t help but marvel at the spectacle, or not feel like singing along.
The discussion as to what is or isn’t “art” isn’t one you can even hope to tackle realistically in 800 words, or even in a feature-length magazine article. As such, we’ve often unfortunately been reduced to lobbing “blame” on figures or movements that caused some sort of “split” between “the public” and “the critics.”
Everyone has an opinion, just as everyone “knows what they like” when it comes to art. Maybe the money poured into the “Color Field” school on display at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this season backfired in terms of enjoyment—after all, a Mark Rothko painting will not sing “Paint It Black” to you, or wiggle its hips like a scrawny, white James Brown. Maybe it’s Warhol’s fault for insisting on placing Campbell’s soup in serious galleries—after all, there’s now an iPod under glass at MoMA, along with posters for rock concerts. With that in mind, the concept of popular music as art is a particularly thorny subset of the larger discussion, given that “knowing what I like” in the world of music is much easier to accomplish. As early as Warhol’s own financing of The Velvet Underground in 1967, countless trees have been killed in newspapers, magazines, and even dissertations on the place of “the popular,” or even (dare we say) entertainment. By the 1970s there was music being made out of the struggle. Gang of Four, who, along with their Leeds contemporaries Wire, pioneered what we refer to as the British school of “art-rock,” resplendent with “angular” guitars and sharp sounds, even went so far as to name their LP debut “Entertainment!”
As with art in general, making sweeping generalizations is ultimately going to hurt somebody’s sensibilities. Saying that Laurie Anderson’s performance of her United States I-IV at BAM in 1983 was groundbreaking art, while Sufjan Stevens’s performance of his The BQE in the same venue 2007 was kitschy musical masturbation will probably only draw supporters and critics of those specific artists or works out of the woodwork, without addressing the larger question of what “validates” something as art. Case in point—the above opinion is mine, even though I saw neither show first-hand. You’re free to e-mail me if you agree or disagree and I’ll gladly continue the discussion at the Spectator’s opinion blog, The Commentariat. You can already guess what might happen. But until the dust kicks up over that statement, we might want to look back to the Rolling Stones.
During the 1990s, the Rolling Stones launched grand tour after grand tour, loaded with spectacular lighting, stadium-filling antics, and accompanying albums that lacked any of the staying power that makes the output of their first fifteen years together enduringly classic. The press largely snickered. Who were these old men, they asked, to parade themselves about like this? They didn’t need the money, did they, especially as tour after tour broke profit records?
Shine A Light lets us see what the Stones have said all along—it’s damn entertaining. Their music may not be “performance art,” but they sure put on a good show, a strange thing to admit in an era of folded arms and ironic nods at the Bowery Presents group’s ever-growing network of venues. It remains very heartening to me that in a country like this one that even as the concept “entertainment” cuts into ideas like news coverage or education, we are able to realize the value of the concept at its core. I am entertained and stimulated in different fashions by The Rolling Stones and Mark Rothko, but both of them grace my wall, and I’m sure I’m not alone. We try, and we try, and we try, try, try, and when we admit that we want (and get) some satisfaction out of the art or music we enjoy, it no longer matters what you call it.
Chas Carey is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and American studies. What Where runs alternate Wednesdays. Opinion@columbiaspectator.com