How important is context when it comes to art?
I noticed a comment on one of the Youtube videos of my convention panels. The comment bemoaned my ‘sociopolitical injection’ at the beginning of a panel on American Anime. I’m not much of a commenter, especially on places like Youtube, but I felt compelled to point out that it wasn’t a throwaway diatribe but it was meant to give context for the panel and the points I was making.
And yet, as I wrote that, I considered just how critical the context of art actually is. When we are younger, we hear a song or we watch a show and we like it. End of the story. We don’t need anything more than that. We need our own approval of a piece of art.
As we get older, we need the approval of a select group: our friends, our family, whoever. Art becomes a shared experience. We want to show our favorite art to others. We make mix tapes (…we MADE mix tapes…cripes, I’m old…) and playlists and shared music. We wanted not just to like our art, we wanted those whose opinions we valued to like our art too.
But that’s the growth of a person as an individual into a social creature. Where does the need for context come from? When we learn the artist who wrote this song did so while locked in an elevator in Dakar, how does that change things?
My first experience with this curiosity came with the 1970 Eric Clapton song ‘Layla’. Written for or at least partially inspired by his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd (wife of his friend Beatle George Harrison), this supposedly transformed the whole song. It didn’t for me.
Green Day’s ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ is the same. An account of front man Billie Joe Armstrong’s anguish after the death of his father, it is fascinating information but its impact on the song itself just never seemed to fully manifest, at least not for me.
But then we can go the other way. What if the art isn’t informed by the artist, but is shadowed by it?
The 2016 film Birth of a Nation was set to be a powerful and monumental film. A story about the slave rebellion led by American hero Nat Turner, it appropriated the title from a famous pro-KKK film a century prior. Simply sublime. And then the information about the film’s writer-director rape allegations surfaced.
Roman Polanski and Woody Allen’s names often come up in connection to art that has become tainted by the legacies of their creators. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Whole swaths of the art world, maybe all of it, become suspect when you begin to look deeper and deeper into the lives of those artists who create it. The 1990s band Ace of Base was a tool of founder Ulf Ekberg to promote Nazism world-wide. It makes listening to ‘The Sign’ practically impossible.
So. Context. Is it necessary? Must a work of art be evaluated and critically assessed both in composition and real-world implications before it can be deemed…what? Good? Acceptable?
The 1944 song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ sounds like a date-rape song to anybody paying attention to the lyrics, but contextually it becomes a somewhat emboldening song about a woman’s ability to make decisions for herself. It’s almost impossible to see unless you are steeped in the history of the song. Is that needed? When you listen to the Ramones, do you need to have an undergrad education in 1970s sociopolitical punk iconography? All just to enjoy ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’?
Art is a conversation, a dialogue between artist and audience. And like all conversations, the context is critical. But context is more than just the artist’s context; it’s also the audience’s context. Where were you when you first heard this song? Who were you when you watched this TV show? What was your world like when you read this book? Context goes two ways; the audience may passively consume (most) art but it doesn’t passively digest art. That processing of the art is much more involved, even if it isn’t active. The world that colors the art affects everything.
This is why art appreciation is and always will be subjective, because it is colored by the context of the viewer as well as the artist itself. Art is the meeting of these two minds and any adding to the dialogue will color and change the art. Maybe for the enriching, maybe for the different.
Of course some may say they don’t want additional context. They may say that to learn any more about a favorite song or a new TV show will ruin the experience. Trouble is, in that instance, it isn’t the art that they enjoy but the memory. That isn’t art, but nostalgia.