Generally speaking, there are two types of art, without regard to the medium in which it was produced.
There is the work that has staying power. The stuff that, either for its content or production values, persists through the years, if not centuries or millennia, continuing to inspire and intrigue its audiences. We still talk about the Mona Lisa because of how intriguing it is. You don’t need to be an art historian or connoisseur to spend hours staring not only at her face and wondering what she was thinking, but also at the nuance of the background.
Then there’s the work that, for whatever its merits, appears to be more of of a reflection of the time in which it was created. If it persists at all into the present day, it’s as a curiosity, not intended to be observed except in the context of the times in which it was created. A lot of so-called “pop art”, like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans can fall into this category. Almost all conversations about pop art begin with a discussion of the 1960s and early 1970s for context. In a future when Campbell’s ceases to exist, what, if anything, will people think of this work?
I mention this because I’ve been thinking a lot about the music of Phil Ochs over the past couple of years. And I’m not the only one, when you consider, for example, this article in the Washington Post. Note the date on that article. January 24, 2017. Four days after Donald Trump took the oath of office as president of the United States.
Phil Ochs was a protest singer, taking many of his topics directly out of the headlines at the time. Indeed, his debut album was a play on the famous tag line of the New York Times: All the News that’s Fit to Sing. Just look at the track listing of that album. If you don’t know the songs, could you tell me who Lou Marsh or William Worthy were?
(For the record, they were an innocent bystander killed in gang violence and a journalist who couldn’t go to Cuba to work on a story because of US State Department guidelines, respectively.)
Yeah, it’s fair to say that a lot of Ochs’s songs fall into the second category of art.
That’s what makes the songs of his that fall into the first category all the more impressive: create a piece of art about a specific event and then have that art take on an added meaning over and above the event. Which brings me to his magnum opus, a line of which is quoted in the title of this essay.
The song is called Crucifixion, and loosely inspired by the assassination of John F Kennedy, the song is about so much more than that. There is a well-documented anecdote of Ochs playing the song for Robert Kennedy in 1967, and Kennedy burst into tears when he realized the song was about his brother. Little did either one of them know at the time that barely another year would pass before the song could be claimed to be about another Kennedy.
About two years before Ochs died, he got into a disagreement with Bob Dylan, culminating in the latter kicking him out of his car, yelling, “you’re not a folk singer. You’re a journalist.”
As if that were a bad thing. We need journalists more than ever, to call out the lies and partial truths that those who wield power might try and tell us. And a very important journalist was recently silenced.
In the process of trying to spin Jamal Khashoggi’s death in the best possible light, the Saudi government is claiming that he died in a fight. In a sense, I don’t doubt that this is a true, albeit extremely misleading, statement. Put it this way: imagine that you’re walking into a place you believed would be safe, only to learn quite abruptly, that it’s a trap of some sort. Wouldn’t you try to fight your way out? I’d be surprised — and maybe even a little bit disappointed — if there hadn’t been a struggle of some sort.
Then there are the smears cropping up in conservative circles. We’ve seen things like this before. Think Trayvon Martin. Or Eric Garner. Or Michael Brown. Or Tamir Rice. Or Philandro Castile. The list goes on. But the playbook is always the same. Find someone who was unjustly killed and pick out something, anything, that could make them come off as something less than an absolute angel in an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Shift the narrative away from the injustice and hope that people forget the real issue.
It’s why they’re trying to portray Colin Kaepernick as unpatriotic for kneeling during the national anthem. They don’t want to talk about what’s really going on.
The drama is distorted to what they want to hear.
We can all be guilty of things like this. It’s a part of confirmation bias. But Donald Trump is a monument to this bias. All he ever wants to hear is that he’s doing great, that his friends and allies are right and everyone else is wrong. It’s why he thought he could go to the UN and repeat the talking points he covers in one of his rallies.
We see this over and over again. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia denies involvement in Khashoggi’s death? Trump says he believes him. Putin denies meddling in the 2016 election? Trump says he believes him. Kim Jong-Un promises to denuclearize? Trump says he believes him. Or the flip side of that? Scientists give dire warnings about global climate change? Trump wants to know who’s saying it and what their agenda is.
Trump likes to rail against what he calls fake news, and it’s easy to understand why. For someone who has spent most of his life crafting a narrative that the only things that are true, are the things that benefit him, then the things that don’t benefit him have to be fake.
And that extends to the works of art he likes. Take that painting of him and the other republican presidents that apparently hangs on a wall somewhere in the White House. If there ever was a sample of art with no real staying power, that’s it.