Where Watt blundered was in allowing himself to be suckered by the mirage of counterculture community with which rock artists and audiences have been suckering themselves since Woodstock.
I've always thought that the artist's place in society is on the outlaw fringe. I'm aware this argument sounds softheaded, because it has been espoused most broadly by softheaded people, like Beat writers and rock singers, for instance. I'm also aware that history doesn’t entirely support it; many artists, in the employ of either empire or church, achieved mighty and enduring things in premodem epochs. But I think several rebuttals to these points are that, in a decidedly contemporary epoch. Beat writers and rock singers have also been among our most interesting and valuable artists, softheaded or not, and that history views as softheaded lots of ideas we endorse anyway, democracy among them.
So much, then, for the outlaw fringe.
It seems obvious that once empires and churches had to contend with the rabble, or at least worry about keeping the lid on things, it became ever more in their interest to defang art, in the same manner it would hope to defang the media, or academia, or the rabble themselves. When Reagan came to power, people speculated that the Eighties were going to be a great time for the popular arts, because while those running the government now may not do much that's right, there is much they do that’s pure. The concerns of money and property, the equation of personal discovery to material pursuits, cop-love, international know-nothingism, the influence of the status quo — all these things are expressed and represented more purely by the Reagan people than any other cabal of American politicos in half a century, maybe longer. And so, to a degree they haven't been in a long time, America’s artists are confronted with a clear choice of where to stake their claim in the scheme of things, and it's that clarity that has presented them with such possibilities.
Lately, long after the incident receded into its own silliness, I found myself still thinking about James Watt and the Beach Boys, and about who blew it. I certainly didn’t feel the Beach Boys blew it, bleached worthless hacks that they’ve become, gazing from their flaxen fog at all the commotion. If anything, I was a little sorry for them; is there a fate for a rock band more ignominious than that of the First Lady rushing to its rescue? And it couldn’t have been the First Lady who erred, either; she has the right, after all, to love whatever music she chooses. Nor was my beef with James Watt. Though his intelligence may have been operating at its usual primordial level, his integrity turned out to be in better working order than anyone else’s: He, at least, was true to himself.
I decided, rather, that rock ’n’ roll blew it, given the hypocrisy of its various spokesmen in their response to the whole affair. For fifteen years, rock singers have been screaming at their audiences, “Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll!” as a battle cry; now Watt points his quivering, infuriated finger at them and shouts, “Sex, drugs, and rock ’n' roll!” as an accusation, and they’re mortally offended. It doesn’t matter that rock means more than just these things; we can assume that, even as the tribal language of American rebellion, bad manners, unrepentant sensuality, individual freedom, and a redemptive good time, it’s still unlikely to be regarded by someone like Watt as anything other than un-American, un-Christian, unpatriotic, unwholesome, and unclean. Knowing what we do about the man, I can’t imagine that anyone would want him to think otherwise. Knowing what we do about the man, it’s a little pathetic that anyone would really feel insulted because they don’t live up to his idea of what’s American or godly.
So much, then, for the outlaw fringe. The only serious question involved by this inane controversy was one of pop culture’s relationship with the State — and whether that culture is still capable of giving voice to a national expression that exists apart from the institutional expression of even a softheaded, democratic government. When I argue in favor of the outlaw artist, it’s not to say that artists necessarily exist in defiance of the law; the romantic conceit of mixing art and criminality has had too many blood} _ results for the innocent, as Norman Mailer found out not long ago. Nor is it to claim that sheer incorrigibility may be redeemed by creativity; in an interview following John Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono justified the couple’s heroin use by their status as artists, confusing a bankrupt self-glorification with aesthetic courage.
But what I am saying is that when artists are honest enough to exist outside the law, as Bob Dylan so famously put it, then they keep their society a little more honest in the process. They may not be criminals in the legal sense, but their calling is higher than any litigation can touch, and the bolder and more careless may wind up criminals by accident. Henry Miller wrote masterpieces that were illegal in his own country for thirty years; if the publication and merchandising of those books were criminal activities, then — for anyone willing to carry the moral logic far enough — the writing and reading of them were, too.
You can always tell that things are going to get sticky when the social arbiters start talking about which art is “constructive’’ or “positive,” because inevitably it’s going to lead to evaluations of art in terms of what’s philosophically ‘ ‘moral ’ ’ or ideologically “correct.” The artist’s function is to, at one point or another, cast a pall over the neighborhood. He ought to be lacing his brew with social hemlock.
Even if this sounds agreeable to people on the face of it, where they often balk is at the tradeoffs involved — which dictate that, in return, neither society nor the State owe the artist any more or less than is owed anyone else. The responsibility for hanging onto one’s artistic soul is the artist’s, after all, not the devil's; the devil is in the racket of liberating as many people of their souls as possible.
Great artists are going to compromise all the time, and it’s a canard that they won't: Faulkner and Fitzgerald bought, with many nights of Hollywood whoring, the freedom to write their books, and who’s to argue that they were wrong? What was important wasn't that they sometimes wrote for money, which is, in and of itself, no more dishonorable than the plumber who fixes pipes for money. What was important was that each writer retained an artist’s perspective on where and when the tradeoffs were worth it and where and when they weren’t, and retained a sense of responsibility for the choices made.
A lot of artists today want to be free and independent, championing class struggle and social revolution, right up to the moment the federal bucks run out. Though I wouldn’t want to make a case for no federal subsidization of the arts at all — leaving the artist utterly at the mercy of the marketeers — I still find that the marketeers worry me just a little less than the politicians. The marketeers have their own souls to sell, and they’ll do it for anything that resembles a profit; that means they can, for the right price, be responsive to both the artist and the public. The State, on the other hand, is usually responsive to ideology, which is another word for religion, which is another word for power.
In this country in the Sixties, it was filmmakers and writers and, yes, rock singers who questioned most deeply, and in some ways most effectively, their government’s policies in Southeast Asia. I don’t imagine they would have been quite as eloquent had the State, rather than the big bad capitalists, been their meal ticket. You certainly don’t hear Soviet artists raising much ruckus over Afghanistan or Poland. Loath as some of us may be to say so, Reagan is more right about federal subsidization of the arts than his critics, and artists who squawk when the political establishment fails to fund their revolutionary art are like pop icons whose feelings are hurt when James Watt implies rock concerts are a bit more revelrous than Legionnaire conventions.
Because ultimately, whether the State sanctions art through financial endowments or moral endorsements doesn’t matter. It’s dictating the terms of the discussion either way, and that’s what happened in the Watt-Beach Boys thing. Let’s ask a few more questions before burying this flogged and pummeled specimen of a horse once and for all. What if it had not been the Beach Boys? What if it had been a band a bit less vitamin-enriched — someone who didn’t light up Nancy Reagan’s mornings with their harmonies or raise her ire with their curt dismissal by a government subordinate? What if it had been a different stump in rock’s petrified forest, like the Jefferson Starship for instance, who have been known to sing about things somewhat more unsavory to Nancy Reagan? What if it had been The Clash, for God’s sake, who not only are not particularly sympathic to the values of Nancy Reagan, Michael Deaver, and the Vice President, but aren’t even American? Would the pages of the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” section have been filled for weeks after with the ongoing indignation of record company executives?
Where Watt blundered tactically was in allowing himself to be suckered by the same mirage of counterculture community with which rock artists and audiences have been suckering themselves since Woodstock, not to mention Monterey, not to mention the Beatles or Elvis Presley. In other words, he assumed — to paraphrase a lesson in perception he picked up from the guy who’s been hanging around Nancy’s house all these years — that if you’ve seen one rock band, you’ve seen them all. As far as this entire episode was concerned, the State in this case represented by the Secretary of the Interior, whom virtually everyone understands to be a cretin anyway — lost nothing, excepting the First Lady’s patience, while the outlaw fringe lost something more, because in rushing to deny so heatedly what Watt had to say, they were cowed by him. They were baited into a righteousness sweepstakes, a wholesomeness derby, when that sort of righteousness should have been beneath their contempt.
Personally, I would have found it a lot more comforting had rock artists acknowledged that they indeed honor everything someone like Watt abhors, or are at least not averse to exploring the possibilities of what Watt abhors. To do otherwise not only diminishes the artist’s impact on an open society, it means that the guerrilla warfare which great art should represent in the face of modem culture is in the hands of those waiting for the enemy to provide them the ammunition.
As for the Beach Boys themselves, however, everything turned out just jake. They gave a concert in San Diego Stadium this past Mother’s Day; radio station B-100 FM, sponsors of the show, began printing up 50,000 Watt masks for those attending, until the boys themselves asked the station to cease and desist.
I can appreciate the station’s creative gonzo humor, and I can respect the band’s reluctance to milk the affair for all it’s worth. In the meantime. Senator Robert Dole got them a Fourth of July gig in Kansas, that surf city on the coast of Oz. And now I don’t have to think about any of this anymore — at least not until the Beach Boys make a record Nancy Reagan doesn’t like, at which point it will be time for a name-changing. Something like The Clash, perhaps.