For the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about humanistic efforts that undermine their own projects by not reevaluating what they’re saying about the humanities’ potential, or simply by not availing themselves of that potential.
This week, I want to highlight someone who seems to be getting it right, someone who has revolutionized the idea of modern public Art—a musician whose songs and videos and projects are becoming a major force for humanistic expression in the world.
Amanda Palmer (also known as “AFP,” or “Amanda F***ing Palmer”) started as a street performer after college—something music critic Bob Lefsetz incorrectly calls the “lowest rung of entertainment”—and then functioned in relative obscurity until she became half of that genre-defying and self-described “Brechtian punk cabaret” duo, The Dresden Dolls. Since then, she has rocketed to fame for her unconventional music and several other important reasons: 1) her connection to/treatment of her enormous and devoted fan base, 2) her refusal to participate in what she believes is an anti-artist music label industry, and 3) her personal aesthetic decisions, which often include things like nudity and unshaved armpits, despite the vitriol that is spewed in her direction for not representing an aesthetic ideal.
The song in question is called “Ukulele Anthem”—as you might imagine, it is five and a half minutes of Palmer strumming a ukulele and extolling the virtues of such an act. The lyrics include references to Sid Vicious, an old sing-song rhyme about Lizzy Borden, and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” In its most elemental form, the song is about the potential of art to create a better future (or, rather, the potential of active participation in art). Most of Palmer’s arguments in “Anthem” center on creative expression as an outlet for feelings that can’t be released in any other way—she has multiple songs about this effect, like the verse from “The Killing Type” that says, “I would kill to make you feel. / I don’t mean kill someone for real. / I couldn’t do that, it is wrong./ But I can say it in a song.” There are a couple of incredibly interesting moments in “Ukulele Anthem” that I would like to seize on, however, as they deal quite specifically with the issues that humanistic production faces.
"You may think my approach is simple-minded and naïve, like if you want to save the world then why not quit and feed the hungry? But people for millennia have needed music to survive and that is why I've promised John that I will not feel guilty."
In defending her arguments about participation in art, Palmer scoffs at the notion of artistic ‘uselessness’ in the face of more direct concerns like world hunger. By doing so, I think she hits on one of the key components of humanistic work: shame. American culture is, in many ways, teaching us as we grow up that not participating in ‘real’ solutions to change the world is a shameful thing, that we should be ashamed for wanting to read books or play music or study art unless it’s a hobby to supplement a ‘useful’ life. It can be wonderful for wealthy actors to sponsor a charity or cause of some kind, but, according to Palmer, we need to understand that the acting is also enough of a contribution to change in itself.
The other verse of “Ukulele Anthem” that speaks most clearly to a humanistic project simply says, “Stop pretending art is hard.” In the context of the rest of the song, this could mean one of two things: 1) making art is easy because it is born out of feeling, or 2) we should stop pretending art is out of reach. I’m not sure I agree with the former; art that arises out of affect is incredibly difficult, precisely because it asks you to experience your feeling in a simultaneously close and distant way. The latter point, however, is what is interesting. The humanities have come to represent a peculiarly esoteric entity, and we often play up the difficulty of engaging with them (partly as a reaction to the ‘obvious’ difficulty of scientific research) and end up more harshly discriminating between people in the field. We lament the failure of the early school systems to properly involve students in humanistic study, but we cling to the counterproductive idea that the humanities are only ‘valuable’ if they’re too difficult for almost anyone to understand. Notice that Palmer doesn’t say that everyone should play a ukulele and thus become wildly famous for their inherent talent. She says that maybe the best result one could hope for is to “minimize some stranger’s sadness,” but that that shouldn’t stop anyone from making the attempt.
If we’re ever going to get anywhere with the argument that the humanities and art are necessary for human life, we first have to stop being ashamed of ourselves for pursuing them.