Art & Accessibility

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I’ve been struggling over a quote that I’ve read from Madeleine L’Engle, who I personally think is one of God’s most precious gifts to the artistically inclined. Her books like Walking on Water have inspired me toward many endeavors and I have passed that particular book to several friends who all say the same: how wonderful it is.

Yet there’s this line in the book: “Art should communicate with as many people as possible…”

Really? Of course, the second half of that line reads “not just with a group of the esoteric elite.” And while I would agree that art doesn’t exist for the purpose of society’s elite, I also just wanted to ask a simple question in regards to the first half of L’Engle’s statement.

How accessible should art truly be?

Such a blanket statement is hardly easy to break down into a formulaic equation – discovering the precise amount of accessibility a sonnet or song should hold. But I do think we could have an intelligent discussion on such a topic.

The reason I’m drawn to this idea is simple: one of my strongest dislikes and quickest triggers to get frustrated concern this area of popular culture. Radio rock music, for example, where the Nickelbacks of our time continue to make millions hand-over-fist playing formula driven songs catering to the three-minute pop formula. These songs are as accessible as it gets, yet I hardly believe them to be artistic in any way.

Want your country song to be accessible? Mention the flag, God, America, kickin’ tail, and your silly clothing that goes along with all of these and you’re set. Accessible to all of middle America and a certified hit for sure.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit cynical. But I will say that this site alone holds evidence of fantastic, thoughtful artists who either have to get used to the fringe of pop culture – a niche within a niche, as Derek Webb told me one time – or else stop making music. It seems the most meaningful art around us, movies and music and otherwise, exists around the fringe, yet L’Engle here stresses the need for artists to pursue accessibility.

I am not a songwriter. Nor a poet or painter or any other sort of artist. But I feel I know enough about the subject as an appreciator that I do not want my favorite writers and directors and singers to move toward that idea of accessibility. It seems it would ‘water things down.’ And it seems my favorite artists end up scoffing at that notion anyway – as if they recognize the need to preserve the integrity of their art.

So what is the balance here? What does L’Engle mean by this? What’s the tension for an artist to make art for the masses and yet retain its integrity as art?

Profile photo of Matt Conner

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


18 Comments

  1. Loren Eaton

    Brandywine Books recently published a quote about this from David Foster Wallace. He said, “If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.”

  2. Kory Wilcox

    I would tend to interpret this quote less as meaning that you must gear your art primarily for the masses by neutering it, and more as meaning you must gear your art primarily for the community(ies) you are already a part of (for a reason) as a means of uniquely identifying both them and yourself. In other words, when you try to make something universal, you’re missing the point entirely. The personal is universal.

    Christian music, too, is riddled with fridge-magnet praise songs and pop components, which do have their place, but nothing will translate more clearly to a congregation than a song that’s raw enough to feel as though maybe it was a letter written to and for them. This is why scripture and hymns should never lose their place in the church. Repitition can be art, but often it’s just catchy or rote.

    I would intepret L’Engle as saying somewhat the opposite of what you are afraid she’s saying: when you create art, don’t do it with pleasing everybody in mind, because that’s not real, and people don’t actually connect with that. In order for art to sincerely communicate with people, doesn’t it have to communicate something rather than dispense something?

    To me, three-minute-pop music is more often dispensable. Transparent, personal music is more often accessible. The danger to the artist comes in assuming that people who usually only desire the former are incapable of seeing the beauty of the latter. –kory

  3. Xavier Duncan

    I would say that those 2 comments sum up every meaningful thought that I immediately had. Good question, and wonderful responses! Couldn’t agree more.

  4. Aaron Roughton

    My thought is that we (as artists and consumers of art) should be more concerned with authenticity than accessibility, if we even need a reason for concern. Most artists I know (and respect) are artists because they have a desire to communicate with someone in the world around them through a means of creative expression. Whether they are communicating with a small group or a large group should not be a basis for our criticism or their art.

    I think the warning from L’Engle is most likely the warning against the “avant-garde pitfall” from Loren’s post. I know artists who try to be cryptic and inaccessible just to avoid being lumped in with anything that might be labeled “pop” (and then subsequently mocked by Matt in his RR posts). And on the consumer side, I have friends who won’t listen to anything that anyone else has heard of or could possibly connect with. Of course we all know people who won’t try anything that doesn’t show up on the Billboard Top 40 because they assume that if it didn’t make it to the radio it’s not worth listening to. Both groups are missing out. It’s the Original Cliche’ that Gullahorn talks about. It all boils down to the same desire to belong, whether it’s riding the bandwagon, or belonging to the group that mocks the bandwagon.

    Now where is my NSync Celebrity album?

  5. Nathan Bubna

    I think there is a world of difference between accessibility and pandering to the lowest common denominator. Having your work be accessible does not mean that it must be popular. Popularity implies accessibility, but accessibility does not imply popularity.

    You can communicate to as many people as possible, yet still remain quite unpopular. Granted, there are limits on what you can say whilst remaining accessible, but these are much further out than many assume. Communicating broadly is still primarily about how you say things, than what you are saying. Some things simply take greater skill to say in accessible ways than others.

  6. Aaron Roughton

    “Popularity implies accessibility, but accessibility does not imply popularity.”

    “Some things simply take greater skill to say in accessible ways than others.”

    Fantastic stuff. As are the first two posts. I should learn to just pipe down and listen more often.

  7. Chris Slaten

    I’ve agreed with everyone of the comments. You all have spoken my mind. I will say this, in general, I do not think that there is anything accessible about the facades and oversimplifications of pop music.

  8. l

    ilike nickel back ! I know not all their songs are great but I love savin me, someday, feeling too good photograph, and far away !!

  9. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Matt,

    When I was recording my last record, I showed my friend and pastor some of the songs. My pastor said, “Ron, not everyone is going to get, “I’m getting off this effort-wheel.” My reply was that the people who were ready to get it, and needed to get it, would get it. My songs tend toward the personal and not always highly accessible, unless the person has been through an identity crash and is beginning to have God pick up the pieces. I don’t have a problem with the lack of accessibility, given the nature of the subject material, though my label Rounder might prefer that I just stick to bluegrass (and as a matter of fact, instrumental bluegrass is next on my list). But I’m interested greatly in the effect my lyrics and writing seem to have on certain people at a very specific stage in their lives. It’s a stage of really stepping out into who they are, and relying on God’s stated Facts rather than all the old paradigms they grew up with.

    So I’d say it depends on the subject, and the artist. With artistic communication, as with any communication, we also have the problem of the listener being half (at least) of the equation. Not only do we have to communicate effectively as artists; listeners vary widely (and wildly) in their ability to pay attention.

    The fact is that many people don’t really listen to music (I mean really pay attention to what is happening, the lyrics, the guitars, etc); Many use it as a sort of identity-potion that makes them feel they’re giving off a certain image. You can see this whenever someone identifies only with one genre, and looks down on all (or nearly all) others. You can see it in white middle class suburban kids being the biggest rap buyers; they’re looking for an image, to seem cool, tough, and not necessarily listening to music. I’ve seen this in some bluegrass; the lyrics are really just there as what Lewis called “a hieroglyph”, the minimum requirement of lyrical astuteness to enjoy banjos pickin’ and fiddles fiddlin’ and a sense of nostalgia. It’s seen in country music, and many other forms. My first record had a review from a bluegrasser on Amazon who said, “This is a record for people who like to study the lyrics and work out the metaphors. But it wasn’t what I was hoping for. Ron can really play, and the work he has done with Alison Krauss is first rate. So I had expected that this solo outing would be his chance to show his musicianship from out front. Instead, it is largely proselytizing for his faith…” Apparently he hadn’t heard of “Gospel Music,” which I’ve heard is a long standing tradition in bluegrass.

    As someone said once, long ago, when James Taylor was mentioned, “Well, I guess it’s good mellow music.” End of conversation. What do you say after that?

  10. Steve B

    I also agree with Nathan, that you might be unintentionally confusing accessibility with popularity. “Fantastic, thoughtful art”, made by thoughtful, less-than-perfect artists, seems to me by definition the minority, the “fringe within a fringe,” simply because most people are indeed looking for an image, or to belong, or sometimes just for major chords and a loud 4/4 beat (and sometimes this last one isn’t a bad thing). I think we probably all have music we listen to just to relax and enjoy and not think too hard about – many of us call this our “workout mix.” We probably all have movies and books and TV shows – incidentally the one part of Wallace’s quote I think he got completely wrong; not all television is formulaic and crass – that we relax to and enjoy and not think too much about. That’s okay.

    But there’s also stuff we go to for reflection, meditation, hard thinking, prayer, complexity, etc. and that’s the stuff we get excited about, we develop passions for, we eagerly await the next thing by the writer or creative team involved. And when that happens, that’s what accessible means. We, and maybe somebody else out there too, “gets it.” Probably the artist tried hard to make their work accessible, to give enough within the art to make others understand, to feel, to think, to believe the story they’re telling. Maybe the artist didn’t, but someone got it anyway – that happens too.

    For myself, if I start thinking about judging “how much” accessibility my writing has, I start thinking about a true story I read once about this retired pastor. One of the young pastors in his church came to him and said “We’re so excited! People keep coming in! They’re enjoying it, they’re getting it! People are starting to give their lives to Christ! So far there have 47 conversions! Tell me, how do we grow this movement? How do we capitalize on this blessing? How do we make this 47 147 or 1,147?” And the retired pastor looks him square in the eye and says, “The first thing to do is stop counting.”

  11. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Steve,

    Great story – I think many movements of the Spirit end up twisted like that; “How do we box God in and make Him do it this way every time?

    Transparency is big in art. With the best artists I believe one gets a feel for who they really are inside (and I mean deep down). The person who caters to a little elite group of artists, hoping to gain their approval, is not being transparent; he’s engaging in duplicity and falseness. In everyday life it’s transparency that enables others to have a ‘handle’ to grab hold of the Spirit in us. If we’re wearing a mask no one is going to be able to get that handle; no handle, no Spirit. The Pharisees were great at not giving anyone a handle; they were elitists.

    It’s also true that there is music we “use” rather than “receive” (using Lewis’s categories from An Experiment in Criticism), as in “work-out music.” But there is a difference between “not as deep” and “inane.” It’s helpful to think of it on a continuum.

    Accessibility just means the art communicates to the listener. It can be accessible in a very shallow way, or a very deep, life-changing way.

    In the end, as an artist, no matter what level of popularity, when you lay down on your bed at night all you’ve got is the music, paintings, the writing you’ve done – whether or not it’s really honest, transparent, and life-changing for some people – whether or not it’s ‘good work’ – and what God has done through it. The rest is just details.

  12. Stacy Grubb

    What? No mention of how to make a bluegrass song accessible? Get drunk, murder yer girl, and take it to Jesus (recipe courtesy of Marcie Horne).

    I definitely think there is a way to make your art accessible, even popular, and still maintain the integrity of art’s true intention. For example, when Ron mentioned above that his pastor said that most people won’t know what the “effort-wheel” is. Not so long ago, I wouldn’t have known, yet I was still, on some level, connecting with Ron’s music and I was certainly enjoying. Something else in the formula was still accessible to me. It boggles my mind to think of how much I could love a song before I even understood what it was about. And once I do understand (which often comes about because I try to get to the root of the meaning of the song), it’s as if a whole new dimension is opened and I realize that I hadn’t been loving the song at all. NOW I’m loving the song.

    All of that said, I can’t imagine being consistently successful at maintaining the integrity of your art if you get sidetracked with how to make it accessible to lots and lots of people. If it’s something in your heart and mind, then the odds are overwhelming that it’s in someone else’s heart and mind and therein lies your audience. The very most important people to reach are the ones who need to hear what you have to say. You can water it down and possibly reach more people, but then it’s too bad, so sad for the people who are longing for more and not finding it.

    Stacy

  13. kay morrison

    “When I was recording my last record, I showed my friend and pastor some of the songs. My pastor said, “Ron, not everyone is going to get, “I’m getting off this effort-wheel.” My reply was that the people who were ready to get it, and needed to get it, would get it. ”
    these are profound words by ron block.
    Jesus spoke artfully and His words had that same affect.

  14. Leigh McLeroy

    Fascinating comments. Maybe because I’m a writer of books and not music, I don’t get the “code” meaning of “accessible.” (I suddenly thought of Fezik in “Princess Bride” saying “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”) I’ve never thought of accessible as a code word for “marketable” or “popular.” I wonder if L’Engle might have really meant accessible as in, given access to, or easily had. Not easily understood or rightly apprehended, just “gotten,” or exposed to or near enough to enjoy. In my view, I’m an accessible writer because you can find my writing if you look for my books, whether or not they appeal to you. And if you’re not a book buyer and you still want to read what I have to say, you can hear from me each week via a short bit of writing I call Wednesday words. (Subscriber only, but no charge, for almost six years now. Why? Because writing something fresh each week and promising it to the people who want it keeps me attentive, and accountable, and “close” to readers.) The web makes art accessible in a way that it has never been before. Rabbit Room makes the wonderful work of many of you wonderful songwriters “accessible” to me. I can click a link and explore your art. And I do. A tree with fruit hanging low enough to pluck does not mean the fruit is common. It might be uncommonly good. And thank goodness, it’s easy for those who’d like to sample it to get to. Michaelangelo’s work was accessible in his day. A peasant could walk by it without being asked to pay a fee, or quizzed about whether or not he “got it.” It was there. Accessible. Maybe I’m looking at this too simply. But to me, accessibility means putting my work where people can get to it. I’m thankful when it resonates; I’m thrilled when I hear about it. But I agree with Ron that the artist’s satisfaction is in having done good work. Dorothy Sayers said she was sure no wobbly tables ever came out of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Good, honest work “put out there” is accessible. I fear perhaps I’ve missed the point, but I hope not. At any rate I’m thankful for this “room” where so much truth and beauty is mine for the taking.

  15. Stacy Grubb

    Leigh,

    Like you, I tend to read that quote at its simplest form. I take for granted that she was only saying that art should be displayed and not hidden away (which is what we are told to do with our God-given talents). I’ve accessed lots of art that I neither got, nor enjoyed lol.

    Stacy

  16. Clay

    Is it fair to say that art should communicate with as many people as possible in the same way my heart tries to communicate? There are deep feelings and intuitive truths in my heart that I struggle to communicate to others. I really want as many people as possible to know and understand them, so I attempt to use language as well as I can to help as many as I can to really hear what I want to say. However, there is a fine line between passionate language and pedantic language; cross the line and I move from “communicating” my heart to simply disseminating mental information. If I want to truly communicate my heart, I cannot cross that line, which defines the limit of my “as many people as possible” audience.

    I like to think of artistic expression as “panes of grace,” windows of truth created by the artist by which others can see an unseen world, or a shadow of truth enlightened by the artist’s skill. Some artists are better than others at pulling back the curtains and keeping fog off the glass, but all artists still must create a window, a pane of grace. They are limited by the glass. Not everyone will look through their pane, and not everyone will see exactly what the artist has seen through the pane, but the artist’s creative concern is only that “as many people as possible” might be able to see what he or she has seen.

    On Panes of Grace:
    Windows made of ink and light, of note and line;
    Dim glass portals fixed within this mortal frame of time.
    On panes of grace we trace the fragile shades of his design:
    Creator God, created, and creation;
    Hints of places just beyond our grasping.
    Seeing through the artist’s heart, we hold the hope divine.
    ckc, 2007

  17. Leonie

    i have found this very interesting indeed. on the quote “Art should communicate with as many people as possible…” i see that this means exactly the opposite of artists ( of all kinds)going down a commercialised constricted road presurised by what is seen to sell and be what people want. in that i mean altering their works in such a way to fit the ‘formula’. the quote follows on to say “not just with a group of the esoteric elite.”. i interpret this to be saying not to form ones creativity to appeal or be accepted by a specific group – whatever that group may be. But in the same way that Jesus came for all so be our creativity for all geared neither one way or the other. If our creativity come s from within inspired by our relationship with God and others it will almost certainly speak to the hearts of many.

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