What Makes Art Great?

Every artist walks a fine line when he/she produces work. That line would be roughly described, I guess, as the line between making art that is solely for the artist and then art that is meant to be loved by as many people as possible. On the “art for the most people possible” side of the scale, you’ll find bands like Fun., writers like the 50 Shades of Gray lady, etc. On the “for the artist” side, you’d find a lot of people you’ve never heard of. Because to make art totally and 100% for oneself is what mental patients do… the dude in his parent’s basement painting all black watercolors of his cat, etc.

(If it’s not clear by this point, when I refer to “art” and “artists” here, I’m referring to any creative work, not just visual art. Music, poetry, prose, film, graffiti on the side of the road, popsicle sticks glued together… all is fair game here when I’m talking about “art.”)

This line between mass consumption and personal vision may not seem like a huge deal (except, of course, for the indie rock Pitchfork crowd, who basically stays up at night worrying that a band they love might be selling out or what the fuck ever), but it is a huge deal if you produce art, in whatever form.

What the last three paragraphs was trying to say, basically, in a really simple sentence: great art seems to happen when an artist stays true to a singular personal vision that somehow remembers its audience. Art made for me AND you. Think Dostoyevsky. Think Pollock. Think Coppola. Think Cobain (though it might have killed him.) When a piece of art is made personally, but still somehow manage to connect with me as an audience member, the connection is much deeper than when the art is produced for the masses, for the lowest common denominator.

(Quick note on Cobain: I don’t actually think his struggles with mass popularity/selling out killed him. I think serious, real clinical depression killed him. But the fact that people think that this line between personal/public art could explain his death, I think, shows how real this dilemma is for artists.)

This seems so obvious, and maybe it is, but it is still interesting to me. It’s also how I have traditionally found art that I truly love… when I’m looking for a movie, or a new album, or a new book, I am on the hunt, my nose trained like a hunting dog, for moments when an artist seems to have created an entirely personal piece of art that is actually listenable/watchable/readable. This is when you get the goods, I think.

I recently found a piece of art that hits this criterion. It’s an album recorded by Craig Martinson, called Heartbeat. You can hear it on Spotify here. It’s also on iTunes. It’s one of the strangest, most wonderful albums I’ve heard in a long time.

And it nails that particular essence of “I made this for myself but it’s also going to connect with you” which I look for in art. Heartbeat ranges across genres, topics, voices… its manic energy is at once totally bewildering and totally exhilarating. It kicks off with a Beatles-esque “Day in the Life” take, which (mid-song!) changes to a Graceland afro-pop stomp. The next two songs are straight country numbers. Then two more tracks that will remind you of Revolver, followed up later by a song called “Jeffrey,” which is about a cross-dressing male prostitute that channels both Lou Reed and Jeff Mangum. The album ends with an ode to Abraham Lincoln. (Lyrics: “You’re on the penny and the five dollar bill. But I love you still! And I always will!”)

There’s no thematic consistency to this album. It sounds like a mixtape from the subconscious of a buddy of yours who has a really kick ass old record collection. This album doesn’t fit into any “genre” really, nor would it ever do well with a focus group. It’s bizarre, erratic, and totally and completely original.

It goes without saying that this is my favorite album I’ve heard in some time, for all of the reasons listed above. Martinson made an album for himself, but somehow, in some way, it rang bells for me. That’s all I’m looking for, really. And I’m excited I found it. TC Mark

image – Heartbeat

More From Thought Catalog