|A photo of the judges of the new reality singing contest show The Voice. It's on NBC.|
At one point in the new reality/contest/talent show The Voice, one of the contestants who has just been deemed worthy by the judges, a beautiful, thin, brunette young lady says something like, "All my life I've been the girl with the pretty face who can sing a little. Now I really feel like this show has shown that I have talent, not just a pretty face."
To which Dick Clark's heir apparent, and host of The Voice, Carson Daly, says something like, "That's why this show is so important."
This moment should go down in reality-show history as one of the smarmiest, silliest, hype-tastic ever recorded. But actually I found myself agreeing with Daly. I was happy that he had pointed that out.
Let me walk you through my line of thinking...
The Voice harnesses the powers of a Prefab Pop Music Mount Olympus (Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine from Maroon 5, Cee Lo Green, and Blake Lively) with their thrones turned backwards so that they can only hear, and not see, the singing contestants as they belt out their auditions. This simple gimmick is what moves me, and probably many others, not because of the gimmickry, but because a genuineness settles in with all the phoniness. You start to believe in people actually developing tastes and making artistic judgements without having to know anything other than art.
Of course I know using The Voice as a metaphor for understanding art and culture is a bit of a stretch, but I keep going over it in my mind, and it makes so much sense because of the transparency and simplicity of the exercise. And also because if the Pop Music Zeuses and Athena do decide to flip their thrones around with their magic buttons that make a totally cool "whoooosh" sound, and there's two or more who want to choose the singer to be on their "teams," the power of the whole enterprise switches over to the amateur: the singer is now in charge of the Mythology. Nice.
And of course now I transpose this narrative onto (you guessed it) the machinations of "outsider art," especially in examining the way this kind of categorization often dictates a biography about the artist prior to, or during the viewing of the artists' art. In an "insider art" context, "biography" often enters the picture as a resume or curriculum vitae, allowing perspective collectors and other interested parties a view through the lens of "professional accomplishment" or whatever. "Outsider" artists usually don't have a lot on their scorecard professionally speaking. They've been shut out of that possibility because they don't have opportunities to go to art school, to network, to play the game. And of course the vast majority of "insider" artists don't have that "in" either, but they do have the opportunity at least to pretend, and to have a pretense of "accomplishment" is much the same anyway in the art biz.
"Outsider" artists (especially those with developmental disabilities) are cordoned off: "special" is often the word. A list of diagnoses, or idiosyncratic "tricks" they have up their sleeves, or another list of all their hardships often becomes the substitute for a resume, and that in turn becomes the conversation: not art, but "special struggle," not aesthetics but a cultural vacuum created by good intentions and a need on the part of "outsider art" collectors and curators to critique "insiderness" via "outsiderness," ie: "Look what this artist who has never been outside of her home has accomplished with house-paint, broken bottles, chicken wire, and ink pens! Take that SNOBS!"
The sad fact is that the SNOBS! run the show, and the SNOBS! work in a world of pedigree, politics, and just plain old power.
Enter The Voice: would it not be lovely if all artistic decisions in galleries and museums across the world took Voice lessons. And had all their curators/board-members/partners take blind taste tests. No categorization, no resume, no social-networking allowed. What would happen?
A big tall overweight kid from Texas, on a stage with the Pop Music Mount Olympus Gods' backs to him, sings some schmaltzy, over-the-top country ballad like a combination of Jeff Buckley and Garth Brooks. And it makes you cry. And then Cee Lo Green turns his throne around and says in that Cee-Lo-Green-godly-raspy way: "When I pressed my button and turned my chair around, I was so glad that voice was coming out of you."