Sacrifice in art is well documented over the ages, and notoriety can take art sacrifice to a new level. Does extreme sacrifice elevate art or taint its reputation? Here, we highlight a few stories from pop culture to explore sacrifice in the name of creativity.
To begin, consider:
1. Does art require some degree of sacrifice to be worthy of its definition?
2. If so, what degree of sacrifice is required?
3. At what point does sacrifice become irrelevant, because sacrifice has become the art simulacrum?
Simulacrum: noun. a representation of something else; an unsatisfactory substitute.
We’re all familiar with the concept of sacrificing oneself for art, but I'd venture to guess that for most of us, that involves extra caffeine, intermittent sleep deficits, or some mild mental anguish after a rough go at a draft. Suffering for one's art is another overlapping concept and I'm not here to tell you how to do what you do.
The extent to which we consider what sacrifice means in art might depend on whether we view it on a spectrum or as a tipping point. Then, does that sacrifice heighten or lessen the value of the art? Here’s what I mean: when you think about art and its sacrifices, do you picture it more like A or like B? (Or some C that I’m not considering?)
Throughout history, there have been artists that have taken the concept of sacrifice to the extreme. These artists seemingly fascinate the public. From Banksy, to the Jim Rose Circus, to Norwegian black metal's uprising, we're talking about art that, for many reasons, crosses lines. A little sacrifice, experimentation, or suffering is one thing. But, when creativity becomes something else, whether it’s unhealthy, illegal, inhumane, or destructive, what effect does it have on the art itself?
I don’t need to tell you who Banksy is, or recap his art career. Instead, let’s talk about how he went from graffiti artist and Wikipedia-designated “vandal” to having portions of art-ladened walls and ship hulls removed from their original spaces, placed in museums around the world, and/or sold for unseemly monetary amounts. In fact, his anonymity is often cited on the basis that graffiti is illegal. His artwork is subversive and polarizing, but it's interesting and unique. Did we see enough of it along a time spectrum that we began to label it as "greater art," or did one piece tip the scales on the public view of Banksy as an artist? What happened to make us say, “that’s cool enough to forgive and keep."
“Ay, there’s the rub.” - Shakespeare's Hamlet
Are you familiar with the Jim Rose Circus? We could spend a whole blog post on the concept of artistic subcultures, but instead we’ll briefly mention the self-proclaimed “Godfather of the Modern Freak Show.” Considered performance art, the sideshow actors In Rose’s show deliver art involving bodily pain, mutilation, and various levels of risk to health and life. You could plot the different acts along the spectrum, but some just outright tip the scales. (The guy who lifts weights with his genitals, anyone? Okay, how about the one that eats glass?) Let's argue that art is a matter of taste, but the taste of glass makes us take notice.
Axiom: If culture, then subculture
Maybe we accept cool stenciled spray paint, but question regurgitated liquids into a crowd. There's sacrifice in both to some (great?) extent. But what if we tiptoe into triple feature territory: satanic worship/arson/murder. I’m talking the infamous story of the Norwegian black metal group Mayhem and its associated acts. This isn’t a tipped scale. This is a broken, shattered, busted, in-over-your-head, there was a scale? scale. It’s all explained in Lords of Chaos, the book and the movie, but it's what happens when one musician tries to continually one-up another for the sake of notoriety.
This is a story where musicians took words as a challenge and committed heinous moves in an effort to make a name. It went beyond destruction. It went beyond humanity. This is a music group that burned down age-old churches, committed two brutal murders, and off-sprung some hate groups. This is a music group that also led to a huge metal subgenre of music that has a very large following, and birthed groups that follow a straight-and-narrow. Can you separate the story from the music?
If I had to guess, I'd say Banksy sacrifices his freedom and persona for his work, but his payoff is in fame and fortune. The members of the Jim Rose Circus sacrificed their bodies and health, and the payoffs vary. Arguably, The Enigma gained more notoriety than some other Circus members, but at significant bodily cost. Several of the numerous members of Mayhem sacrificed their freedoms and lives, and earned only notoriety. The spirit of early Norwegian black metal lives in a haunted past, but produced some quality music. I could argue that the art here is separate from the stories, or even the artists' drive. Perhaps it's all need for something else, entirely. A simulacrum, if you will. If art, then freedom. But freedom from what, who knows?
Let's tip the scales on their head and explore this:
If Banksy spray painted on canvases, would you Exit Through the Gift Shop?
If Jim Rose's acts performed for Barnum and Bailey, could you talk about them until your tongue split?
If early Norwegian black metal played the middle school circuit, would you have ever been privy to the Inner Circle?
These are questions I can’t answer - where art exists along tipping points, imaginary spectrums, or scales burnt to unrecognizable char, in an effort to reach some self-defined greatness.
Is it a matter of taste, tolerance, or something else? Does sacrifice make greater art? Or does a great sacrifice open up to greater notoriety... and therefore greater public notice?
In the end, is it just a matter of how well the art stands on its own two feet? Maybe we're so starved for art as brain food that we'll forgive its sins.
I don’t know, but if sacrificial art is food, I eat it up.