Theory of Obscurity: Does Obscurity Create Better Art?




Theory of Obscurity is a documentary by The Residents, a music group and art collective. The Residents, best known for their eyeball-with-tophat costumes produce music that is often either deconstructionist or theme-based. They are weird, cool, interesting... and fairly inaccessible to the casual listener. Their documentary is based on a coined phrase that we’ll discuss here today because it pertains to all artists and it surrounds the concept of inaccessibility itself. It's aptly titled:


The Theory of Obscurity.


The theory was originally described by a musician named The Mysterious N. Senada, best known for his collaborations with The Residents from 1970 to the mid-to-late 1980s. Senada’s theory states that “an artist can only produce the purest expression of their art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration at all.” There are two components to consider here. First, the theory states one's best art occurs when the artist is released from societal pressures to create. The second is that the most important artistic expressions happen when an artist is removed from all external influences.


If you're familiar with this blog, you're aware that I no longer simply watch a documentary without my brain sparking "blog!" when something like the Theory of Obscurity is introduced. I honestly don't know what would happen to me if I had to write in isolation. Oooh. My weak writer heart thinks we should take a dive in and see if I have the nerve to consider such an undertaking. Join me.


There's that saying that you have your entire life to write your first book/album/etc., and doing so means you're doing it in general obscurity. That's why firsts are often so good; the artist is taking the time to revise, refine, and perfect it. Often, this process is years in the making and is a labor of love and exhaustion. The band Boston is a great example - it took band leader Tom Scholz years to write the first album, and that album is fantastic. He created it without the pressures of the public eye. However, the demand for a fast-tracked sophomore release didn't allow the same attention to time and detail. Needless to say, I (and probably several other Boston fans) like the first album a great deal better than the second.


Isolation seems to be the reason that artistic groups go away on creative retreats. For example, this is well-documented in the movie Frank. If the retreat doesn’t end like Frank, it could serve as a team-building exercise to focus on nothing but the artistic task at hand. At best case, a creative life-force comes from the retreat time; at worse, the artists are closer as a group.*


As a solo exercise, taking time for the obscure life forces the artist into the Stephen Pressfield approach: good, old-fashioned, butt-in-chair. Work in equals work out.


Now, there's a pitfall in taking yourself out of the public eye. If you're overly concerned about outside influence, or you're too worried about your work being judged or criticized, you may never leave obscurity. Then, the work stays in your notebooks, your brain, your hard drive, etc. Ultimately, this argument says to obscurity theory: "what's the point?" If you are someone who has taken to the theory from the vantage of imposter syndrome, you need to be strong enough to break free from obscurity. Welcome the outside world to the brain museum.


Finally, if your fear of creation is being a copycat, there's the argument that there are no original ideas. I won't dare comment on that, because like everyone else, I'm holding out hope that I can come up with at least one original idea in my lifetime, but I'll offer this: everyone is influenced by what they've encountered in their own lives. Unless you’ve been locked in a dark room since birth with no external contact, no one is without influence. Therefore, time-boxing the theory if you're an artist going into obscurity for, say, six months to preclude external cultural influence doesn’t hold up well. Even in the confines of darkened and shaded walls, you're still pulling from your vast well of imagination, which is still pulling from… well, everything that’s already influenced you.


All this talking about obscurity deserves a brief mention of how The Residents achieved their own obscure presence. They created all of their art with one big eyeball mask over their heads (among other costumes). The Residents saw their fans, but the fans saw The Residents, the group; not the artists behind the masks. While publicly performing and creating, they maintained enough anonymity to be able to create in obscurity.


Do you work with a pen name? Well, congratulations. Way to be obscure.


*At worst, everyone hates each other by the end of forced time together in seclusion, but since 2020 has been shit, I'm KEEPING IT HAPPY.





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