A couple of weeks ago on these pages, rather than attempting to either change the world or to find yet another excuse to advocate for new music (my default positions), I decided to have a little fun instead. So I lightheartedly pondered the possibility of a relationship between the year that a composer was born and the music that he or she subsequently wrote. My head was spinning from reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, which decries our current era’s seeming lack of zeitgeist. And after listening to a series of pieces by composers—both in concert and on recordings—whose music sounded reminiscent (to me at least) of what was going on during their birth years, it seemed a somewhat entertaining and harmless way to get a conversation started about the current state of music. Much to my surprise some folks took it all too seriously and serious debates about my claim continue.
What I’m hoping to get people riled up about today, on the other hand, might seem fairly innocuous at first, but it is something that really gnaws at me as being downright insidious the more I think about it. For the past several months it has been difficult to avoid an ad campaign blitzing the streets and subways of New York City from a clothing company called Diesel. The theme of the campaign is “Be Stupid.” The theme of all these ads is that if you are stupid you are on the cutting edge, cool, and influential. On the other hand, if you are intelligent you’re a hopeless loser. (I include a link to it here not to help drive traffic to them, but just in case some more fortunate person reading this hasn’t yet been subjected to these ads and has no idea what I’m talking about.)
At first I couldn’t quite articulate what I found so irritating about those ads, other than the fact that they are pretty, well, stupid. But after reading a particularly poignant remark in Colin Holter’s post here last week (“Can anyone say with a straight face that the world needs more thoughtless music?”), I think I can venture a guess: In our society, lack of respect for intelligence is constantly being reinforced; to have really deep thoughts about something, anything, is considered a waste of time. And yet to truly empathize with anyone or anything requires much more than a peripheral relationship. One of the reasons that the creation and experience of art—whether music, painting, literature, dance, etc.—is ultimately the most human of activities is that it reinforces a paradigm of empathy, a paradigm necessary for us to co-exist with one another.
The Diesel ads imply that intelligence somehow impedes creativity. I contend that the reverse is true. The more aware you are of something, the more curious you become and that curiosity, and the desire to instill it in others, can lead to an unending well spring of inspiration. But to have a shallow awareness of what is going on around you makes it virtually impossible to create transformative experiences, which is what the most meaningful works of art are. It also makes it impossible to truly look at, read, or listen to something and to be moved by it. Worse still, the inability to pay close attention decreases our ability to empathize with one another and ultimately reduces our humanity.