Dylan the icon: a concluding footnote to the idolatry of genius

You never turned around to see the frowns

On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you

You never understood that it ain’t no good

You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you

You used to be so amused

At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal

A few years ago at the Winnipeg Folk Festival I was struck when three of my favourite performers on three separate occasions remarked that the only reason they were on the road making music was because of Dylan and the impact he had made on them. To me this announced the clear influence Dylan continues to command in much of the music making world. Even more striking, however, was the fact that those three performers were quite different from each other (different nationalities, genders, and of course musical genres and styles) and none sounded particularly Dylanesque. This impressed me: in an almost singular way it seemed that Dylan inspired musicians and at the same time inspired them to become distinct artists themselves rather than imitators.

This past year at the festival I was reminded of this and it made me reflect on my recent series on idolatry and genius. What might the kind of influence Dylan has at such a festival teach us about authentic and inauthentic art?  Using the terms and ideas of this series, one could say that Dylan acts as an effective icon for many performers. Of course, even Dylan can be made into an idol (because the idol is made by the gaze), but it seems that there’s something about him that resists being made into an idol and compels an iconic gaze. If this is right, my wager is that we’ll get a better sense of what makes an icon by taking a closer look at Dylan.

One of the most pronounced aspects of Dylan’s relentless creativity and productive drive is a vigilance against being entrapped in ideology. His career reflects someone actively working against the idea of a finished work of art, a musical image accomplished, an idea purified and perfected, a brand to be utilized and protected. For Dylan, many such easy options appeared and he rejected them out of hand, instead opting to continue the ongoing work of expression.

Dylan broke into the music scene “protesting” the established and available ideologies. The answer blowing in the wind is that the old questions and answers are not serving us well. But there’s more to it than this. The reason The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is superior to The Times They are a-Changin’ (which is still amazing) is that in the multi-dimensional Freewheelin’ Dylan is less easy to pin down as a “protest figure.” And this is not only because he offers variety by singing of love sought, abandoned, and lost, though he does do this very well. He also offers levity as a response to seemingly weighty matters, such as nuclear apocalypse (“Talkin’ World War III Blues”) and himself, ‘the generation’s spokesperson’ (“I Shall Be Free”). Both these songs effectively poke fun at our individual and collective self-importance and enact a mischievous pursuit of play at importance’s expense.

There’s a sense in which The Times They are a-Changin’ takes protest as art as far as it can go. Dylan addresses a variety of injustices through Biblically-infused prophecy, story-telling, historical re-narration, lament, and stinging indictment. Such an act provided the route to an available image and in-group crowd, landing him in an establishment of protest with its own easy answers.

Finding himself the image of easy answers, Dylan went elsewhere. “Another Side of Bob Dylan” is Dylan’s refusal to be made an idol by any establishment. This is often observed in his cutting remarks in “It Ain’t Me Babe”:  “You say you’re lookin’ for someone / Who’s never weak but always strong / To protect you and defend you / whether you are right or wrong.” I think he says it even better in the less famous “My Back Pages”, one of the greatest indictments ever written against the lure of ideology. The final two (of six) verses bear repeating: “In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand / At the mongrel dogs who teach / Fearing not that I’d become my enemy / In the instant that I preach / My pathway led by confusion boats / Mutiny from stern to bow / Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now // Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats / Too noble to neglect / Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect / Good and bad, I define these terms / Quite clear, no doubt, somehow / Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”

Such vigilance against being deceived into thinking you have something to protect, against becoming “a self-ordained professor’s tongue, too serious to fool” continues on in Dylan’s career. This is so even his (to some) notoriously close-minded evangelical Christian phase, when he continued to relentlessly question where loyalties lie. To those telling Dylan that in serving a master he acts as if blind, Dylan (pre-emptively) responds that “you gotta serve somebody”; only he follows his master deliberately, with eyes open, whereas his detractors are unwitting slaves to invisible masters. In a similar vein, Dylan’s faith was not a chance to close himself off from self-examination, but an opportunity to examine himself in the light of God’s eyes, as we see in the almost Augustinian “Every Grain of Sand.”

Of course, the point is not merely that Dylan forswears being made into an idol, but that he actively enacts it. In the way he takes his stances and anti-stances (as I’ve partially outlined), I observe two aspects of Dylan’s artistry that compels the iconic gaze.

First, Dylan is always on the move. His tour never ends. It took six actors to portray him in I’m Not There. His songs are never finished: in live performances (before and after recording) and in alternate takes different verses come in and out and the music changes drastically. Sometimes this miserably fails and at other times it works brilliantly, but to Dylan this doesn’t seem to really matter because a song is never finished and is only worth playing if it is being worked on, in some way or another. This is not to say that Dylan’s songs (or his phases) are always lacking something; it is in fact hard to imagine a song more complete or “full” than “Like a Rolling Stone.” Rather, Dylan’s refusal to grasp for a finished work of art, one that will accomplish the task of speaking truth, is part of what enables the completeness of what he does create.

Second, at the same time that he is always moving, his best work also reveals him to be deeply rooted. Before he became a well-known and prolific song-writer, Dylan famously went through a phase of playing only Woodie Guthrie songs. Without absorbing this exemplar, without such a solid place to come from, I doubt Dylan could have become the artist he was. One might even say that his songs are never finished because they aren’t his songs, but Guthrie’s (who himself liked to admit that he ‘stole’ all his songs). Dylan has merely helped these songs to continue on, as the uncited melodies, lyrics, and musical references of others that continue to pop up on even his most recent albums illustrate. There’s something similar going on when, in Chronicles, Dylan reflects on not being able to write songs until he could understand the tragedy of the American Civil War. As a song-writer in and of the U.S., Dylan needed to immerse himself in where he was coming from and to whom he was speaking in order to create authentically.

Art that wholly rejects its roots as well as art that embraces the stagnant complacency of completing a purpose cannot understand this, and whether it takes the form of an easy grandeur (the unquestioned genius) or easy mundanity (IKEA wall-art) it looks suspiciously like an idol. It is in an attentive and engaged surrender to the world and others, in long-learned receptivity, that we find authentic creation. This is why the authentic contains nothing but the inauthentic. It is why we are continually driven to the work of creation, no matter how accomplished and profound the works are that have already been made. It is why authentic followers of Dylan often sound very little like him, but still must follow him to create well. Dylan picks up the songs given to him by the world and works with them, bringing out all that can be brought out, while also letting them be what they are: gifts from the world to him.

As he sings:

I stood unwound beneath the skies

And clouds unbound by laws

The cryin’ rain like a trumpet sang

And asked for no applause

I gazed down in the river’s mirror

And watched its winding strum

The water smooth ran like a hymn

And like a harp did hum

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4 thoughts on “Dylan the icon: a concluding footnote to the idolatry of genius

  1. Great post. One thought for now.

    I’m hesitant to agree that an unfinished work is undoubtedly Iconic. Perhaps you remember I quotation I brought up awhile back: ““A creative artist works on his next composition because he was not satisfied with his previous one” – Shostakovich”

    To me this suggests that finishing a work helps create a distance between the larger narrative and the individual stories that arise from it. The individual works are merely finite instances of an infinite (sometimes inexhaustible) trajectory. What makes an individual, unfinished work not an idol versus an individual unfinished narrative/trajectory?

    I would argue that it has less to do with the fact that the individual works are unfinished than it does with the unfinished project that allows others to grab hold of unfinished aspects of the larger narrative. This is rather easy to see with Schoenberg’s students, some accepting some of his larger project and others rejecting it entirely. In this sense, Dylan’s teachings follow this line, more than, I think the fact that he left his work unfinished.

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    1. I would also never agree that an unfinished work of art is undoubtedly iconic. If I said that it this post, then that’s my mistake. At most I would claim that to be iconic a work of art must be unfinished.

      But in claiming this I’m using the term unfinished in a particular way, and not in its most literal way – namely a work that was abandoned or could not be completed because the artist died or a piece whose nature is continually to be continually worked on (e.g., a song that ends on a musical or lyrical cliffhanger and that a songwriter adds another phrase to once a year or something like). Maybe this makes “unfinished” an unhelpful term for this post. I use it because I’m following Merleau-Ponty, as my follow-up post says, where he distinguishes a “completed” work of art from an “unfinished” work of art. Those are the terms that he (or his translator) uses and because I find his analysis helpful I borrow the terms.

      What do you think of M-P’s analysis in the quotes I provide? He calls a finished work of art a piece of art that 1) has its purpose entirely in the imitation of things; and 2) that exists in itself, not speaking to the viewer. From this I extrapolate that a finished work of art is that says all that can be said – once an apple is painted perfectly there’s no point in any artist painting an apple again, except perhaps to hone his or her skills. When we think of this in the context of genius, a finished work of art is that which definitively concludes a matter. It’s probably sometimes true that on some matters “that’s all there is to say,” but this is different than saying that therefore we should stop speaking. There’s a theological correlative to this in that Jesus is the complete and perfect word of God; there’s no more to be added. But far from this being the end of words about God (and even from God, which is how, to a certain degree, we must interpret the rest of the NT and even every faithful sermon spoken since then), this complete expression of God (Jesus) is the inspiration for his followers to “speak the word” in literal preaching and in acts of discipleship and so forth.

      All of this is to say that I think that Shostakovich quote can work with this post: the completely satisfied artist might be said to be the artist that commits the idolatry of genius; likewise those artists focused more on trying to create works of art that they can be completely satisfied with, rather than with creating the art itself.

      So, yes, I’m a big fan of people finishing their work and seeing it through to the end and letting it be so they might move on to a new thing. Dylan is always making new music; he’s not forever tinkering with old songs or at least that’s not his main focus. It’s just that if he happens to play a song that he finished more than a few years ago it’s going to be done very differently; perhaps this is because the song was completed and done and so it’s only worth revisiting if it can be made into something else.

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  2. I’m not sure if we disagree or not. I think Merleau-Ponty’s point has more to do with the position of an artwork. As in, he claims that some unfinished works of art say all that there is to be said. The work does not facilitate a dialogue; it does not facilitate an interaction on the part of the audience. It merely states X. And then the audience says, “Sure. That makes sense. Now what?” It’s almost as if this artwork merely states the obvious, says something that needn’t have been said. Whereas an artwork that facilitates, and tends toward, endless interpretation, is an artwork that might be what you mean by “unfinished.” In the sense, I would agree with you on most points.

    But let’s take a different kind of example: Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This has been recorded countless, times, and yet, people still think that there is reason to record it again, perform it again, continually let it speak. And yet there is also the continual pressure to play it “as close to as what Bach would have wanted.” So we have one hand, a work that seems to lend itself to continual interpretation, and yet a great deal of work is being put into finding the “most perfect” performance of the work. And even if this work is performed, more or less, perfectly, the interpretation, in terms of seeing and hearing the various workings of the piece, never ceases, even if the performer plays it the same way.

    Or: Take Gregorian chant: the author’s are largely anonymous, and the way in which they are performed (even in private) might change very little. So is this an unfinished artwork or is it an unfinished practice, in the sense that practicing it, continually, facilitates an endless interpretation in the rest of the world. As in, we sing the mass over and over, basically the same, but every time we come back to it with new experiences, and we understand our experiences when we return to the mass, and we begin to understand the mass differently because return with experiences. And so on.

    I guess I am just hesitant to pin it down with a word like unfinished, even if it is defined very carefully, because there are so many things happening at once.

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    1. Thanks for those examples – I think there’s a lot to them in terms of thinking about what it might mean to say that art speaks in some way.

      I agree with your hesitation about fixating on the term “unfinished.” That hesitation is partly why I followed up this post with some M-P quotes that I was drawing on; to say that I’m using this term because I’m drawing on M-P and this is the term he uses.

      I don’t know that I’m pushing for an “endless field of interpretation.” Sometimes the starkness of a work of art provides little room for interpretation. It’s message is direct, compelling, and heavy-hitting. What I am saying is that 1) for some reason we continue to return to this work of art for some reason surrounding the fact that we need it to continue to speak to us rather than a simple knowledge of what it is or does; and 2) even when a work of art speaks directly it’s a mistake to translate this into having said all that can be said.

      So the work of art may have said (or continues to say) all that it needs to say – it’s complete in this sense. An interpretation of the Goldberg Variations (or the Variations themselves) may lack for nothing and do all that it needs to do. But that does not mean that they speak “finally,” that they have the last word on all that might be made.

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