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One of the photos by Ryan McGinley, which accompanied Lynn Hirschberg’s profile of M.I.A. in the The New York Times Magazine (via nytimes.com)

“Artist” is a loosely defined term. It’s not like being a bus driver, or a mayor, or a venture capitalist. We know that those jobs have definitions and specific roles that they fill (well, I guess I’m not entirely clear on venture capitalists — they’re the people that waste loads of money on worthless Internet fads like Twitter, right?). Those jobs are unlike being an artist because they have specific definitions, unlike being an artist which means … what exactly?

I’m beginning to learn more about what it means to be an artist, since I have just recently graduated with a degree in studio art and am now having to field questions like “What are you going to do with that?” and “What jobs are you applying for?” I also know about this dilemma from studying art history and reading about all of the artists who have held down several jobs while pursuing their art dreams. Being an artist is much less like having a standard 9 to 5 profession, and much more like an all-encompassing way of living.

Artists, now as they always have, live their art. In an artist, one can find the intrinsic need to create, no matter what their limitations are. A bus driver knows how to drive a bus because they have a tangible skill that they acquired through training. An artist can learn tangible skills too (like how to make a double mocha soy Frappuccino for the venture capitalist. Wait, I meant things more like drawing with perspective and mixing oil paints), and an artist can use their skills in many valuable ways. Some people take their work home from the office with them in the form of spreadsheets and Word documents on their laptops and Blackberries. But whereas other professionals may be able to flick the off switch for their tools of the trade, artists don’t have a choice — they constantly carry around their tools. That’s because the most valuable tools to an artist are their senses — their eyes, ears, smell, etc, but most of all it is their brain. An artist without their most valuable tool isn’t going to get anything done. At best, they’ll be an assistant being ordered to finish this or that task.

The Point

Diplo spinning at Soundlab in Buffalo (via flickr.com/buffawhat

Okay, what exactly does Diplo have to do with all of this? For those of you living under a rock, he’s a successful DJ who is known for mixing musical styles from around the world into catchy, danceable songs. Diplo’s musical career has been intertwined with that of Sri Lankan/British/Global Citizen M.I.A. since 2003, when the two worked together on a very favorably reviewed mixtape. M.I.A. has been on a steady rise to fame accompanied by crucial amounts of hype and critical acclaim … and connections. With her third studio album soon to be released, she was profiled by sometimes controversial New York Times columnist Lynn Hirschberg. The interview, a 9-page story in the New York Times Magazine, has achieved its own kind of fame due to the spoiled princess picture Hirschberg paints of M.I.A., and because Hirschberg indirectly accuses M.I.A. of making the political situation in Sri Lanka worse due to her cavalier over-simplification of it. After the interview was published, M.I.A. released Hirschberg’s phone number over Twitter, and because we later learned from audio recordings that a particularly damning portion of the article was at least partially contrived by Hirschberg, and because M.I.A. released a diss-track about Hirschberg, and because …

Whoa, sorry about that. The whole thing sort of spiraled out of control. That is unless you don’t care about it, in which case you don’t need to worry about this very public social media-fueled feud. But for those who are paying even a modicum of attention, the deluge of media coverage that has been given to M.I.A.’s reaction and Hirschberg’s clandestine sponsorship by the Coalition of Potato Farmers of Idaho has drowned out any serious discussion of the article. Believe me, I’ve Google’d. But wait, I tell you! There are a series of paragraphs near the beginning of the profile that you might have missed because of all the other distractions. I’d like to call your attention to them in order to give Diplo a lesson about what it means to be an artist.

It starts when M.I.A. relays her admiration for Madonna. Hirschberg writes:

Like Madonna, Maya is not a trained musician but instead a brilliant editor, able to pick and choose and bend the talents of others to fit her goals.

One page later, Hirschberg drops a quote from her talk with Diplo about the singer:

In the end, Maya is postmodern: she can’t really make music or art that well, but she’s better than anyone at putting crazy ideas into motion. She knows how to manipulate, how to withhold, how to get what she wants.

For all of Hirschberg’s editing and editorializing, she lets these comments go without qualification. Does Hirschberg agree? Subtly, yes it seems this way. There is tacit agreement that M.I.A. is not an artist for a variety of reasons. Near the end of the profile, M.I.A. is describing her “crazy ideas” to two technically gifted designers. She wants the two women to incorporate some of her own designs with some of theirs. Despite the bewilderment and nervousness of the designers, they realize that they have been drafted onto Team M.I.A., and are now at her beck and call. As Hirschberg describes it, neither of the two fully comprehend M.I.A.’s ideas, but they wouldn’t dare disagree with her. She is the artist, she has the ideas, she wants them to be made real, and therefore she is the one calling the shots.

Repeat After Me: Art Is …

M.I.A. at Coachella 2009 (via flickr.com/rasmin)

I would argue that, that is what being an artist is all about, and that is why Diplo got it so wrong when he said that she can’t make art very well. The function of art may have changed over the years, but the command of the artist has remained relevant and important. Diplo’s statement implied a sentiment I’ve heard many times before, namely that the artist must do something personally, by hand, in order for it to be art. I’ve never believed this to be true at any point in history, but now it holds even less weight than ever.

I would like to banish that mode of thinking forever, but that would be the wrong thing to do. When we hear it over and over again, it forces us to continually reaffirm it’s lack of validity and pushes us to positively assert what it means to be an artist. So really Diplo was doing artists like M.I.A. a favor: he was wrong for the right reasons.

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Tim McCool

Tim McCool is an artist living and working in Boston, but calls Pittsburgh home. Visit his website and find him on Twitter at @tmccool.

4 replies on “What Diplo Got Wrong about Art”

  1. Nice piece Tim. This is something I have thought about a lot. Particularly the first part about how artists don’t switch on and off. The “hat” of the artist is always placed upon the head, whether at a day job, in the studio, on the subway or in the company of others.

    As someone who took a long break from creative activities and has only recently begun to root through my closet looking for my artist (dunce?) cap, I’ve been floored at times at how often I am creating. It would be a curse not to be able to simply sit back and enjoy things, movies, music, painting, graffiti, if I wasn’t so damn proud of the fact that I am always conjouring up originalities in the world that I perceive.

    The story about MIA reminds me of the a recent news item out of German about a young female author who skyrocketed to the top of the book charts only to be revealed as a pretty serious plagiarist. Her defense was that she was basically remixing the work of others into something new. Take a look, I think there is a follow up to your piece here…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/world/europe/12germany.html

    1. That’s a great find, Zach. In fact it reminds me of a time when I was listening to M.I.A. (surprise surprise). The chorus of her song 20 Dollar (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iG4b9GKX9Q) is exactly the same as Where is My Mind by the Pixies. My friend was hearing it for the first time, and when the chorus hit he got angry and turned to me and said “Wait a second, she STOLE that from the Pixies.” I had a totally different perception of it, I didn’t see it as stealing, I just thought that she took something and reinterpreted it in her song. I like both of the songs, and although it’s basic Semiotics 101, I still think it’s fascinating to examine the ways in which the same exact words have different meanings when placed in these different contexts. In this particular case, the fact that the Pixies used that chorus first was kind of an after thought for me, because I was looking at it differently than my friend, who placed all of the importance on originality.

      I think the German author in that article wants to blur the lines between inspiration and plagiarism. She’s taking pages of text away from another, but then she has her characters sort of subtly hint that that’s what happened and that it’s acceptable. But that’s her view on it and it’s clearly a controversial one. Maybe if she had copied passages from a more famous book (like how M.I.A. took a chorus from an already famous and influential band’s song) and then referenced it in her story, I would be more willing to grant her leniency on her “intertextuality” defense. But to copy from a relatively obscure author (anonymous blogger?) looks more like plagiarism.

  2. Not forgetting the wonderfully subversive “somethings” that M.I.A. has done originally and “personally, by hand, in order for it to be art.” 🙂
    But if their was one thing that showed how much of an artist she is, it was her epic smackdown expose of the NYT following this fiasco!
    The article was a bore, only because, as the writer’s later splitting hair excuses reveal, she came at Maya with a vicious moronic agenda, picked a handful of random sentences, incoherent hate commentary from known haters, and thought the NYT had finally got their revenge on M.I.A.
    How laughably wrong.

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