David Bowie: Artist But Not Prophet
DAVID BOWIE'S DEATH inspired a potent outpouring of sentiment in many countries; none more so than here in Britain, the land of his birth.
There is no doubting Bowie's gifts as an artist. He was an artist for musicians, a musician for artists and his work gave voice to the feelings and aspirations of millions of people.
The point of this piece has little to do with Mr. Bowie per se (whom I think might have agreed with at least some of it) and everything to do with our response to his passing. Or, for that matter, the passing of any other talented and notable public figure.
Emotions run high in the wake of an unexpected death, where people have had little opportunity to process their feelings of loss. This is especially true in the age of instant social media, where stream-of-consciousness output leaves little space for nuance or serious reflection.
However, we should be wary of using hyperbole when describing the contribution of an individual to any period in history or in any area of endeavour. Doing so in effect demeans their true contribution, suggesting that we require more than their actual body of work for it to be worth celebrating them.
Following David Bowie's passing, newspaper articles began to appear in which he was variously described as a business genius, a prophet of the internet and gender and sexuality issues and someone who single-handedly "changed the world".
Artists do not necessarily change the world simply because they honestly reflect the angst or aspirations of their times. And they should not necessarily be called prophetic because they reflect upon changes already occurring in society, or because they question prevailing attitudes.
It is after all in the nature of art to provoke questions and perhaps in doing so to suggest change.
To be called a great artist, or even a fine artist, is high praise, especially when one is described in that way by millions of people. Searching for other epithets for an artist suggests that the art in itself is not a sufficient cause for respect.
This does not serve their memory well. While Bowie certainly was savvy regarding business and the intenet, he was not alone in this and did not change these areas of activity in a totally unique way, leaving them completely different after he'd gone. (This surely ought to be a key feature of our definition of genius).
As to his being a prophet with regard to gender issues, he at one time gave voice and physical form to issues that were already bubbling within the culture, but he was not setting out to radically reconfigure society.
If that had been the case, he would doubtless have continued with his efforts and would likely not have spent so many of his latter years as a contented and devoted father and husband.
Too many pop-culture heroes are hailed in their youth as radical prophets of a new order, only to prove in later life - though not necessarily in their art - to be rather conventional. (John Lennon also springs to mind.)
In large part David Bowie took on early identities like Ziggy Stardust not primarily for reasons of prophetic social commentary but because, as he revealed at the time, he felt more comfortable playing a persona on stage than appearing as himself. (To his great credit, Bowie seems to have been relatively self-effacing from the start, at least for a young rock star.)
Certainly Ziggy added shock value, which is important when you're an emerging artist looking to make your mark. Bowie studied the art of mime early in his pre-stardom career. He knew how to use make up and clothing to create visual noise. Why not let that simply stand as something in itself, for the clever device that it was? Why must it be seen as prophetic?
When weighing up the impact of a Da Vinci, Micheangelo, Mozart or Beethoven, we don't feel the need to consult their attitudes to social issues of their time.
It's the quality of their art that sets them apart in our minds and hearts. We should apply the same thinking to artists and other prominent figures of our own time. That should be enough.
These have been long forgotten while their art speaks as loudly now as it has ever done. We don't need to call them prophets, or to ascribe to them a social impact they did not seek nor claim for themselves.
Click here to hear Mal Fletcher's BBC Radio comments on this issue.