David Bowie died recently. You may have heard. All of Britain seems to have halted business as usual to observe a national day of mourning. My facebook feed exploded in tributes. Even Cardinal Ravisi of the Pontifical Council for Culture tweeted:
Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, engines on
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.
I first encountered the music of David Bowie back when I was forming ideas about the world as an undergrad. There was a romanticism and inquisitiveness to Ziggy Stardust that quickly became part of and has remained what I would call the soundtrack to my life. As such, his music always takes me back, reminding me of the idealism of a young man for whom the whole world is a place of wonder and possibility. I too, was sad to learn of his death.
Amid the outpouring of grief, there was a note of dissonance. Fr. George Rutler wrote a piece in Crisis Magazine questioning the value of Bowie’s work. I have learned much from Fr. Rutler’s writing over the years, so his minority report gives me pause. There is much to think about in what he writes. I don’t think he intends to sound cold, but it strikes a sour chord to claim, “It was no surprise that news of the death of David Bowie was the first time I knew that he had been alive.”
Fr. Rutler goes on to mention various missteps in the artistic career and personal life of Bowie, linking him to the “anti-music” referenced by Plato which perverts natural goods to bad ends. I am quite in agreement that music is a dangerous art, capable of seducing the unwary and causing listeners to, as Pope Benedict XVI says, “sink…beneath the elemental force of the universe.” Music of a certain sort, sadly prevalent in pop culture, appeals to animal instinct rather than the intellect. Truly, “anti-music” remains with us to this day. However, I find myself wondering, if Fr. Rutler has never heard the music of David Bowie, never even knew he existed, how does he know to categorize his music as such?
The connection is that Bowie’s personal life is, let’s say, not ideally Catholic. So the question is: How can a life so morally ambiguous be the occasion for artistic goodness? Can we praise the music of Bowie even though he was no saint? More broadly speaking, can a bad person can create good art?
I sure hope so, otherwise my Caravaggio admiration will have to go (murder, beating up prostitutes, stabbing people, so very many other things), so will Beethoven (misanthrope, abusive uncle), every Renaissance artist who ever chased down a wayward apprentice with murder in his heart (more than you would think), Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Hart Crane, the list goes on.
Perhaps we might object to Bowie because, although his failings are matched by other artists, they do not seem to be celebrating their moral ambiguity in their art whereas his music is part and parcel of pop culture which, generally speaking, does. I’m not so sure that argument holds up to a tour of art history, but I will say that with a different subject I would be tempted to write a similar article to that of Fr. Rutler. Whatever in the world is happening on the Grammys and top 40 radio is, with few exceptions, pure poison with no redeeming value. It seems to me that there is also a certain culture of beat-driven music that only makes sense in the context of dark nightclubs and substance abuse. But we ought not be so swift to dismiss individual musicians simply because they fall under the label of “Rock and Roll” or “Pop”, especially one who has apparently touched so many lives.
I’m sure we could proof text Bowie’s music catalogue and find plenty of examples of the banal (contra L’Osservatore Romano). Even though I love much of his music, it is nevertheless true that the man was a modern artist with its attendant insistence on transgressiveness. We shouldn’t forget, though, that the insistence on artificiality we see in his life and work is a hallmark of the aesthetic movement which produced a steady stream of Catholic converts, so it is less offensive than it is a possible sign that the sunrise is about to peak over the horizon. I’m sure we could also come up with plenty of other Bowie songs that are, at best, a lark. However, we can also find moments of beauty, profundity, and honesty. For instance,
Lord, I kneel and offer you
My word on a wing
And I’m trying hard to fit among
Your scheme of things
Fr. Rutler notes that rock music is often connected with drug culture. This point is well taken, and here is where it may be fair to reference morality. All art, says Aristotle, is a Making. Once released from the artist it has an objective reality, a beauty all its own, but that doesn’t change the fact that the artist is necessary. In Art and Scholasticism, Jacque Maritain writes,
But if art is not human in the end that it pursues, it is human, essentially human, in its mode of operating. It’s a work of man that has to be made; it must have on it the mark of man: animal rationale.
from art proceed the things of which the form is in the soul of the artist. (Metaphysics VII)
In other words, the Making requires a Maker. The artist brings an idea to external realization. So, to an extent, it is fair enough to remark on the personal life of the artist as a way of contextualizing the discussion. Without the artist, there is no art.
In his personal life, Bowie has been quite open about his excesses with drugs, as he has also been about sex. Some of his past he has said he regrets and some of it he simply left behind. He sings, for instance, in Ashes to Ashes:
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out in Heaven’s high
Hitting an all time low
But is it true that drug culture and the music of Bowie necessarily go hand-in-hand? It seems to me that they are no more entwined than would be the music of, say, The Beatles.
On the other hand, the morality of the artist is not where we ought to begin and end if we are to judge a work of art to be good or bad. Art is a thing Made which has its own, objective reality by which it may be appraised. Maritain writes,
In contradistinction to Doing, the Schoolmen defined Making as productive action, considered not with regard to the use which we therein make of our freedom, but merely with regard to the thing produced or with regard to the work taken in itself.
This action is what it ought to be, it is good in its own sphere, if it is in conformity with the rules and with the proper end of the work to be produced; and the result to which it tends if it is good, is that this work be good in itself. Thus Making is ordered to this or that particular end, taken in itself and self-sufficing, not to the common end of human life; and it relates to the good or to the proper perfection, not of the man making, but of the work produced…
The sphere of Making is the sphere of Art, in the most universal sense of this word. This is true of all art; the ennui of living and willing, ceases at the door of every workshop.
Bad men can make good art. Good men can make bad art. It is possible to praise good art without glorifying the lifestyle of a bad man, we do it all the time. This isn’t to say that one must admit Bowie made good art, or that he was a bad man. About the former I can only say that his music has meant a lot to me, and about the latter only that I have no idea the condition of anyone’s soul, that is for God to know and for me to keep in prayer. In any case, we would do well to remember that even if we can’t all be great artists with the ability to make beautiful work, that selfsame beauty reveals its goodness to all who seek the face of God. We are his work of art. David Bowie is some of God’s best work, at the very least, we can all agree on that.