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It’s time to quit making art that’s harmless

“It’s time to quit making art that’s harmless,” Jimmy told me.

The artist Jimmy Roche has been one of my primary artistic influences. We both come from Tallahassee. He’s ten years older than me, and when I was a teen, Jimmy had already become a national artist, showing his work in places like the Whitney Museum. There was unsettling, passionate power and edginess in his art. And I was enthralled by it. And when I developed an awareness that this “art thing” was going to be a career for me, all I wanted to do was write songs that were like the drawings and paintings and sculptures that Jimmy Roche made.

For Jimmy, the yardstick that measured the value of a piece of art was its relevance to the culture. End of story. Centuries from now, would the work chronicle or mirror the events and attitudes of the day, would future generations be able to look at it, listen to it, experience it, and thereby gain some insight into the issues and attitudes of the age from which it came? Like an ancient painting on a cave wall, would it depict and represent the values of the culture, or was it just some kind of anesthetic, whose intent was to sooth people, make them relax and feel good? Was its point, in a word, to match the pattern of the wallpaper, the color of the drapes? Or did it aspire to something on a different plane?

Years ago, I was talking to Jimmy. It was just after the BP oil spill. “It’s time to quit making art that’s harmless,” he told me. Of course, this was histrionic, (Jimmy can veer that way when he’s talking), but it was intended to be. It was a reminder of how much is at stake, and the responsibility that comes with artistic freedom.

--Grant Peeples

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