It is morning-after in America.
The halftime indulgence is over, and the game clock has run out as America returns to the workplace nursing a national hangover on the day after the Superbowl. No, the blowout score is not the source of America's aching misery, nor is the gluttonous consumption of acres of lukewarm nachos and an ocean of cheap beer the cause. America's collective head aches because Bob Dylan or his music has appeared in not one but two commercials.
Let's face it. We have been here before after the Superbowl.
Dylan has directly or indirectly hawked everything from a Canadian bank to women's undergarments.
(The latter contains a sly irony.)
The 2014 Superbowl Chrysler ad isn't even Dylan's first car endorsement.
And each product endorsement to emerge from Bob Dylan, Incorporated (BobInc), engenders the same shock and outrage and mockery and cries of "sellout." It recalls the shock and outrage we full-throatedly express whenever a politician does something overtly political or whenever a celebrity appears in public inebriated. Frankly, the whole outrage thing has moved from curious to tedious to outrageous.
Yes, it is disturbing to see "the voice of his generation" busking for yogurt.
But, while Dylan was friends with the late Pete Seeger, he is not Pete Seeger and has never claimed to be so far as I am aware. Aside from the fact that it was Seeger's version of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" that shilled for the Bank of Montreal, Seeger seemed to operate on that ethereal plane where only the purists and wisemen exist. Dylan is far from pure, and I am not sure about wise. Dylan is an artist, not a political guru or symbol or movement. That has been his point for decades now. He is the proprietary product of BobInc, not the property of the residue of the 60s counterculture (or apparently the "Property of Jesus" anymore for that matter). Every one of his public moves seems so carefully calibrated or so bizarre that each appears to be part of a grand calculation. It is easy to imagine that his commercials are just another way of telling his worshipful fan base and disappointed detractors that he will do what he wants how he wants, and then he somehow makes them want it. It is some sort of schadenfreude, I suppose.
Dylan's act--on stage, on records, in interviews, in movies, in print--is largely if not totally a persona. "Bob Dylan" is a character played by one Robert Allan Zimmerman in the theater that is our culture. I am far from the first to make this point, but it is one worth reiterating. "Bob Dylan" is a postmodern construction--the creation of R.A. Zimmerman, the conceptual artist and CEO of BobInc. Furthermore, as with many of his fellow conceptual artists, there is a strong streak of the satirist in Dylan's art. Satire is notoriously difficult to define, but it always involves a mixture of what I call "critical vexation" and subversion. And, the most effective subversion is the least detectable subversion.
A thought experiment: imagine that one "Bob Dylan" is merely a conceptual iteration of R.A. Zimmerman's constructed artistic reality. This "Bob Dylan" is brilliant and talented certainly, but he is also frustrating beyond comprehension. Even those who adore him find things about him that are unbearable--his torturous religious journey, his romantic escapades, his intense privacy, his insistence on reworking his songs and lyrics, his aping of others' writing (often decried as plagiarism), his political apoliticism, his train-wreck-like movie appearances, his paintings, his voice, etc. In other words, he is most vexing, but he always seems to have a higher purpose. What if, just what if, that purpose is a critique of our culture's most strongly held assumptions and values.
The several times I taught an upper-level university course on Dylan, I ended the semester by having my students write a paper describing how Dylan challenged their cultural assumptions and/or values. Often some students in the class did not like Dylan or his music, but not once did even the most hostile or indifferent student fail to identify some internalized principle that Dylan challenged. It was an impactful way to end the semester, but the students' responses also support the suggestion in my question here: Is "Bob Dylan" largely a satiric persona designed to critically vex his audience and subvert the culture's settled assumptions?
Dylan appearing in a commercial is upsetting and uncomfortable? Look at that Chrysler ad again.
It feels weird and wooden like a parody of a commercial. It opens with the stupidest line from a TV ad that I have heard in a while (which is saying something): "Is there anything more American than America." Is there any artist working today more persistently vexing than Bob Dylan? Is there any corporation more culturally subversive than BobInc?
Posted Wednesday January 29, 2014 9:22 am by AACU In liberal education nation
By: Jim Salvucci, Dean, The School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Stevenson University
Tags: AAC&U 2014 Annual Meeting, higher education, liberal education
This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 29th, 2014 at 9:22 am and is filed under liberal education. You can follow comments on this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
Posted By AACU On January 24, 2014 @ 1:57 pm In liberal education nation
By: Jim Salvucci, Dean, The School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Stevenson University
I wrote this commentary for the Maryland Humanities Council's Humanities Connection on WYPR radio in Baltimore. Recording 1/6/14
Imagine living in a world devoid of the humanities. Many Americans--though few public radio listeners--would shrug at the prospect, indifferent to or doubtful of the humanities' benefits. But in this hypothetical dystopia without philosophy and religion, most values would be assessed according to their raw value--their price or profit. Religious faith, for instance, would be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis--say, a balance between the price of certain earthly choices and the prospect of eternal bliss--rather than an appreciation of the inherent good in certain choices or, for some, in faith itself. In this dystopia, art would be a rote thing, depictions devoid of the artists’ humanity and its complexity. Beauty itself would be measurable by tools, such as calipers or a spectrometer. Your smart phone would still have a calculator app, yes, but no YouTube.
Take the fundamental feature of all human cultures: the story. One would be hard pressed to find a person who did not appreciate a good story, but without the humanities, stories would be bland recitations of known facts without the understanding, however confounding it be, that our perceptions shape the facts we observe. We tell stories not just to relate facts but--more importantly--to convey meaning.
After all, social scientists and humanists can agree that the human mind is a meaning-making machine. We find meaning even in the mundane. But, while psychologists can discover the mechanism for that drive toward meaning, it takes the humanities to recognize and even appreciate the raw power and myriad implications of the compulsion. The drive toward meaning is at the heart of the humanities: religion, philosophy, languages, classics, and the rest. In short, many disciplines of study can identify how we make meaning and even why, and those questions and their answers are vitally important. The humanities, though, are supremely, maybe even uniquely, positioned to answer a fundamentally human question: "so what?"
That "so what?" is a driving force perhaps more powerful even than compound interest. It expresses an inquisitiveness that challenges facile assumptions and relentlessly focuses on the future. There is, then, an inherent optimism to answering "so what?” an irresistible searching that redirects the human condition away from apathy and despair.
When I was still in graduate school for English, an acquaintance who was in a residency as an emergency physician was boasting how she saved lives every day. She wanted to know what good people like me did in the world. With due respect for her noble work, I pointed out that people like me make those lives she saves worth saving to begin with, that human life bereft of humanity is bereft of meaning and purpose. It is existence, to be sure, but so what?
Yes, we can live, but the humanities help us live better.