Wearing a Mask to Express Your True Self: A Response to David Byrne’s How Music Works

On context, authenticity of feeling and the masks we wear as creators

“Song references are like emotional shortcuts or acronyms.” - David Byrne, How Music Works

In his book, How Music Works, David Byrne begins with a discussion of how context unconsciously influences the art – in his case, music – we create. He argues, convincingly, that musical “evolution” over the ages was often a response to the spaces and social settings in which the music was made rather than some kind of “progress.” Chamber music was made for chambers, Bach was made for medium-sized chapels, techno is made for warehouse clubs and punk was made for CBGBs.

Byrne posits this, however, as counter to the notion that artists are driven by an inner need to express something personal and emotional in their music. This line of thinking recurs several times throughout his book. While he acknowledges some element of an inner emotional need in artistic creation, he seems to be arguing that this is over-valued. I get his point. I used to feel this way, too.

I have found, however, that underlying many powerful works of art there is an emotional and personal need on the part of the artist to say this particular thing in this particular way. Of course the work comes from a context – but a person’s entire life is a context, everything that they’ve uniquely experienced in this world adds to the context of who they are and what they have to say and in what way. I’m arguing that any notion of “context,” an artist’s influences and an inner emotional and personal drive toward expression cannot be separated from each other into distinct, autonomous categories.

David Byrne.jpg

Byrne in Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, 1984

Byrne is coming from a context, popular music, where the audience often assumes some degree of emotional authenticity or autobiography in the performer. In contemporary art – my context – often the opposite is true. Many times it's assumed that the artist has primarily theoretical or impersonal aims, that one is engaged, perhaps primarily, with context – the context of presentation, the context of contemporary exhibition making and the spaces in which these occur or even with political or sociological aims. It often seems foreign that an artist might create out of an inner emotional or personal need or that an audience might primarily react to a work on an emotional or intuitive level.

Imagine if Byrne had been thinking consciously about the physical space of CBGBs when he was writing early Talking Heads songs – something that he claims, convincingly, unconsciously shaped the music he and the band were making at the time. To realize later that the space had an influence on the sound and performance or to consciously craft songs with that in mind at the time are two different things. Probably, at the time, he was thinking primarily about his own life in New York and his personal experiences here. The social and physical space of CBGBs and downtown New York helped to give rise to the form that this expression took. The artist and the context can’t be so easily separated.

Byrne cites his collaboration with Eno, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” as an example of how vocals don't have to be autobiographical to trigger emotions. This is true, but the vocals that he and Eno sampled, from preachers, from gospel singers and other singers from many parts of the world, carried the emotions that those singers likely really felt and were expressing in their performances. He and Eno were quoting these emotions, just as I'm quoting the emotions expressed in the songs I choose for my iPhone self-portrait series.

It took several emotionally traumatic events in my life in order to become aware of my self and my own emotional life and the artistic voice I had to express. Music, which intuitively taps into our emotions, became increasingly important in my life and has become the primary metaphor by which I express myself artistically, mostly in the medium of painting but in other media as well, including music itself.

Before these life-changing events, I would write lyrics for my band at the time, Simple Machines, that were fragmentary, often taken from other sources and were evocative and ambiguous (something I later found out Byrne also did) and, I thought, were not personal – although of course they were, albeit in a round about way. I had trouble admitting to myself that my songs and my paintings were representing parts of my emotional self, just as Bowie says in 1974 in the documentary Cracked Actor that he had trouble admitting to himself that the characters he was creating represented different aspects of himself.


David Bowie in Cracked Actor, directed by Alan Yentob for the BBC, aired January, 1975

More recently, when I’ve written songs for my musical project, DSLFM, I’ve started with the subject matter – the idea or title – then written the lyrics, which imply a rhythm or melody, then come up with a chord structure and melody which, when recording, can take on any musical form or texture one wants. I’ve done the same with the paintings: I have something in particular that I want to express, then I go about expressing it in the way that I think is best suited to that particular subject matter.

During my last few years in Berlin before moving to New York in 2013, I was overly concerned with the context and discourse around contemporary art, i.e. what my colleagues were doing and what others were saying about them. Although that was interesting and in many ways productive, the more I've relegated that context to a secondary or tertiary status in my hierarchy of interests and instead sought to express myself based on a strong personal and emotional need, the more fruitful my work has become.

Of course, my paintings exist within the context of contemporary art and the long history of painting and portrait painting in particular, of potentially viewing it in a gallery or a collector's home. But thank God I don't have to reinvent the wheel. I think every artist responds to other art that moves them emotionally and that's a large part of why they become an artist in the first place.

When I was younger, in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw Van Gogh’s paintings of his shoes and his and Gaugin’s chairs, which were clearly proxies for the artists themselves. Only recently did I see one of these paintings again at the Met and remembered the emotional as well as intellectual impact it had on me. This forgotten moment was unconsciously influencing the work I’m making now, which is based on a similar idea: that objects that we have an emotional or physical relationship to can be stand-ins for the self.

Van Gogh sm.jpg

Vincent Van Gogh, Shoes, 1888 oil on canvas, 18 x 21 3/4 in. (45.7 x 55.2 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I worked for several years for a European conceptual artist who did an exhibition that dealt with plastic and its effects on the environment. He told me that when he was honest with himself, the reason he was making that particular exhibition was because of a semi-traumatic childhood memory of being lost in a vat of plastic balls at a playground.

Martin Creed has said that his infamous "The Lights Going On and Off" work, which won him the Turner Prize, came from him turning the lights off on his parents as a prank when they were in the bathroom when he was a child. Ai Wei Wei's works dealing with injustice clearly come from his own experiences of injustice, just as his earlier works had to do with an emerging Chinese identity. Mike Kelley's work bears the mark of him growing up poor and Catholic in the Detroit suburbs with his dad working as the janitor of his school. And Andy Warhol's work, by his own account, stems from his experiences as a child, pasty-skinned and sick with St Vitus' dance, filling in the paint-by-numbers his mom gave him to pass the time while he was home bound, fantasizing about the glamorous lives of the celebrities he saw in the magazines she gave him.

In Berlin I once saw a TV show where a German pop-star was giving advice to a young band that was just starting out. He told them that when they sang their songs they should think about real experiences they had that were like the ones they're singing about and draw on those experiences to perform the songs with conviction.

At the time I was surprised at this because I didn't think music or art were about emotional authenticity. I thought they were about more cerebral, intellectual matters, like context and formal concerns. But the approach the German pop star suggested is also famously what actors do: draw on their own experiences to give a performance it's emotional weight. It's artifice – sure, acting – but artifice to express something deeper and more personal that may remain hidden under the mask, but whose presence can be felt. Sometimes we have to wear a mask in order to express our true self.

New York, Dec. 2017 - Feb. 2018

⇐ back to overview