For the most part, they [executives] are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.
—Hunter S. Thompson
Once the “go” game is going and the clock has started ticking in the real world, time becomes not just a slot to fill but a precious commodity. Without the padded rooms of degree programs and pedagogues, learning and advancements must find autodidactic sources of inspiration. Acquaintances and friends revolve around set pursuits and there is no time to be wasted. One must know immediately what can work and what will be best set aside. It is within this decision-making conundrum that we explore the decisive and often inflammatory actions taken up by great prophets in their search for meaning.
Often within the bastions of Christian fervor, there is a perception among the religiously inclined that Jesus Christ was, as a man, meek, mild, and full of compassion with forgiveness for even the lowliest of sinners. He loved children. He laughed a lot. He probably petted all the animals. Some of the most fundamental stories in the gospels, however, show a very different side of this Jewish prophet. One of his most remarkable characteristics lay in his penchant for bending events to his expectations, impervious to traditional standards set around him. He had his worldview set and shaped the circumstances around him to fit position. There was a striking lack of passivity—JC was a heretic.
Towards the end of his life when he was about to be crucified Jesus was travelling into Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover festivities. His arrival was anticipated as he had spent the past years healing people and antagonizing elitist Jewish authorities. He planned to visit the Jewish temple, and he preferred to enter the city on an animal. Horses were an attractive travel method of choice, and in spite of their low stamina over long distance, the animals represented power for their speed and stature, especially in the Roman culture. Among his disciples, the connection to a noble steed must have been obvious; after all, to them he was their great teacher and “the son of the living God.” Deities should at the very least ride horses when limousines are not available. Jesus was, however, looking for something a bit more simple and instructed his followers: “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” The reaction upon his arrival was ferocious—people responded with great enthusiasm. The gospel of Matthew reports that denizens of Jerusalem cut down branches from the trees and took off their jackets in an effort to line the pathway for the arrival of this prophet. Those surrounding him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The reaction shook the city to its core, and word spread quickly that this “Son of [King] David” had arrived. Musicians and athletes often dream of such a generous welcoming by supporters. Naturally enough, I imagine Jesus took it all in stride.
What does this recollection teach us about the pursuits of an artist? After all, Jesus was not a rock star and there were no paparazzi. The lesson here lies in the conjectured affairs of a career: learn to evaluate cultural and musical expectations as a point of departure rather than a model for growth. JC could have made a show of power in this horse vs. ass situation; some of his politically minded followers might have even encouraged him to play a diplomatic hand against the Roman establishment. Instead, Jesus was moved to make an entrance in his own way and on his own terms, social obligations be damned. Often musicians are presented by their peers to paths of conventions and models for growth. Going to college and getting a degree may strike high on the list. Studying with famous musicians in in Europe and the United States could carry attractive appeal. Jesus did not shun the mighty horse because he wanted to shock people. He chose the donkey because he understood who he wanted to be.
Later on after Christ arrived in the city, a bigger shock developed in the center of the public eye. There at that great temple rebuilt by King Herod and which by all accounts Jesus (like most Jews) considered his Father’s house, there were salesmen selling doves, cattle, and other livestock for sacrifice as well as money changers set up for business. Jerusalem, after all, was and still is an international city teeming with foreigners. Where buying and selling occurred, proper currency was essential. Coins must have been rolling on the floor and even animal feces were perhaps present. Jesus wasted no time in adding to the hubbub of this holy place. He made a whip and drove the merchants out of the temple, snapping and slashing away at the offenders. He turned over the tables and further scattered the money everywhere, accusing those working of making the place “a den of robbers.” A matter of religious practicality had been turned into a portal for the marketplace, and Jesus’s reaction was nothing short of violent. He outright rejected this imposition of the free market into a sacred space. In doing so, Jesus provided a clear anti-pacifist portrait of his character. The next day as he was leaving a city not far from Jerusalem he began to search for something to eat. After spotting a fig tree in the distance, Jesus approached it expecting to find a quick snack. When all he found were leaves being that it was out of the season for eating figs, he swore, “may no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Perhaps Jesus had missed his morning coffee.
When we examine such expressions of outburst from a neutral range, we see a man who got quite upset when he found situations that did not fit his paradigm of expectations. Some would say he lost his temper. Others would suggest he was righteously indignant. A young college student might simply point out the prophet needed some food! Once again, there is a lesson here for the artist. In the story of the temple, the man who hesitates to act in the face of confrontation and refuses to respond to his surroundings realizes nothing. Nothing risked requisites nothing rewarded. Christ’s reward was the satisfaction of knowing the temple was fit for worshipping. Jesus extended a visceral response in the face of a parasitic process that was compromising the sacred nature of the temple. He felt compelled to do something. This sense of necessity remains one of the most important aspects of the artistic personality. Urgency itself is what drives us to clearly seek out situations that correspond with our pursuits and values. Without a sense of urgency, the artist remains lukewarm, apathetic, and probably not filling out the fullest of their potential. Each and every day builds on the next, building momentum to act on musical convictions.
It is important to recognize that urgency does not equate a high-stress lifestyle; it means acting with a sense of focus and determination. For example, Jesus rose early in the morning to pray and build a spiritual relationship with his father because this was the key contact point for focusing on priorities—his ministry. Christians might point out that it was this relationship that left Jesus in a position where he could powerfully operate—even if it meant throwing tables around to make a point. Successful people (not just artists) arrive because, over time, they build strong relationships and healthy habits that free them to operate by their convictions. This is the lesson of the thrown table: people who aggressively act upon deep-seated emotional convictions get noticed. I am not condoning violence here; I am condoning aggressive authenticity. People can spot a fake from miles away.
Finally, Jesus sent his disciples out from his company on a mission to spread his teachings. Instructing them, “freely you have received; freely give,” he told them not to accept any money or other form of compensation for their preaching and miracles. The objective was to help others and spread the news of hope to those that had none, especially those native to Israel. Before departing, he left them with some final instructions,
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. . . . I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard.
The cultural context here remains essential for full appreciation of this dust-shaking action. Today, when people are upset in passing or driving on the highway nearly anywhere in the world, a forceful symbol of disdain is the middle finger. It is the ultimate trump card to any grievance; walk away in contempt and flip them the bird. In the Roman and Middle Eastern culture of this time, the feet were the dirtiest parts of the body. In a world without organized transportation, people walked everywhere in order to travel somewhere. In fact, Jewish law happens to be very specific about avoiding animals that have split hooves, so it must be understood in this context that feet were a sensitive issue if not generally distasteful part of the body. To wash someone’s feet was the ultimate act of humiliation, at best a servant’s job. When the disciples inevitably walked out of a town shaking the dust off their feet, they were in no uncertain terms insulting those individuals behind them. In spite of the negativity surrounding such an action, perhaps a more optimistic solution could be searching for positive interactions with others.
In a somewhat jaded fashion, Hunter S. Thompson earned fame by documenting the world around him. The journalist made a career out of following groups of people like the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang for months at a time and then writing news stories based out of his own experiences. After a particularly underwhelming stint in the television industry, Thompson expressively describes the profession as only he could from his “Gonzo” perspective:
The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.
Which is more or less true. For the most part, they [executives] are dirty little animals with huge brains and no pulse.
Scores of artists have taken solace in these black words, misquoting Thompson to fit the reality of their own situation and lamenting seemingly unsurpassable misfortunes. Thompson recognized things were often nasty when success was the objective, but he was not the first to see this correlation (although he may have been one of the more colorful personalities to point it out). Even when Jesus warned “be on your guard,” there was an overtone of negative expectation. Problems would come. Complications and even rejection would arise on the path. Good men could die. If and when those barriers arose in the face of set goals, the solution was clear if not blatantly offensive: flip the bird and move along.
In each of these stories, Jesus takes a position that poignantly applies to our world today. As artists of all kinds, it is our responsibility to find venues and opportunities where our work will be valued. When Jesus was confronted with issues that did not match his worldview, he signaled blatant intolerance for the status quo and immediately addressed the situation or moved to a place where his ministry would be accepted.
A different type of voice in the wilderness, Ornette Coleman made a similar choice after leaving his native state of Texas for Los Angeles and New York City. Experiences in the south had not been pleasant; Coleman was beaten up and lost his horn in Baton Rouge on account of what he viewed as having a beard and hair grown out too long and, in a musical parallel, Coleman found it difficult to meet musicians who shared his ideas. Even when he finally began to share his musical voice with the world, critic Peter Welding responded with an attitude much of the general public must have felt at the time, “No one can deny the emotional intensity of Ornette Coleman’s music, but that is all there seems to be here—no logic, nor order, no coherence, no discipline, no imagination, no taste. Why go on?” Such a vicious rebuttal would have taken the air out of a common man’s sails, but Coleman’s resolve to continue came from a deeper voice within.
Coleman has never seemed to be concerned by such notions or chasms between the general proletariat and his hipster audience. Cheered along by John Lewis and Leonard Bernstein, Coleman’s musical voice was based in the Texas blues and often exposed in angular bebop and naked melodies that seemed to tear at the soul. The rhapsodic nature of his playing consistently baffled and captivated his audiences, a quality that led to a perception of his music simultaneously as that of a revolutionary and that of a kook. In spite of the erratic motions, Schuller contends, “it is the strength of conviction of his playing that produces a sense of the inevitable in Coleman’s art.” This unconventional saxophonist cemented a provocative career culminating in a 2007 Grammy award for lifetime achievement. No doubt Coleman will remain remembered for the standard “Lonely Woman” from his third album The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). The album stands as his magnum opus and laid the foundation for a burgeoning movement in free jazz during the second portion of the 20th century.
The truth is that all of us must forge forward wholeheartedly if we are to go into the arts. In some individual way, we are called to press limits, think outside of the box, and challenge established norms within our fields. Following the example of Christ usually seems to be about humility, but the outlying stories of his ways also paint a portrait of another path. Always remember that most people are not musicians, painters, composers, or sculptors. They are cashiers, attorneys, doctors, and salesmen; seek to understand them before trying to be understood. It will be the rare occurrence that reality matches up to the preconceived mirages of our artistic expectations. In spite of difficulties, our work is unique and valuable in a quickly evolving world. Keep searching, never stop adapting. Stay positive and look for opportunities to help others. Shake the dust of your feet. Don’t stop. Belief and failure are prerequisites of reward. You can do this.
Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 43.
Matthew 16:16, New International Version.
Matthew 21:2-3, New International Version.
Matthew 21:7, New International Version. King David was the most powerful ruler of Israeli kings in the Old Testament and is often referred to as a man after God’s own heart.
Matthew 21:13, John 2:13-16, New International Version.
Mark 11:13-14, New International Version.
Mark 1:35, New International Version.
Matthew 10:8, New International Version.
Matthew 10:14; 10: 16-17, New International Version.
Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80s, 43.
Ornette Coleman, interview (1987) with Michael Jarrett, Cadence.
Peter Welding, quoted in Iain Anderson, This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 68.
Gunther Schuller, “Ornette Coleman 2. Musical Style,” Oxford Music Online.