Distancing: From Shakespeare to Bowie

In his book on Shakespeare, Will in the World, there is a point where Stephen Greenblatt discusses how Shakespeare used distancing in writing plays whose subject matter he was not entirely in tune with. In particular there is discussion of the folk element:

“The author of The Winter’s Tale was not a folk artist, and he made it clear in many ways that he was not. A sheep-shearing festival performed on the stage of the Globe as part of a sophisticated tragicomedy was not in fact a sheep-shearing festival; it was an urban fantasy of rural life, informed by knowing touches of realism but also carefully distanced from informed by knowing touches of realism but also carefully distanced from its homely roots. Shakespeare was a master of this distancing; if he had a sympathetic understanding of country customs, he also had ways of showing that they were no longer his native element.”

This distancing can be seen as something which combats appropriation, a problem that occurs in music. Instead of claiming distance between oneself and an idiom, an artist claims authenticity in an idiom they do not actually belong in. A classical cellist claiming he is a real jazz performer when he performs would be an example. Other examples populate this category, especially when concerning white hip-hop artists and the degrees of appropriation there.

David Bowie is a musician who distanced well, perhaps is even know for it. There was never a style that Bowie professed as his sole mode of expression. He may have had “sympathetic understanding” of dance music but as soon as the next album hit, he showed his distance with an ambient based record.At a Berklee commencement he addressed the act of distancing well:

“It seemed that authenticity and the natural form of expression wasn’t going to be my forte. In fact, what I found that I was good at doing, and what I really enjoyed the most, was the game of ‘what if?’…I learned that mixing elements of bad taste with good would often produce the most interesting results”.

The last sentence, however, is distancing in a nutshell: “It wasn’t so much about how I felt about things, but rather, how things around me felt”. This sort of humility, that one does not admit being a homeowner but a guest, might be more useful than any kind of artistic authenticity we could try to muster.

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