Most truly great art requires a transgression of some kind. If a work of art is going to stand the test of time, boundaries need to be broken. But what happens when an artist breaks strict social taboos and still comes up with what is acknowledged by millions to be a great work of art? What if the subject involves sex with underage girls?
Serge Gainsbourg is arguably one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Yet 20 years after his death, he remains a largely unknown quantity in the U.S. There is no American analog for Gainsbourg. Many have compared him to Bob Dylan or Frank Sinatra, but that is really grasping at straws. In France, he is a cultural icon. But the French have always been much more forgiving and even worshipful of the transgressive artiste. And Gainsbourg was transgressive on multiple levels.
Histoire de Melody Nelson is perhaps Gainsbourg’s best known and most influential recording over a career spanning nearly 4 decades. The album’s concept is built around a possibly auto-biographical incident involving the seduction of teenage girl by an older gentleman after he’s run her over with his Rolls Royce. The fact that it was recorded with Gainsbourg’s muse, Jane Birkin, who was nearly 20 years Gainsbourg’s junior, lends the album an air of lecherous yet undeniably sexy legitimacy.
The subject of sex with underage girls is not unheard of in rock music. Yes, The Police had “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and, I can’t even believe I’m about to write the following words, but yes, Winger had “Seventeen” and I suppose the artistic merit of either could be argued to varying degrees of worthiness. But consider the following. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the album’s release. Phillips released a deluxe 2-CD set and DVD documentary in commemoration. The Hollywood Bowl showcased a tribute to Serge Gainsbourg which featured the music of Histoire in its entirety, conducted the man largely responsible for the album’s apocalyptic, symphonic funk sound, Jean-Claude Vannier, with vocal duties shared by artists like Beck, Mike Patton, Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear and Victoria Legrand of Beach House. I doubt Winger will receive the same sort of treatment.
As if the album itself weren’t a masterpiece in its own right, Gainsbourg had the the visionary foresight to shoot a music video for each of the songs on the record. Remember, this was in 1971. The video below is the album in video form. I think it’s still incredibly sexy and hip, thanks in large part to the dynamism of Gainsbourg and Birkin together. Although I’d give a shout out out to Max Ernst as well. My favorite track has always been “L’hôtel Particulier.” Skip to 12:45 for the magic if you’re the impatient sort.[vimeo vimeo.com/30678737]
Paul Gauguin was a stockbroker before he decided to pursue painting full time, so if you’re looking for the roots of his perversion, I’d start there. According to recent accounts, much of Gauguin’s autobiographical exploits were exaggerated at best and completely made up at worst. But one thing that is agreed upon is that he most likely did have sexual encounters with the prepubescent Tahitian girls that served as the models for many of his famous paintings.
Gauguin was undoubtedly a remarkable painter and a major figurehead in the Impressionist movement as well as the post-Impressionist movements of Symbolism and Synthetism. He had a tumultuous creative relationship with Vincent Van Gogh. His works are housed in museums around the world and his influence on future generations of artists cannot be denied. But can what we know about him as a person possibly invalidate his work? I think this story from NPR’s Day to Day does a good job at separating the man’s art from the man’s perversions.
Does the fact that what we know (or what we think we know) about Paul Gauguin and what he may have done to his subjects, such as the obviously very young girl in the painting above, somehow devalue the work? To me, the work stands on its own without knowing the backstory. But when you do know the backstory, does that only make it more lurid or does it add an element of depth even if we can’t explain why or justify it?
I don’t know the answers and I suspect that’s one of the things about great art– it forces you to confront uncomfortable things. It also forces you to confront your own humanity and what you are willing to accept or overlook when an object of beauty gives you joy, even if it was created by a person whose thoughts or behavior you may personally find reprehensible.