Saint Bob’s bauble

Dylan’s Nobel prize has little to do with him, and more to do with the flagging artistic establishment, argues Harley Filben

Safe sounds

What to make of the Nobel committee’s decision to award its literature prize to Bob Dylan?

There are, of course, many who are in raptures about the whole thing; we suspect that the greater part in number are people who listen to a lot of Bob Dylan, and who thus have had their particular habits of musical consumption validated by an esteemed authority, but the more influential are rock critics (an embattled bunch nowadays), who will take this as essentially a vote of confidence in the importance of their vocation.

Yet there is also something sort of ridiculous about it, which has nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of Dylan’s oeuvre, but merely in the fact that it is not, by any reasonable definition, literature. Literature is stuff you read; no doubt people do, on occasion, sit down and read Dylan’s lyrics (the personality cult around him is already bloated enough for that), but that is not what they are for. He is a pop musician. His words are for singing. There is nothing shameful about that, but one may as well give Sergei Diaghilev a posthumous literary prize of one sort or another.

Certainly, if one does sit down and read the guy’s words - especially in the first few phases of his career, which is the material that endures in the pop canon - they simply do not hold up as poetry; they are underworked, conservative in technique, littered with forced rhymes and pat homilies. This is hardly astonishing, really; there are almost no song lyrics which would survive such scrutiny, if conducted by non-fanboys, whether in folk traditions, mass popular music or in the libretti of great operas. The words need the music. This is not an absolute barrier: for example, do we call drama a literary or oral form? How historically stable is the division, anyway? Yet the fact remains, there is such a thing as literature, whatever its underlying social structure, and it is extremely tendentious to put Bob Dylan within it.

Throwing an award to Dylan, then, looks like a rather shallow publicity stunt, and is a dramatic about-face after gongs for the Belarusian essayist, Svetlana Alexievich, and the ‘difficult’ French historical novelist, Patrick Modiano. Indeed, you would have to look back to 2010 for an award that went to anyone famous at all outside narrowly ‘literary’ circles (Mario Vargas Llosa is a significant public figure and sometime politician in Latin America).

Moreover, it is pretty lazy. Patrick Modiano is not a name that trips off the tongue, yet his body of work and influence is considerable; his Nobel nod says something about a committee that knows French literature. You do not have to know much about rock, folk, songwriting or anything else to know that Bob Dylan is generally well regarded. He has sold millions of records. His name is repeated ritually in every ‘greatest of all time’ list, like the name of a Catholic saint. There is thus a sort of pseudo-controversy, whereby a very conservative and unadventurous choice is presented as a radical departure, and a few patrician voices are found to object, so they can be rejected as so many fusty old men (when surely the average age of Dylan fanatics must be creeping towards 70).

Safe choice

Dylan is also a politically safe choice - much safer than many past winners, in fact. The politics of such prestigious awards are frequently perverse, of course. Rightwingers have always suspected that Jorge Luis Borges was denied the Nobel for literature because of his support for Augusto Pinochet and other rightwing tyrants, in contradistinction to the recognition earned by various Stalinists over the years; and certainly the roll-call of laureates does not have the cold war feel of the peace prize.

Dylan, of course, is famous in part for his early days as a protest singer; yet his attachment to the protest folk scene was never unblemished by careerism, to put it mildly. He hung around, made his name, and then discarded it with a dramatic gesture. Many of his protest songs thus have a sort of vagueness about them, which may be interpreted as transcending the particular concerns of low politics, or otherwise as sidestepping them conveniently. The more direct work focuses on the civil rights movement, which was not especially safe in the days of Dylan’s youth, but surely is the safest thing on earth today - who now wants to take the side of George Wallace against Martin Luther King? By the time of the next great protest wave - over Vietnam - Dylan had gone electric, and gone Awol from politics.

The result is that Dylan’s protest songs were already somewhat soft-focus and nostalgic for those 68ers, and nowadays can serve exceptionally well as a flattering nostalgic lens for your own life, if you are a certain sort of age, which we cynically expect to be the average age of a Nobel judge. If you have kept the leftist faith, Dylan will remind you of a time when you thought you might actually win; if you have not, Dylan will recall to you a younger self that had grander ambitions than a comfortable petty bourgeois life.

Whence come gestures of this sort? The truth is that the idea of ‘high art’ is disintegrating, and has been for decades; it is one of those things that appears to be part of the fabric of modern society, but is in reality extraneous, its existence a historical accident. The promotion of the arts was already largely instrumentalised by the cold war period; what need has it now, however? Against which repressive society shall extravagant formal experiments be judged today? Putin’s Russia is not an adversary that demands CIA money for some modern Stephen Spender. Sooner or later even the CIA will work it out.

Conservative aesthetes have tended to abhor what is called postmodernism - briefly, a style of artistic endeavour that blends high-culture techniques and tropes with those of mass popular culture; or a style of criticism that encompasses both those things. (A literary Nobel for a pop singer - now there’s a postmodern gesture for you!) Yet the postmodernists are, on a certain level, correct: the distinction really is essentially arbitrary. We are talking, in the end, about two similar machines: the one consisting of the major media corporations, record labels and so on; and the other of national governments and academic humanities, and - naturally - prestigious awards. Postmodernism is, in essence, a way for the second machine to acknowledge the legitimacy of the first, without conceding its own right to a separate existence. To truly understand Madonna, you must have read Derrida.

The trouble is that it is not true. Mass popular culture is marketed, sold and purchased as a source of pleasure, not intellectual nourishment, nor for that matter as nourishment for intellectual inquiry into the nature of pleasure, which is the tenor of much po-mo academic analysis. If every cultural studies academic in the world disappeared tomorrow, we expect things would shake out just fine for Rihanna - and, for that matter, for Bob Dylan.

High art, however, is dependent on institutional validation for its existence: there is no such thing as crap high art, merely because it cannot be acknowledged to exist; the failure to enjoy is always the fault of the untrained, philistine spectator.

This, in the end, is the peculiarity of such populist gestures from the artistic establishment - that they are always secretly an acknowledgement of weakness. Bob Dylan, apparently, has yet to even acknowledge the award, or confirm that he will turn up in December to collect it; perhaps this is because he knows that, like the more naive folkies of the early 60s, the Nobel committee needs him a lot more than he needs them.