Torture The Artist | Joey Goebel

Am I an artist now? Because reading the ending of this book was torture.

After being diagnosed with cancer, a media mogul regrets the terrible influence his cheap and dumb entertainment has had on culture. With the goal of creating intelligent and influential entertainment he founds New Renaissance. This new company is supposed to train artists from a very young age.

Failed music critic Harlan is assigned to to 7 year old Vincent as a manager. Eventually that will entail selling Vincent's art, but right now it means that he should foster Vincent's creative output and shape him into a great artist. And—as the title suggests—this involves torturing Vincent. Harlan kills Vincent's dog, he sabotages his relationships and later even gets him addicted to drugs.

This glorious premise immediately had me hooked! Does hardship breed creative inspiration? Can we make a cost-benefit calculation on a tortured artist and their impact on society? Did the mainstream entertainment become so idiotic because that's what the entertainment industry produces or because that's what the consumers want?

The beginning of the novel gives much food for thought on these questions. It's also executed much better than my summary. The moral ambiguity around “torturing” Vincent, for example, is maintained by the fact that his life before Harlan's intervention was already going very poorly. Under New Renaissance's contract he's also enjoying a lot of benefits that would have been unattainable otherwise, like free education and a very competitive financial compensation.

I can't pinpoint exactly where the novel lost me, but it was somewhere in the middle. The plot began to become boring, as Harlan's “torture” became pretty much limited to sabotaging various relationships of Vincent, paying off a girl here, writing anonymous threats there, etc. It also stopped exploring the interesting questions I mentioned above, it got lazy.

There's two points where, in order to sell Vincent's works, Harlan rants about the current state of entertainment to prospective buyers. He switches between different radio channels and complains, “an ad ... pop song by a guy who can't sing ... song where the same phrase is repeated over and over ... another ad ... classic rock station with a playlist of 15 songs ... another guy who can't sing.” While I share the sentiment, the problem is that this is the most surface level critique of pop culture. It's fair enough to have a character be this simple and shallow, but neither does the rest of the book provide much more depth.

Towards the end there is a jarring with the introduction of a thriller plot line and heightened stakes. This section, in my eyes, runs completely counter to the message of the book up to that point and while the resolution at the very end was pretty clever it wasn't clever enough to save this book as a whole.

I was disappointed at what little was done with such a great premise and with how simple and under-complex the ideas and commentary were. I sadly can't recommend it.

Note on the German translation: I generally don't feel the need to comment on translations, but the German one of this book was exceptionally bad. This book often references films and TV shows the titles of which were only sometimes translated into German and sometimes not. Either would have been fine, but half and half was not the way to go. Also, some turns of phrase were translated literally even though they don't work the same in German.

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