In 1986, the cover of Time magazine called David Byrne a “singer, composer, lyricist, guitarist, film director, writer, actor, video artist, designer, photographer.” It’s now been almost forty years since he began his artistic career as the front man for the band Talking Heads and his dissemination of challenging, insightful ideas has not waned.
A friend recently gave me a signed copy of Byrne’s 2006 book, Arboretum. For almost anyone else, it might be pretentious to publish a book that consists of nothing more than some pencil sketches and the musings that inspired them, but when your mind is as fertile as Byrne’s, you’ve earned the attention and the book is worth it.
According to Byrne, Arboretum is “faux science, automatic writing, self-analysis, satire and maybe even a serious attempt at finding connections where none were thought to exist.” He admits that creating the drawings might have been “self-therapy that worked by allowing the hand to ‘say’ what the voice could not.”
At the risk of being trite, Byrne sees things in a different way:
The 18th century Scottish theologian and philosopher [Francis Hutcheson] believed that there was an intimate connection between the perception of beauty and increased morality. The more we see beautiful things, the better people we become…Imagine then what divine moral creatures museum guards must be!
His way of seeing has had a profound effect on me more than once. I immediately stopped reading his book, Bicycle Diaries when I couldn’t handle his comparison of East Germany’s delusions of its people to our two biggest self-deceptions: “that life has a ‘meaning’ and that each of us is unique.” On the other hand, I often resist an impulse toward cynicism by remembering his contention in the Time article that he’d “discovered that it’s more fun to like things” than to be overly critical. When I finally was able to see him perform live in 2013, it affirmed for me that he is at once—as he describes his drawings—“scary, fascinating and lovable.”