The next Artist Interview Project installment features Pete Mason, founder of PhanArt. Pete has been a supporter of the Philosophy School of Phish since its inception. Thank you to Pete for his time, support, and energy facilitating the Artist Interview Project and engaging brainstorming sessions! The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
For the Artists: Pete Mason Discusses the Phish Scene and its Art
If you’ve been to a Phish show or two (or 200), you’ve probably noticed the art produced and sold by fans following the band. On the lot, one is bound to see a plethora of Phish-themed stickers, poster prints, “heady” pins, and tee shirts. What you may not have noticed was the man behind the scenes helping a lot of this art to get out there. That man is Pete Mason, founder of PhanArt, which is an onsite and online platform for artists in the Phish scene to promote and distribute their work. It was originally created to preserve the community that surrounded Phish after what were thought to be the final shows. Naturally, my Phish senses were tingling when I received the opportunity to talk philosophy with Mason, and he was generous enough to chat with me via Google Hangouts for over three hours.
Mason writes articles and show reviews, which are published on the PhanArt website. Since this project is titled “Artist Interview Project,” I asked him about his own art. He replied with his own philosophically-charged question, “Is writing an art?” According to him, writing is more of a craft. Either way, his craft plays an important role in the lives of talented artists in the Phish scene.
I asked what he felt his role was in the Phish scene, to which he replied, “Advocate for Art and the Artists.” The art community surrounding Phish is a responsive one, meaning that the pieces created are in some way inspired by or relate back to the music of Phish or the scene that surrounds it. Since the Phish scene can be characterized as a sort of open secret, the demographic the pieces are aimed at is rather narrow. As a result, the scene as a whole tends to fly under pop culture’s radar. Mason told me that before the internet, most Phish-themed art stayed on tour. Now, there is more Phish-themed art available than ever and much of it is online. According to Mason, “art requires that more art is made.” This means that when art is made, it influences and inspires art that comes after it. With the greater level of availability the internet has afforded to Phish-themed art, an “artgasm” has taken place in the scene over the last six years.
With so much variety out there, partly thanks to Mason, one is bound to have preferences, so I asked him what he felt made a piece of Phish-inspired art good or beautiful. In his famous Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant makes the argument that aesthetic judgment and taste are entirely subjective. He writes, “the judgment of taste…is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is aesthetic – which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective” (§1). Subjectivity in this context means that when people do things like judge the value or beauty in art, they do so from their own points of view which could never be truly accessed or understood by anyone but the individuals. It is why I may like a song and you may hate it. In answering my question, Mason echoed Kant in saying that judgment of art is a subjective matter, and that when some pieces are “better” than others, it is only so in one’s mind. However, he was happy to share what he personally looks for in a piece of Phish-inspired art:
“I think availability, the intelligence behind the creation, the depth of the concept, the art and whether or not you can find it online or only at a show are some of the main factors that determines whether art is good or not. What makes it good to me is if there is some serious thought behind the art, whether or not the artist just took a background and drew a song title on it, whether the piece encompasses anything related to Phish in an artistically intelligent way, whether or not the art is widely available or just a one off, and really, whether you have a taste for that art. Some folks like one artist’s posters, dislike another’s. People are finicky and like random stuff. To each their own, but again, that’s why there is so much art – there’s so much to choose from that you’ll easily find something you love.”
That these preferences are subjective does not mean that they carry no weight. Perhaps preferences for certain objective characteristics of art are conditioned through subjective experience. Through their individual lives, people are conditioned to experience new stimuli in their own unique way.
Earlier I wrote that the Phish scene is an “open secret.” Mason agreed that all one needs to do in order to feel welcome in the Phish scene is to like the music and “not be a jerk.” My own experience in the scene has confirmed this, as I have found it remarkably easy for my friends and I with all our differences to fit in. This means the scene isn’t defined by much other than Phish. Thus, nearly anyone can feel part of the community. D. Robert DeChaine has coined the term communitas for communities such as this one, which are spontaneous and held together by little other than a communal feeling shared by participants. According to DeChaine, “barriers are lifted and defenses are lowered” (p. 93). Mason said that a lot of this communal feeling simply has to do with being kind. He said, “that whole Mickey Hart ‘please, be kind’ thing – that goes for Phish as well as dead fans. There’s a reason we have festivals with 50K people and have hardly a fight, arrest or problem with violence. It’s unheard of if you compare it to cities of like size.”
According to Elizabeth Yeager in her dissertation on the Phish scene, communitas in the Phish scene sets the stage for that feeling fans refer to as “IT.” Just add a particularly magical moment in the music, and the recipe for “IT” is complete. She writes that “IT” is an experienced affect in which Phish scene participants communally experience the musical sublime, and thus feel part of something greater than themselves, stricken with awe (p. 14-18). Mason weighed in on the physical embodiments of “IT,” and said that when the band really finds it, he feels “a chill while sweating through [his] shirt.” This is particularly interesting because while Yeager focused more on the psychological experience of “IT,” Mason described personally how this feeling can also have physiological effects.
I think that the Phish scene is strong of evidence that art is by no means a useless endeavor. The Phish scene is a reflexive art community that starts with the music Phish plays, and extends all the way to the artist who makes a pin to commemorate his or her favorite jam. The Phish scene is an incredibly positive, peaceful community with its roots in art. Participants couldn’t bask in the experience of “IT” safely without the symbiotic relationship that is Phish and its fans (and especially the artists). It is important to remember that artists dedicate their lives to their work, and that this is their job. Their important work could not be done without our support, and that is what Mason’s PhanArt is all about.
Full Edited Interview Transcript
J: Are you in Albany currently or are you off on Tour?
P: Albany yes, that’s where home is.
J: Could you tell me a little on how you fell into the Phish world?
P: In high school I liked grunge (92-95) and when I got to college it was still popular. Then, Fall 97 my friend played enough Phish to get me to go and check it out. 12/13/97 got me started, went to 3 more shows in 98, but Oswego was where I got ‘it’, and then I was hooked and wanted to know EVERYTHING. When my friends graduated and I didn’t, I was left behind (so to speak) and found the Phish community and those who liked Phish to be more welcoming than any other group I had been a part of before. we all liked the same music, and learned about more new music with the rise of jam bands, and travel and camping became part of all that, which were natural things that I already liked.
J: My own first show was SPAC ’12. Since then I really got hooked and taking this class was a great opportunity to experience the music in a new light. So you’d say we kind of have an all-inclusive, open-secret community going on? All you have to do is love the music.
P: Wow, I actually brought one of my former students to the 3rd night of SPAC. He liked it, a bit. He has Asperger’s. It was a unique experience (including being drunk around a former student).
All-inclusive? Yes (to a point). Open-secret? Yes. Love music, have an open mind, and not be a jerk.
That whole Mickey Hart ‘please, be kind’ thing – that goes for Phish as well as Dead fans. There’s a reason we have festivals with 50K people and have hardly a fight, arrest or problem with violence. It’s unheard of if you compare it to cities of like size.
J: That’s awesome. I really do think that there is a lot about the environment and community of a Phish show that contributes to the experience other than the music. And the community aspect never goes unmentioned in conversations about “IT.” What do you personally feel when the band really hits “IT?”
P: A chill while I am sweating through my shirt.
J: Right down the spine. Like the music is really connecting with your body as well as your mind. Let’s talk about PhanArt now. First of all, congratulations on the success of your show in Chicago. I love the art that is produced in response to what Phish lays down.
You have set up a program for artists to get their art “out there.” What would you say is your role in the Phish community? A Phishy job description, so to speak.
P: Advocate for Art and the Artists – There’s more to the community than just going to Phish, there’s a thriving community of artists making a living creating Phish inspired art (among other things – it’s a broad spectrum for many of them) and to promote those who bring an added artistic nature to the Phish community . They deserve to be highlighted alongside the music.
The artists and the musicians on stage share the same role, a symbiotic one. All are artists, just of different crafts. The more artists, the more beneficial the overall product is to the life and well-being of those around them.
J: Do you produce any art other than your writing?
P: Is writing an art?
Not really. I have ideas. I come up with ideas and work with artists to bring them to life. Shirts and stickers usually, sometimes a poster. I know my limitations when it comes to making art.
Not that I haven’t tried. I just am better off leaving the poster making to poster artists and shirt designing to shirt designers. I do have fun working with them which is a plus, bringing to life an idea that popped into my head. That’s a plus.
J: I think so. I guess there is a tension here between craft and art. I’ve always thought of art as non-random human creation. Do you think writing is an art?
P: I guess writing would be a craft for some, but a poet is a word artist…
Writing for me is a craft. A keyboard is not my palette and a computer is not my canvas. But that could be true for others. A craft you work on, refine, work on, refine, hone, teach, share… It’s like an art.
J: So, in a way, the music of Phish has given birth to a responsive art community? What was the PhanArt community like from 2004-2009, during the breakup? Could it thrive without the band that triggered its existence?
P: Yes the music of Phish definitely gave birth to a responsive art community. It started when someone made the Phish logo, when the first official art was made and when fans said ‘hey, I have an idea,’ and they made a poster, a sticker, a shirt, and then took off from there.
From ’04-’09 there was not much new art out there. I can attest – I made Golgi/Google shirts at the time and they sold slowly. There was no social media. No Facebook. Wanted to sell something? Ebay or make a website. Sell on message boards. Hard to make it happen. Even poster flipping was another game back then. But when Phish came back in 09….. Oh boy. It was a 5 year orgasm of awesome art waiting to happen. Quote me on that.
J: So it just builds and builds. Have any particular songs, jams, or moments of beauty inspired specific pieces that you can remember? If so, how does the music translate to the other art? (Kind of like how Kerouac’s bop-style writing responded to free form jazz) And before we move onto the artgasm, was the pain of Coventry evident in the art that responded to it?
P: I can say the YEMSG sticker that Jiggs designed came from the 12/4/09 YEM at MSG. I texted him during the jam when it came to me and he had a design for it by the end of the show. Sold them within a few weeks.
Moments of beauty? Musically there are too many to list. Some are inspiring (during the Reba night 1 of Northerly 2014 I came up with the idea for everyone to use a headless mannequin Isadora Bullock gave me, as a blank canvas and everyone could write on Henrietta during tour. She’s now fully adorned and ready for another tour!
For any artist – it depends. Some get inspiration from sick lights, from long jams, from gags, from band member facial expressions, from Kuroda, from characters in the songs they sing.
How does music translate to other art? The art interprets the music as each artist sees fit, just as each person who views a piece of art interprets the art the way they see fit. An artist could ignore one aspect of a show because it doesn’t hit their creativity switch, just as I could ignore art right in front of me because I don’t find it interesting or appealing. But when you DO find some art that inspires or appeals to you, then you latch onto it. It’s why art is such a broad spectrum. There’s something for everyone, you just need to figure out what art ‘it’ is that truly inspires you.
Was the pain of coventry evident in the art that responded? Yes. It was depressing art, but still pretty awesome. Lot of mud. Much of it was ‘farewell’ stuff, some was cute but it didn’t have the same hilarity and uniqueness IT had with the art. Coventry was a town name where a band went to die. Opposite ends of the spectrum.
J: Great thought on interpretation. I have heard several artists also say that when they create art, they are “creating the world as they like to see it, and leaving the extra out” I also think that subjectivity plays a huge role in art reception and development.
PhanArt is created in a way that in some way or another, it relates back to Phish. What do you think makes a piece more or less original when takes inspiration from something so clearly defined? Are any pieces too abstracted from Phish to be considered “PhanArt?
P: Abstract. I am sure in an artist’s mind they have to find where the line is behind being inspired by the music to create art and being inspired by music to create music-inspired art. Depends what the artist seeks to do. Do they want to make a show poster? What are they listening to? I get inspired by Phish plenty, but I get inspired by other bands to create differently. I write differently for one band than I do for another, about one thing, or about a band. It depends what direction I get steered in, I think it’s the same for artists. Ask them.
A painting or piece of art can get as abstract as it wants before no longer being about the music or something that inspired it. It depends what the artist and viewer sees in the finished product that ultimately tells you if it is abstract or has a concrete aspect to it.
I think that’s accurate about ‘leaving the extra out’. Trimming the fat of the world and breaking it down to true art. To suck the marrow out of life, to paraphrase John Keating.
J: On to the Artgasm. Would you say that the return of Phish and the technology of the information age combined to allow such a rich art community to happen?
P: The community was already here before Coventry and before Big Cypress even. It’s just a little more obvious now due to social media, increased access to technology that can help you create stickers (the internet can help you make stickers in 24 hours from idea to your door. Couldn’t do that in the past). The rich art community was here, it just wasn’t tapped yet until 3.0 arrived and Internet 2.0 and the advent of social media.
J: So it’s easier for the artists to get the recognition they deserve now more than ever? Pre-Cypress, did the art pretty much stay on tour where it could be shown to interested people and sold?
P: It’s easier for artists to make art. For those who have creativity to find a medium that works for them that may not have been as available in the past (thinking graphic designers here), but getting recognition depends on how hard they work to build their brand, their name and develop their art in a way that suits them.
Pre-Big Cypress, art seemed to stay on tour, with little other homes for it. There was no internet to buy Phish posters, beyond Drygoods and Ebay. Hard to say if it really left tour back then. It certainly does leave tour now, but some is there and only there, in the moment, and gone after
J: I’m also sure another part of it staying on tour has to do with the “open secret” of the Phish community. With a lot of the pieces, one needs to have prior experience with Phish in order to get it. Which brings me to quality: What, in your mind, makes a piece of PhanArt “good?” Does it have anything to do with how well it uses something Phish-related? Or even how available it is for people within the community to “get it”?
As always, that’s up to interpretation. So I’m really just asking your opinion on what makes good or bad Phish Art.
P: I think availability, the intelligence behind the creation, the depth of the concept, the medium of the art and whether or not you can find it online or only at a show are some of the main factors that determines whether art is good or not.
What makes it good to me is if there is some serious thought behind the art, whether or not the artist just took a background and drew a song title on it, whether the piece encompasses anything related to Phish in an artistically intelligent way, whether or not the art is widely available or just a one off, and really, whether you have a taste for that art. Some folks like one artist’s posters, dislike another’s. People are finicky and like random stuff. To each their own, but again, that’s why there is so much art – there’s so much to choose from that you’ll easily find something you love.
J: Everyone will experience a piece differently from their own subjective position, for their prior experience in life and with Phish differs. Do you think that people with a lot of shows under their belt or art experience tend to have a greater appreciation for the art? Can “going in with expectations” hinder the experience, in your mind?
P: People going to lots of shows will have greater knowledge of art, but not necessarily greater appreciation for art. Someone with 10 shows could know more about architecture and appreciate it greater, but not get Phish just yet, while someone with 150 shows could appreciate the art of Phish, but ignore architecture, for example. I think the more you see Phish the more artistic you have the potential to become, or at least interested in art to a broader degree, and the knowledge gained from seeing music and the way it can help your brain fire in different ways can lead to a greater appreciation of anything.
Going in with expectations can hinder if you only focus on what you HOPE will happen. If you go in with no expectations, you can walk out with no complaints. Sure, I wanted to hear Lushington for about 5 years, but I didn’t expect it, ever. I hoped they would play it but didn’t dwell on it or get upset when they didn’t play it at a show. Expectations can build you up and get you pumped for the show but they can turn on you if you hang your hopes on the equivalent of guessing what they play.
J: I agree. Knowing what to expect (or knowing not to expect) is different from actually expecting something to happen with hope. Having background information can help enrich an experience as long as you don’t let it make you jaded.
Anyway, on to the last topic.
I read your piece on the Phish community as a sort of religion. We make pilgrimages, experience “IT,” and form a responsive artist community. A lot of people need to have faith in something. Theists have faith in God, and we have faith in art. What is it that people look for spiritually on Phish tour, do you think? And how do you think it parallels religious following?
P: I don’t know that we have a faith in art.
Faith and religion are two different things.
I don’t know that you can look for spirituality. You find it within yourself, not in a thing or being or band.
Religiosity is a general concept that anyone can discover.
J: What I meant is that producing and appreciating art requires, in my mind, a certain amount of faith in something absurd (like having faith in a deity). If art isn’t something that requires faith, there must be some sort of purpose or ends to creating it. To you, in the context of PhanArt, what is the purpose, then, of creating/appreciating art?
To rephrase the question, how do you think Phish and the community that surrounds it (or even similar communities; think DeadHeads) helps people to discover their own general religiosity or sprituality from within?
Lastly, what is this “religious aspect” of Phish you mentioned?
P: Art doesn’t require faith. It requires a brain and the 5 senses.
There can be a purpose of creating art for art’s sake. You don’t need faith to make art. When I came up with my Phraggles shirt for this summer, I was creating a design that would sell well. Not for faith in anything in particular. I had faith it would sell, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, to have faith in what you are going to put faith into.
Art is made to satisfy a need for art. Art requires that more art is made. There will always be art inspired by art, in all forms. You can be inspired by the smallest type of art and develop it into something broader. I am still inspired by a small musical instrument I discovered in the lower reaches of the Assisi monastery we took a tour of. No one knew what it was, but I played with it (I will touch things in museums) and we learned it made noise. So the art was there, waiting for more art to be made. And I’ll likely never hear that piece of art performed like that again.
I think Phish creates an environment where fans of all types can de-clutter their minds, their being, their surroundings and be in an almost pure state where they can experience less stimuli that may prevent them from realizing any sort of spirituality. It takes time though. Not one show, not one tour, but many shows over many years.
J: I agree about how reflexive art is. Each piece in some way references something else, and pieces inspire new ones in a cycle of growth. Would you agree with that?
Nothing created in a vacuum.
So the welcoming aspect of the Phish community and their music gives people something they can truly focus on and an environment in which they can do so? I’m starting to see some parallels between attending a Phish show and certain forms of meditation, in which the process includes focusing on one thing to “get the clutter out.”
P: Yes, I would agree with that.
J: Will there be a PhanArt stand at the Mann or Magna? Also, pre-congratulations on your 200th show.
P: There will be a PhanArt show on August 12 in Philly at World Cafe Live, but not at Magnaball.
J: I’ll stop by. Happy tour!