MAYBE IT'S ART
REFLECTIONS ON EXPRESSION
ADVENTURES IN AMBIGUITY
March 18, 2012
It's time, it seems, at last, for this conversation, this interaction with art. Regardless of how pretentious it may sound, I've evolved to this point at which I must confess this great all-encompassing love affair I have with creation, with expression, which I call "art."
In this continuing exploration of understanding, I have arrived at a place quite unexpected in my earlier days for, when we are young in art - whether in age or experience - we are quite filled with the certainty of our own opinions. Now, in my older age and after much contemplation of the subject, I can be sure of only one thing: There is no one "right."
Art is not, after all, an objective concept, but is, instead, an intensely personal interaction. The question, therefore, is not "Is it art?" but rather, "Is it art to ME?"
Accepting this idea took no little challenge, for it demands a relinquishment of ego and the idea that one's opinion is a universal truth. This acceptance required that I could no longer collect supporting "evidence" I could use to convince others that my opinion is "correct." Most challenging of all, this acceptance mandated that I learn to embrace ambiguity. I had to release my need for certainty and immerse myself in perpetual wonder. And, in doing so, I found not only this deeply personal relationship with art, but with life itself. After all, what is the difference?
The questioning began imperceptibly more than a half-century ago. There, literally, has not been a day in the entire memory of my life in which I did not know that I am an artist. That knowledge has been evolving throughout my lifetime. But, it's only in the past dozen years or so that I've become increasingly conscious of its meaning.
When I was young in art, I was consumed by the typical fantasies of fame and fortune. As I grew older and my life was preoccupied with mundane demands, the focus shifted to simply finding work in art. It wasn't that I wasn't committed to the most complete expression. Whatever the role or project, the great adventure for me was in the continuing exploration, uncovering the levels of mystery, only to find more beneath. But, the regard was, necessarily, on making a living. And I did, no matter how meager, for about fifteen years. The majority of my compensation can from some form of art or another.
A dozen years ago, it became necessary to find more common ways to make money. But, art was no less part of my life. On the contrary, its presence intensified. Like a love affair, our hours together were shorter and, therefore, far more enthralling and urgent. The majority of my expression moved to writing.
Much like I was experiencing in my life, I became more immediately conscious of my evolution in art. It is impossible, in my experience, to be fully conscious and not to evolve. Further, I believe the evolution - both in art and life - is to go deeper and deeper into ambiguity. The experience of consciousness is a process of releasing former certainties, followed necessarily by an immersion in mystery. Once there, I've discovered, one ban be overjoyed with the total ambiguity. No longer is there a "right" or "wrong" to art, there is only freedom of expression. Once there, an artist is released from pre-conditioning and free to imagine ways to tell the story. Then, anything can happen.
MARCH 22, 2012
When Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet," a work of art was created. When the company performed "Hamlet," another work of art was created. When Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Mel Gibson each starred in a film version of "Hamlet," three more works of art were created.
And so it goes.
Each time someone stages another production of the play, there is a new and separate work created. But, it goes farther: Each time someone reads the play, or watches a production of the play, another separate work of art is created. And that act of creation is multiplied by the number of readers, viewers, performers, directors, teachers, etc. Whether it's at Chicago Shakes or in the West End or in a bedroom aglow with a book light, those interactions with Shakespeare's original act of creation are all, in themselves, works of art.
In the struggle to define art, I keep returning to the the idea that a work of art isn't, after all, the product, bu the experience. The art is not, therefore, the play "Hamlet," but Shakespeare writing the play, and the play itself a documentary reflection of that experience. After all, the manuscript is inert, lifeless. In the history of time, there have been millions of such collective pages that have ended up in the fire. Shakespeare alone lost at least a few. This fact mocks the assignation of the term "greatest" to anyone or anything, for we can never know what we don't know, all of the experiences of art that have gone undocumented or have been lost.
I submit that it's the interaction with the work that gives it life, that makes it art.
MARCH 26, 2012
First, someone carved pictures on a cave wall and told a story. Then, someone came along and explained to him why it wasn't art.
June 7, 2012
The Rule of Absolutes
During an interview I conducted with Tony Bennett, he related the time he told Ella Fitzgerald she was the greatest singer in the world. “Oh, Tony,” Ella replied, “there are lots of great singers. There is no one best.” I agree with Ella.
In our enthusiasm, we want to attach absolutes to our favorites: The best, the greatest, the most, etc. But, aside from a statistical fact, for instance, Paul McCartney is the best-selling musical artist in the history of recording, everything else is simply an opinion. There is, in fact, no one greatest anything. There is only your favorite.
As I’ve released the need to tag my favorites with hyperbolic designations, I find myself more open to discovering new favorites.
Likewise, I’ve come to understand that, in art, there are no experts. There are certainly those with greater (and less) experience. But, experts don’t exist in art. Artists are explorers. Explorers are always looking for new mysteries and new discoveries.
Casting off, therefore, the absolutes, I’m open to enjoying what I enjoy without need to compare it, label it, or rate it. Art is. And that’s the greatest thing ever.
June 28, 2012
An Exception to the Rule of Absolutes: Pops and West End Blues
As I’ve written, I’m loath to use absolutes – the best, greatest, most, etc. However, on this particular day, I’m reminded that rules almost always have the undeniable exception. Exactly eighty-four years ago, a 26-year-old trumpeter brought his group of five backing musicians into a recording studio in Chicago and created what may possibly be the single most influential work of art – ever. (If I’m going to break a rule, why not shatter it?)
Louis Armstrong had already played on dozens of recordings during the previous three years. He had backed his mentor Joe “King” Oliver, Bessie Smith and Clarence Williams, and fronted his own Hot Five and Hot Seven on many sides. But, nothing before that day in June 1928 hinted at what would happen when he and his Hot Five recorded a cover of Oliver’s West End Blues.
To be sure, it isn’t simply his astonishing talent that elevates the record, in my opinion at least, to this singular distinction. Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Michelangelo all came before Louis Armstrong, each an influential master in his own discipline. But, Pops had the happy fortune to be born in the nascent days of sound recording. Fifty years earlier and, very likely, he would have suffered a similar fate to that of Buddy Bolden, another trumpet legend from New Orleans, of whom only one photograph and one single antiquated recording survives.
In one of the most astute choices of Fate, by the time he was 26, Louis was able to record forever his first flight artistic freedom. From the first declaratory notes of his improvised solo, he serves notice that everything has changed. The fusillade comes so quickly and effortlessly that it’s clear he’s not merely improvising, he’s channeling. As it downshifts into the steady beat of the blues, the record sounds similar to the original that Joe “King” Oliver, the song’s composer, had recorded with his own band less than a month before. But then, Fred Robinson takes a solo turn on trombone, followed by Jimmy Strong on clarinet, over which Pops performs his most delicate example of the scat singing he popularized. Earl “Fatha” Hines plays an effervescent turn on piano. Finally, Louis wraps it up with a final solo that makes clear that the age of improvisational jazz as individual expression has been born. “The Negotiation,” as Wynton Marsalis call it, had begun. Three minutes and seventeen seconds that changed art forever
While this recording most certainly compelled musicians everywhere to reconsider their approaches to music, it had to have had a similar effect on artists of all disciplines – and for the same reason. With Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, et al, another artist could examine only the product of their endeavors. With West End Blues, they could, for the first time, also bear witness to the process. For Louis Armstrong, the process was the product, because he delivered it as he invented it. It must have been nothing less that revelatory for another artist to hear the recording of this invention, as it happened, imbedding on a wax disc, this expression that would never be just the same again, a unique moment, preserved forever. It comes astonishingly close to the old cliché of capturing lightning in a bottle. Trying to write about the art of it eight decades later is like describing water. One can say that water is clear and cold, but how do you describe what it tastes like to a thirsty man? Words fail.
The recording came in the age of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, Eugene O’Neill, e. e. cummings, Pablo Picasso, Georgia OKeeffe, and Salvador Dali, to say nothing of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie. These were artists who would rethink expression and bend, if not break, rules. How much did the sound of Louis Armstrong blowing down the walls of the imagination influence each of them? It’s impossible to say. Influence can be a subtle thing: It may not be direct or immediate. It may not always provide a framework, but it always supplies a foundation. Clearly, any musician who ever improvised a solo, whether in jazz, rock, country, or any other genre, has been influenced by Pops. But, I have to believe that non-musical artists – painters, writers, comedians, filmmakers, and even actors do what they do the way they do it because Louis gave them all permission to seize on the impulse that strikes them at a certain moment and turn it into something. He showed them how to rush without hesitation toward the light of a new idea. Artists are explorers and Louis Armstrong was certainly among the bravest, storming into uncharted territory, blowing both Charge and Reveille as he went, awaking a new spirit of invention in artists ever since.
This theory, like any other, can be subjected to debate and cannot be proven beyond doubt. But, there is an evolution to art and June 28, 1928 is undeniably one of the most important dates in it. It was the day artistic freedom got its theme song.
A friend recently repeated a quote that suggested if you are always questioning "Am I really an artist?" chances are that you are and that real artists are scared to death. With all due respect, I disagree.
July 26, 2012
It seems to me that you
cannot love what you fear. My experience of Art is a love affair, a
fascination, even an obsession at time. Fear is the enemy of the
artist. It is, I believe, crucially important in a relationship that we
know we belong in it. No more true than in the relationship with Art.
Beethoven is quoted as saying "I know that I am an artist." Louis
Armstrong often said that his talent was "God-given." Chuck Close has a
saying: "Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and
go to work." Miles Davis: "Do not fear mistakes. There are none."
These artists knew they were artists.
Skill is a mechanical
proficiency in doing something. Art is to take skill into a space
beyond fear and self-consciousness and to allow yourself to become a
prism, through which the light of truth can shine and be refracted by
your specific angles.
Art, like a lover, gives a place of
emotional expression. And, like to a lover, the artist rushes through
the mundane tasks of the day in breathless anticipation and creates a
world he envisions. He doesn't fear this loss of "self," for it is only
when he surrenders his self-consciousness that he finds his true self
You can't love Art and be scared to death of it. And
being scared to death of failure sounds like a torture, not the joyous
experience of Art. Perhaps my friend and the author of the original quote should familiarize themselves
with the observation of another author, Joseph Chilton Pearce: "To live
a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong."