Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Imperfect Art

Murray Bail, in his novel, The Voyage, has a pompous art critic say that the power of art doesn’t come from perfection, but from the effort of creation. That we want imperfection because it’s closer to human understanding.

Even though the rest of the critic’s comment is idiotic, that first clause is true. The power of art does not come from perfection. “Perfect” is a word we can apply to an exam paper or to the threading on a screw. “Perfect” is an end word, the end of effort. We’re done when we hit perfect.

But we never say, standing before a Selma Burke sculpture, “That’s perfect.” Burke wasn’t done with that sculpture. She stopped working on it when it was as close to her truth as she could bring it. That’s what we want when we spend time with it, walk around to see it from every angle. Not perfection. Nor do we want imperfection, so we can understand it. What we want is a truth that we respond to on all levels, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Nor does the power of art come from the effort of creation. Of course any activity requires effort - learning the craft, practicing it - but we fully respond to art only if it appears to be easy. So easy, so effortless, that we could do it ourselves. If we leave a concert in a state of awe at the technique of the guitarist, we have been listening to a craftsman. If we leave humming and strumming an air guitar, we’ve been listening to an artist.

What we do admire in artists is not effort, but the risks they take in presenting us with imperfect art. When they say, “I’m giving you the very best I can at this moment.” 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Freeing Creativity

Vick's comment led me to think about how some creative projects seem have a life of their own. I've had a dread of anthropomorphism since the 80s, when the fad among academic sociologists was to study animal behavior in order to understand human behavior. The apogee, for me, was a paper about the sexual behavior of wild ducks. The author, whose name I've mercifully forgotten, and his associates had spent untold hours lying in the cold swamps of the northwest watching ducks mate, and had come to the conclusion that rape was involved. An idea so ridiculous that I planned, for a time, to write a novel, "The Rape of the Mallard Duck." Thankfully, that project died as others became more interesting.

However, when I first began to teach voice, one of my students was away for two months on a business trip. Although she had not been able to practice during that time, her voice had grown so much that I was shocked. Shocked and, at first, disheartened. If she had improved so much without me, why was I teaching?

But I have encountered that phenomenon again and again. I have come to believe, although fearfully, because I have no scientific proof and I do have anthropomorphic dread, that the voice has a mind, or a will, of its own. "Oh," it says, "if you're going to free me, then I will fly free."

Humans are creative beings. Any culture that has the means of survival - food and shelter - will sing and dance, decorate their cooking pots and the walls of their caves. What if any creative impulse - the stories we're writing, as well as the songs we're singing - were continuously at work in the subconscious, waiting to be set free?


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Telling Ourselves Stories

We are constantly telling ourselves stories. That’s what consciousness is. That’s who we are. Storytelling beings, made up of the stories we tell.

The material from which we create our stories, and our selves, originates outside the body from sensory stimuli. We’re bombarded by our senses every second, sorting out at a physical or subconscious level those most necessary to our survival and bringing those to consciousness. That some of our stories never reach the conscious level doesn’t mean that our subconscious or our bodies are not telling, often acting upon, their own stories.

I am not, at this moment, conscious of the pressure of my hips on the chair seat or of my feet on the floor, the weight of my coffee cup, or the taste of the coffee. Nor of the sounds of the refrigerator or the air conditioner. I do, however, notice when something unexpectedly crosses my line of vision. My body tenses a bit. Oh, just a fly. My body relaxes because it has had enough experience with house flies to know that they’re not a threat. I didn’t have to think through, make a decision about that process.     

Ordinarily a fly would not become part of my storytelling, but having brought it to consciousness by writing about it, I am now involved in memories of a particular fly family, black flies. Memories of the job that required in-depth research of black flies for a real-estate venture. Memories of my boss, who he was during the five years I worked for him as his personal assistant.

One of my tasks was to protect him from the media. No photos, no interviews. But I’ve recently seen a photo of him at a gala with a new wife. I’ve seen an interview that mentions an affair with a celebrity, political alignments that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’ve had to re-cast and re-interpret memories in order to understand how he became a man I don’t recognize. And I’ve had to retell myself the story of five years of my own life, who I was then and who I am now.

We all tell ourselves stories so that we can bring some sense of order and meaning into the randomness of life. New stimuli require new stories as we continue to create ourselves.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Power of the Less Powerful

"We contend that when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the action of others." Michael Inzlicht and Sukvinder Obhi

We often talk about powerful performances, powerful books, sculpture. Artists may hope for that result, but our brains have to operate differently. I've been coaching people for job interviews, public speaking, performing, writing for over 30 years. When I ask them for a list of the qualities they want to convey, no one has ever replied "power." One of the great paradoxes of communication is that powerful results don't come from a sense of personal power, but through empathy, sensitivity to others.    

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thinking by Feeling

Rebecca Lee, in a review of Adam Wilson's What's Important is Feeling, quotes Roethke: "We think by feeling. What is there to know?"

The Enlightenment is sometimes blamed for celebrating logic over emotion ("I think, therefore I am."); I blame Plato, myself. Whoever.

Human physiology says that Roethke's right. An incoming sensory experience activates an emotional response that goes first to the body and then to the brain. The time differential is something like .0268 of a second. If I had a better filing system, I'd be more accurate with that number. But it's the order - emotion, body, brain - that matters.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Proust is Worth Reading.

Proust's work has been mentioned several times recently in The New York Times Book Review, either from an "I couldn't finish it" or an "I ought to read it" point of view. So what does this quote from Le temps retrouv√© say about those who won't or can't read it? "In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. . . . The reader's recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth."

What Proust says is true only if writers, while they are writing, are the writers of their own selves. In that case, the dictum is true of all art. If painters, performers, writers are creating from their complete selves - body, mind, and emotion - their audiences will respond with their complete selves. And will believe in the truth of what they're witnessing or reading.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Art of Performance


Performance is not often recognized as a craft that, like any other art form, can be learned and practiced.  The theory, even in some of the most prestigious conservatories, seems to be that if we sing well, or act or dance or play an instrument well, those skills produce good performances.
After I began to teach voice, I found that that theory was dead wrong–in fact, the opposite was true.  If we perform well, our audiences don’t care how well we sing, or act or dance or play an instrument.  Leonard Cohen’s vocal technique is wretched, but when he puts out a new recording he gets the front page of Rolling Stone and the Sunday Arts Section of The New York Times.
Nor do we judge the value of the performance by the material being performed. A few months ago I saw an historical play in which a young actress had been given a series of sentences that began with “In 1864, . . .” “In 1892,. . .” and on and on, for nearly a dozen lines.  Boring?  No, her performance was so good that, when I spoke to her afterward, I used a version of that hackneyed phrase, “You could have recited the telephone book and I would have loved it.” 
So, if effective performance has little to do with either artistic technique or material, what is it?
Performance is communication.  We are performing in every interaction we have with another person or persons.  We assume a role appropriate for the “audience”–an employee role for our boss, a parental role for our children; we use a voice and language appropriate for the setting–loud and perhaps profane at a local bar, dignified whispers at a funeral; we convey factual and emotional information appropriate for the situation–perhaps more emotion than fact in a lover’s quarrel and more fact than emotion in a political speech.
Artistic performance uses all those components of communication, but in heightened form.  Our audiences have spent time and money to have an experience greater than their day-to-day existence. The role or persona that we create for the stage must, therefore, be larger than any other role we ordinarily play, larger than the audience.  The intensity of any emotion must be deeper, using the entire body.  We must own the room, fill it with our energy, even before we walk on stage.  We must believe that we are stars, and we must walk and act like a star every moment that we’re on stage.
  How artistic performance differs from other forms of communication is in the level of responsibility that the performer must accept.  In our daily interactions we expect that a boss or a lover will take responsibility for their side of the exchange, but when we are on stage we are in charge of what happens between us and the audience. 
When people collect into a group, or audience, they give up some of their individual armor.  In return for a sense of togetherness, they become more vulnerable.  They want and need a leader who will gather them up and take them into unexplored territory for an hour or two, someone whom they can trust to take care of them while they’re on that journey.
If we love and care for our audiences, they will follow us.