June 25, 2008
Say Hi to the four Ms, all famous for their music, but for vastly different reasons. Millions find great joy in the art of the four although few like all four. Billions more do not appreciate or even recognize any of the four, possibly leaning more towards Grunge Metallic Slacker Sludge, Christmas Carols, Mexican Hat Dances, AK-47s or Tibetan chants.
Why are these Ms considered important? Are they really even artists? Do they truly produce art, whether or not they are artists to begin with? The features of their trade share little: Symphonies versus Ragtime. Lieder versus Solos. Form versus Adlib. Opera versus Gigs. Black tails or Headbands. Liberia versus Libretto, Joy versus Angst. Technique against Creativity. Brooklyn versus Berlin?
How can four so different practitioners of music all be famous? Should they be? What about Culture, Racial and Generation Gaps? How about Snobbery, Elitism or simple Ignorance? Are such items factors in this mystery? Add all into the pot, stir and suddenly one might feel a) is there really a thing called art, 2) if so, what is it and 3) what’s for dinner? Such questions are hard to face after a long day at work. Not to despair. Art is real. It’s just hard to understand at times. But then, that is part of the secret.
Mozart toiled at his legacy in the late 1700’s in the remarkable city of Vienna. Gustav Mahler followed suit in the early 1900s in, mostly, Vienna and Austria. Miles (Davis) is mostly a mid 1900s guy. Wynton Marsalis lives his glory moment as we speak. Mozart was an early Classicist, Mahler a late Romantic and Miles a little of jazzy everything in an introvert manner. Marsalis is also a little of everything but in a very different extrovert way.
Music According To Ms
>Mozart is the legend of all legends to most of us – the true artist, the wonder kid, the greatest of geniuses and the master practitioner. At the time, emperors and dukes solemnly nodded their heads (or not) while Burghers applauded, silver coins clinking. Today, record companies know him as a sure, positive ROI. His personal life was a romantic mess – no money, starvation, illness over and again. He completed the fairytale by predictably dying prematurely. Luckily, he got off to a good start around the age of four or so, producing six hundred works that apparently won’t by surpassed till the end of time.
Not liking Mozart is as unsocial as beating kids, kicking your dog, picking thy nose (or worse, someone else’s nose) or missing Mother’s Day. Some might wonder, though what is real and what are myths such as Robin Hood, King Arthur or Babe Ruth.
Mahler wrote his hour plus long, grandiose symphonies, vastly orchestrated, while suffering from all the angst so popular at the time. He started dying as soon as he was born and it didn’t ever get better. He did eventually die after producing around fifteen hours of symphonies and, mostly, lieder about Angst and Death (KindernTotenLieder). Some claim his music basically is a poor copy of Alpine cows roaming over the mountain sides, their bells clonking and loudly producing masses of green house gases. Critics happily find all kinds of technical problems. Maybe so but Mahler made art. Perhaps he went over the top at more than one occasion in a technical and emotional sense. Don’t we all?
The picture to the left is from the US premiere of his 8th Symphony. No, that is not the audience you see. Those are the performers. It is not known if they managed to squeeze an audience into the hall.
The last 60 years of jazz produced only a handful of truly great jazz artists with a lasting legacy. Miles is one of them. Not only that, he was an artist never standing still. He worked his way through late swing to bebop to cool to the best quintet and sextet music ever recorded, followed by fusion, free style and what have you. Other true artists in the same vein include Picasso and Stravinsky. Lead, don’t follow.
Perfection not Desired
Was Miles as great a trumpet player as he was an artist? His early recordings with Charlie Parker lacked the confidence, flair and excitement of Navarro and Gillespie. Later, he tended to play with his back to the audience, walking off stage when others soloed. Like Mahler, the angst level was high, yet he delivered just about every time. Nothing belittles his legacy – it only shows that superior skill is not required if artistry is big enough.
Miles is not the only case where the art genius beats the stiffness of lips and the speed of a few fingers. Ellington’s piano solos are series of three-finger chords that only a composer can love. Chet Baker couldn’t tell a chord from a Ford, much less read any kind of score. Louis Armstrong was a teddy bear of a singer but technically perfect? Not quite. Yet all are Hall of Famers.
Leni Riefenstahl debuted as an Alpine sex symbol of great beauty (above). She clawed her way up to become Nazi Germany’s most prominent film maker. Her immense talent, flawed, naive and self-serving as it was earned her the friendship of Hitler and a jail term by the Allies after the thousand years Reich vanished. Following that, she fled to Africa and became a distinguished documentary photographer of steppe tribes. In her seventies, she switched again and learnt to scuba dive. Her underwater photography ranks with the best. She was not a nice person but possessed an immense talent. She also was an artist never standing still until her death at 101.
Compare that to Rolling Stones still living off their 1960s tunes. Think of Mel Gibson playing the same role in every film. Many of us go through life never changing or even considering change. “She was a 3rd grade teacher all her life”. “They were married for seventy two years”. “He never wrote that novel”. “Her mother was a nurse so she followed the family tradition”. All of which may boil down to nice, comfortable lives. You will not find many true artists in these bourgeois neighborhoods.
Sanity – Way Overrated
Another school contains those with above average sanity challenges. Bud Powell was a brilliant pianist when his madness was somewhat controlled. The same goes for Glenn Gould of Bach fame. Van Gogh and the ear business come close. Robert Schumann was locked up in his mid forties and soon died. Charles Mingus was not mad to my knowledge but had a temper issue that resulted in smashed bases and screams at audiences. Keith Jarrett also has an audience problem. Do not sneeze in the presence of the master.
Charlie Parker left recordings amply proving that having your brains on fire does your artistry no good. So did Billie Holiday, Zoot Sims and Lester Young. Ben Webster went nowhere without his pocket flask. No one can fault the brilliance of these cats. No one can deny the artistic disasters all produced at many a time. You won’t find technical perfection here.
There is the phenomenon of Outside Artists, a phrase coined in the nineteen twenties discussing (academically) the art of the insane or severely disadvantaged artists mostly residing in asylums. At the time, there wasn’t much of a splash. But the last ten or twenty years awoke the World of Art to yet another way to make money, especially since by now the Outsiders were often dead with little need for royalties or income. Today, museums and galleries from Tokyo to Toronto feature the original Oursiders as well as an inflow of others. I have covered the artistry of these Outsiders several times in these essays.
We have the complete artistry and skill of Mozart, the fatal emotions of Mahler, the imperfect genius of Miles Davis and scores of others – sane, angry or not. Put it the other way. Mozart wasted his genius faster than his money could fly. Mahler does sometimes in fact sound like roaming, self pitying cows. Miles Davis was one of the great but blowing his horn was not flawless. But artistry and adversity are not the only ways to create music.
Practice makes Good
Wynton Marsalis is at the other end of the spectrum. He is the current self declared high priest not only of jazz but music in general. His brilliant technique flashes everything a trumpet can do in polite company. Cool, urban, the Obama of Jazz, his repertoire stretches from (the) baroque to big bands with lots of lecturing.
My problem is that his work leaves me out in the cold. No engagement – it’s like looking at the blueprint rather then the basilica. Of course, his nine Grammy’s and a Pulitzer (all earned, not nominated) probably indicates I’m the one with a problem. Little do I care. Miles Davis matches the nine Grammy’s. He even has a Hollywood Walk of Fame Star. So there.
Marsalis is not the only technical supremist. Yo-yo Ma punches his way through reinventing Bach to fiddling along in the Appalachians, South American Tango bars, Silk Roads, Tibetan monasteries, Brazilian beaches or Japanese gardens, sometimes on the same day without losing his stride as he jets from Vienna to Vermont. Technical brilliance and an odd need to explore what perhaps doesn’t need exploring, but who can argue with fifteen (15) Grammy’s, a carbon fiber cello and first class upgrades for life on every airline currently in the air?
On the piano, technicians such as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and John Lewis battle it out against the belly laughs of Fats Waller, the gyrates by Ray Charles and the off the beat beats from Errol Garner in Concert by the Sea. Errol was about as technically challenged as Chet Baker. The only good sheet is a dead sheet, they said. No Academies needed. Juilliard, go home.
Artistic Black holes
The Grammy’s is possibly the most boring TV show ever invented, surpassing the Oscars, CSPAN, Traffic cameras and Community TV. Endless hours are spent on Best Polkas, Best Studio Lavatories and the Most Recent Tattoo Screamer. Imported celebrities snort and snore while practicing looking alert while asleep. Grammy’s, needless to say, are a lousy way to understand artistic accomplishment.
Several modern day performers mentioned here have in the order of ten awards each. Others do not for undisclosed reasons. Ellington has eleven; Oscar Peterson seven and Ella Fitzgerald received thirteen. Kenny G trails with only one with Louis Armstrong at a miserable single one for Hello, Dolly. John Coltrane also missed the trane with only one. Errol Garner lost out completely. U2’s twenty-two is the best score, Michael Jackson got thirteen and Tony Bennett fourteen.
Another measure: Record sales shows who got rich and prove bad music can sell very well. The toppers are the Beatles, Bing Crosby, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Elvis. None of the Ms are best sellers. Kenny G ranks around 120 together with high octaners such as Hibari Misora of Japan and Luis Miguel of Mexico. The opera crooner Luciano Pavarotti ended up in the mid-seventies, close to Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. O Soli Mio doesn’t stand a chance to White Christmas by Bing Crosby.
Categorizations such as the Grammy’s, Emmy’s and Tony’s never were intended to provide artistic judgments. They are more like voting for “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Best Dog Catcher in Town”. That does not tell us which success story or dog catcher will make the most significant contributions to mankind. Snooze with the Grammy’s if you like. Grammy’s might claim to know who is the best Tango Flutist in Western Argentina. They will not tell you whether such a flutist possesses any artistic talents whatsoever.
Let’s turn to the fakes, jokes, pests and bores mercilessly ambushing us in the largest abundance bad money can buy. This illustrious gang comes at us blaring from our TV sets, out of the supermarket and elevator PA systems, in Town Hall meetings, party alliances and church action groups. They are plastered on bill boards and buses. They predict the weather, read the news, write to the editor (or rather blog writers), investigate community antiwar groups, combat abortion clinics or practice white, black or Compassionate Conservative power. Many like to prohibit art, burn books while others promote sending artist commies to the nearest reeducation camp for a little tough love. And God help the Jaywalkers and those spitting on the sidewalk.
The Jokes and the Losers
Sadly, we suffer the charlatans or, as I’ll call them, the jokes. Capable of some obscure publicity trick, they hail utterly forgettable causes. A few examples – Ann Coulter in the world of fascism, George Bush in the nonexistent world of compassionate conservatism (as practiced in Guantánamo??), Jerry Springer in “entertainment”, Geraldo Rivera as the brave war correspondent. In music, you have Britney Spears, Kenny G, various Jacksons and Mantovani. “Men in lace panties and the women who loves them”, to quote Geraldo.
Billions are untouched by Mozart, Mapplethorpe, Miró, Mailer or Mahler, correctly caring not at all that these five survive the cruelty of time. Surviving is not enough. Hitler will be remembered. Our memories are infested with Charles Manson with his crazed troops, Reverend Jones of Jonestown serving up Kool-Aid or Reverend Koresh in Waco playing with matches, Teddy the Unabomber giggling in his windowless shack, peace in our time by Chamberlain on the eve of the WW II 73 million dead, Tricky Dick Nixon chatting with Checkers by the fire, neither being crooks, where’s the meat by Mondale (who?), the spelling of Dan Quayle, the grammar of Dubya, the line in the sand and no new taxes according to his Dad while Bill Clinton never had sex (define sex).
Twelve Tone Music seems like a loser as are the USSR sculptures of worker heroes. Cubism doesn’t have much of a future – been there, done that. It’s hard to believe Pierre Boulez’ bird songs will be in much demand a hundred years out. Art Nouveau is hardly Noveau any more. Fauvism no longer resembles Wild Beasts. What about the minimalistic school? Is it minimalistic in terms of art or just far too tiny to care for? Smooth jazz, snooze jazz. Is rap crap? New Age is more Truly Boring Age. The Road Less Traveled might be just that. Prozac for the devoted fans. All two of them.
Most of us are more concerned with the famous of today. There is no real way of predicting who will be remembered in 2108 but here are some wild guesses. Will anyone remember Bill O’Reilly, Hillary Clinton, Norah Jones, Jay Leno, Harry Truman, Burt Bacharach, Mel Gibson, Ralph Nader, James Inhofe or the Princess of Wales? I surely don’t know but certainly have an opinion which says none of the above. On the other hand, Michael Jackson likely will have his picture in a few medical journals as will Cher and Joan Rivers. Muhammad Ali will be there but not Kobe Bryant. Pele will kick around but David Beckham will not.
The Artistics of Artistic Artists
An artist is a person whose creative work shows sensitivity and imagination, a character who creates or builds the new, who use imagination, talent, or skill to create works that may be judged to have an aesthetic value. And so on. Others say an artist is skilled at some activity, who pursues a practical science, traditionally medicine, astrology, alchemy, chemistry. According to sources in Kansas City, a practicing fine artist may not necessarily be a resident of the Kansas City metro area.
Leo Tolstoy defined an artist as someone with communication skills allowing the audience to be “infected” with the artist’s point of view. I suppose that means most self help gurus, TV evangelists and politicians must be artists rather than mere con artists.
In most of history, an artist was viewed as a craftsman. That is certainly true of, say, Haydn who lived at the mercy of various aristocrats. Bach served the mighty church as an organist during most of his career. His 200 cantatas played to the glory of the masters. At the time, his Goldberg variations, Brandenburg concertos and other secular works were mostly ignored. His contemporaries found him a tolerable organist, not a composer.
Mozart, at his arrival at the Salzburg court, found he ranked between the valets and the cooks. By then he had about 35 symphonies and a dozen operas to his name, together with a resume covering many European Courts. Emperor Joseph II uttered his classic put down, ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart’ following the premiere of the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
More recently, the Soviet Union practiced a policy of art being a political tool to con the masses into higher production of tractors, vodka and tanks. Artists were servants of the proletariat (aka the Politburo), expected to follow detailed guidelines. This practice lasted till the fall of the Soviet some seventeen years ago. Lately in the symbol of freedom, Rudolph W. Giuliani made an ill-fated attempt to reinvent censorship. Joe McCarthy favored going after artists in general and those associated with Hollywood in particular. Republican congressmen would like to disband public radio and TV together with the National Endowment for the Arts in favor of drilling holes in the Arctic.
Art survives. Artists never die. Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev both kept a degree of artistic integrity in spite of Stalin’s ever-present threat of having both join the millions of others executed. The Soviets are not alone. Turkey, for instance, is not far behind: “Individuals are being harassed and threatened with imprisonment simply for speaking or writing about aspects of Turkish history or culture that do not conform to an imposed nationalist ideal”, according to Amnesty International. Amnesty itself is under constant criticism from Russia, China, Vietnam, Congo, Israel, the United States and other nondemocratic governments.
Art objects, of course, are easily destroyed. In WW II, the Allies pulverized the Italy Monte Cassino Monastery which dated back to te year 529. Today the Monastery is rebuilt. Militarily, the strike was a disaster. The destroyed buildings provided the Germans with plenty of new defense positions.
The historic center of the German city of Dresden, filled with art treasures and historic buildings was completely wiped out by the British Air Force in 1945. This was only a few weeks before the end of the war. The raid was plain revenge without any military benefit whatsoever: the Dresden military targets were not hit at all. Much of the Dresden centre is rebuilt to the historical standard, except the Russian occupiers bulldozed into oblivion the wreckage of treasures such as the Gothic Sophienkirche, the Alberttheater and the Wackerbarth-Palais.
Art gets stolen, in particular paintings. This rather limits its access to mankind in general and its rightful owners in particular. The Nazis with Goering in the lead stole the art of the occupied territories on a massive scale. Approximately 20% of Western art disappeared into Nazi hideouts. Some 100,000 items remain unaccounted. The value may approach billions of dollies. The hunt is still on.
Historically, music and literature were harder to steal. Today, that is no longer true. Computers in everyone’s hands and the Internet makes theft not only possible through copyright infringement, but also so easy few bother to consider the impact. Copyright owners all over the world struggle with this and so far it is mostly a losing battle. How can you prosecute millions of kids?
Bach and Haydn are remembered today. Their masters are long forgotten. Yet these masters, depots, Fuhrers and kings of this and dukes of that may have made the rest of us an unintended favor of immense value.
Art does not just come from individual creativity. It’s often dependent of and based on controversy such as war, terror and the many 9/11s of history. One of Picasso’s most famous works is based on the Nazi bombing of a Spanish town. Robert Capa’s pictures of D-Day slaughter and Jewish artists producing masterpieces in Hitler’s concentration camps also make the point.
Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony dedicated to the millions who died from hunger and cold as Nazi troupes watched. Shostakovich wrote most the symphony on location as Leningrad died around him. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books about the Gulags are based on personal experience. In 1945, he upset Stain so that, under Soviet Criminal Article 58, he spent the next 11 years in various camps and exiles. Here, in his own words:
- I was arrested on the grounds of what the censorship had found during the years 1944-45 in my correspondence with a school friend, mainly because of certain disrespectful remarks about Stalin, although we referred to him in disguised terms. As a further basis for the “charge”, there were used the drafts of stories and reflections which had been found in my map case. These, however, were not sufficient for a “prosecution”, and in July 1945 I was “sentenced” in my absence, in accordance with a procedure then frequently applied, after a resolution by the OSO (the Special Committee of the NKVD), to eight years in a detention camp (at that time this was considered a mild sentence).
- I served the first part of my sentence in several correctional work camps of mixed types (this kind of camp is described in the play, The Tenderfoot and the Tramp). In 1946, as a mathematician, I was transferred to the group of scientific research institutes of the MVD-MOB (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of State Security). I spent the middle period of my sentence in such “SPECIAL PRISONS” (The First Circle).
- In 1950 I was sent to the newly established “Special Camps” which were intended only for political prisoners. In such a camp in the town of Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), I worked as a miner, a bricklayer, and a foundry man. There I contracted a tumor which was operated on, but the condition was not cured (its character was not established until later on).
- One month after I had served the full term of my eight-year sentence, there came, without any new judgment and even without a “resolution from the OSO”, an administrative decision to the effect that I was not to be released but EXILED FOR LIFE to Kok-Terek (southern Kazakhstan). This measure was not directed specially against me, but was a very usual procedure at that time. I served this exile from March 1953 (on March 5th, when Stalin’s death was made public,
- I was allowed for the first time to go out without an escort) until June 1956. Here my cancer had developed rapidly, and at the end of 1953, I was very near death. I was unable to eat, I could not sleep and was severely affected by the poisons from the tumor. However, I was able to go to a cancer clinic at Tashkent, where, during 1954, I was cured (The Cancer Ward, Right Hand).
- During all the years of exile, I taught mathematics and physics in a primary school and during my hard and lonely existence I wrote prose in secret (in the camp I could only write down poetry from memory). I managed, however, to keep what I had written, and to take it with me to the European part of the country, where, in the same way, I continued, as far as the outer world was concerned, to occupy myself with teaching and, in secret, to devote myself to writing, at first in the Vladimir district (Matryona’s Farm) and afterwards in Ryazan.
Through his punishment, he kept writing, hiding the notebooks, defending it with all his cunning, seeking publication. The Soviets kept suppressing him but eventually, all of Solzhenitsyn’s work is published, first in the West, later in the Russia that replaced the USSR. At this time, his old adversaries are dead,
Art also survives through cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, madness, wrecks and early death. Scott Lafaro, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Fats Waller, Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Christian, Eric Dolphy are some examples of early death and lasting art in the small world of jazz.
In the world of classical music, Mozart died at the age of 35, Robert Schumann at 46, Kurt Weill at 50. But in general classical music is a safer environment than that of jazz and rock. Few classical composers spend their time in obscure clubs in strange little towns with a wheezy old bus running through the night to the next gig and another grease pot burger. Classical soloists are sometimes treated as royalty – rock punks and jazz cats are not.
Goliath versus David. Hillary versus Obama. Marsalis and Miles. Yo-Yo Ma versus Jacqueline du Pré. Oscar Peterson versus Bill Evans. Kenny G versus John Coltrane. Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. Anita Baker against Billie Holiday. Diane Krall compared to Shirley Horn. Britain versus Thirteen Colonies. Jedi Knights versus Hobbits. Kojak versus Philip Marlowe. Miami Vice versus Sam Spade. Ronald McDonald battling The Colonel battling homemade porridge. Technicians versus Artists.
The Lure of the Technicians
A technician is someone who might service your car. They fix machinery and appliances. There are chief, expert, assistant and bad technicians. Some deal with maintenance, testing, forensic, x-ray, optical, nuclear, food, brakes, shark, toe nail, nose, lice, cat and dog matters. They make the World tolerable. They are licensed, bonded, illegal or shy, loaded or pretty much like all the rest of us. Some say a technician is generally someone active in a technological field (Gee!).
Few descriptions of today’s technicians mention art although historically, artists were viewed as technicians or craftsmen. Society today is complex indeed, requiring an army of experts to run it. The true technicians are very visible. We need the doctors, plumbers, mobile phone gurus, Redmond enablers (“Your potential. Our passion” which currently translates to xBoxes) and hairdressers. Torturers, lawyers, snipers, SWAT teams and concentration camp guards are desperately needed.
Way back, people just hunted down some animal for dinner so they could return to painting pictures of the same animals on their cave walls. Few technicians were needed. Fire and the concepts of shelter were already in place. What else could anyone possibly need? How about a little art to liven things up? At the time, stealing art was not a big issue. Time changed. War was invented. Money came along. Al Gore came up with the Internet. Art became steal able.
Few laws prevent changing original art to whatever the nimble technician desires. Famous people find themselves starring in sex videos. Fake Hillary videos have her say the most astonishing things. Fox Network changes those graphics ever so slightly and yet another liberal commie walks the plank.
US Senator from Oklahoma James Inhofe doesn’t need computers, skills or technical fakers to make up his own fake reality, a talent shared with George W. Bush, Michael Jackson, OJ, Saddam Hussein, Kim il-Jong and Anderson Cooper. Global Warming deniers ignore science. Creationists ignore their own bodies. Spiderman reinvented human flight. King Kong went from chauvinism to sensitivity in just an hour or two.
The Joy of Technology
Today we have entertainment technicians manning the porn stages and sport technicians dunking basketballs at an unbelievable price tag each time. Other technicians fiddle with mp3s, MIDIs, Photoshop, YouTube and online sharing of art. Ansel Adams images now exist in thousands of versions, cropped here and adjusted there. Mona Lisa might bear the sneering face of Dick Cheney. That Glenn Miller tune may be all coming out of some computer. For a while, a decent printer and basic computer allowed you to print your own money. Today’s PDAs can design your very own nuclear bomb if you’re technically inclined.
Industrial CAD and robots can easily reproduce Aztec temples, Chinese walls, Zeppelins, Pharos tombs, the Hiroshima bomb and the Model T automobile. Add a bit of cheap video and Battleship Potemkin becomes a Ben Affleck flick. We already have fake Gettysburg battles, fake moon landings and man made UFOs, interactive alien invasions and fantasy versions of killing thy neighbor, spouse or pet alligator. Or yourself. We now enjoy video games about video games. Inventors experiment with whole body rubber devices that can simulate remote Internet sex at the annoyance of many a motel owner and to the joy of divorce lawyers.
What I Think
Artists are the ones who touch me emotionally. They make me see, learn and experience more than is obvious. Technicians may make me a bit envious but they leave me cold. No Marsalis solo will engage me as those of Miles Davis do. Yet Marsalis beats Miles technically every time. I don’t care.
Not that emotions are the only ingredients in Art. Dazzling highs, darkest lows, wild exaggerations, cold blooded cynicism, racism, chauvinism, greed, betrayal, you name it – all parts of the deal.
I was about fourteen when I first heard Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and the Abschied movement on the radio. Many years later I still remember that evening and how music was never again the same. I discovered that emotions drives artistic experience. And few can play on emotions like Gustav Mahler could. Couple that with Thomas Mann’s books from the same time and you have a world class melodrama on your hands, easily beating the suffering of Hollywood any day.
Another memory from the same time finds me home from school sick in bed. Based on my pains, I managed to blackmail my father into believing an album by a mysterious Charlie Parker might cure me. I became the naive recipient of my first Parker experience. I hated the bloody thing. The sound was terrible. Every track seemed like weirdness galore. The harmonies could raise your hair in panic. It was one of those radio recordings with Parker, Davis, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell. There was weird stuff like Round Midnight and Ornithology. Considering myself as a fellow alto player, I kept at it though. Suddenly it dawned on me. The hump disappeared. The anarchy of bebop and modern music suddenly became part of me. The emotional discovery happened and nothing was ever the same.
In the early 1970s I experienced a concert by Jacqueline du Pré, a cellist and a remarkable story. As with Mahler, some saw her as emotionally over the top. Perhaps she was. She also at the time suffered from MS that would kill her some 15 years alter. Her illness brought a brilliant career to an end by the mid seventies. On our trail of emotions, her most famous recording is that of Elgar’s Cello Concerto made with the London Symphony in 1965 when she was 20. Two years later she married Daniel Barenboim in a remarkable artistic partnership that was brought to a close far too prematurely.
Experiencing de Pre’s Elgar Cello Concerto is as much an emotional high as anything can be. It is the basis for her today being viewed as perhaps the greatest cellist ever. The technical skills and travels on the roads less traveled by Yo-Yo Ma will not approach the impact of that scratchy old de Pre recording.
There are, of course, other significant experiences. A first hearing of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat or the Rite of Spring ballet ranks high. Here is to prove others are gripped by emotions as well at the 1913 premiere of the Rite in Paris:
- “The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start with the opening bassoon solo, the audience began to boo loudly due to the slight discord in the background notes behind the bassoon’s opening melody. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order.”
- “Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, and Stravinsky himself was so upset on account of its reception that he fled the theater in mid-scene, reportedly crying. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere.”) allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars. Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience. Nijinsky stood on a chair, leaned out far enough that Stravinsky had to grab his coat-tail, and shouted counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra.”
Cool huh? Moving along to other discoveries, eye openers, emotional highs and just great artistry, Coltrane’s Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, the Mingus Ah Um album, Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie and I Say Farwell (he really did), Ellington in 1928-1931 and 1940, Kind of Blue by Miles (much as I hate to admit it given the gross commercialization of the album), the 1955 Clifford Brown and Max Roach album, Charlie Parker in 1947 and Sonny Rollins in The Bridge and Saxophone Colussus both rank high.
In the classical area, add in anything by Martha Argerich, Keith Jarrett and Villa-Lobos. Argerich, a publicity shy Argentinean who may or may not show up for concerts, consistently produces fabulous records. Her Prokifiev and Bartok Piano Concertos are very, very good. Keith Jarrett is many a thing. He is mostly a jazz pianist of real originality but also a truly great classical performer. His 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich are fabulous. He made a mark with his jazz solo recordings with hour-long free form improvisations that to me are a bit trying.
Hector Villa-Lobos, a Brazilian composer of the first half of the 1900s, is mostly associated with Bachianas Brasileiras, a takeoff on Bach that includes a train trip and other fun features such as scoring for no less than eight cellos and voice. He also composed a series of really great string quartets.
The artists, records and works above all are time tested, well known, critically acclaimed and safe bets. Some of them are a little less well known but the selection is by no means adventurous. It is unforgivable to pass over the equally talented artists as well as letting so many jokes off the hook. On the practical level, there are thousands upon thousands terrific artists out there – I manage an artist database that in a very short time passed 100,000 records. Unfortunately, not all can be covered in a blog like this.
Leo Tolstoy said in the 1897 book “What is Art”: “Art must create a specific emotional link between the artist and the audience. The link “infects” the viewer. Art embraces any human activity in which the artist transmits previously experienced feelings to the audience. Tolstoy offers an example of this: a boy that has experienced fear after an encounter with a wolf later relates that experience, infecting the hearers and compelling them to feel the same fear that he had experienced—that is a perfect example of a work of art.”
Tolstoy is mostly right except for claiming the audience must share the fear of the boy. The audience rightfully may react any way they wish, be it amusement, fear, pity or what have you. The aim is to get the reaction, not to dictate what reaction is allowed.
Artists quite often are victims both of their own devices (the madness of van Gogh, the starvation of Mozart, the addictions of Charlie Bird Parker) as well as the persecutions by the Goebbels, Stalins, Bushes and many a local chief. Technicians, in the narrow perspective of this essay, are not so often victims as they are victim makers. Yet Mozart, Haydn, Dostoevsky, ancient cave painters, da Vinci, Michelangelo are Hildegard von Bingen are even more present today than in their own days.
Art expands us. Art without a point is not art. The artist may strive for a specific point but the interpretation is really in the minds of the audience, not the artist. Experiencing art is an individual undertaking where the next guy may see things very differently. That is how it works or as it should work. Art is the most democratic of all ideas surrounding us.
Mozart taught me about joy, Mahler pointed at death and thus life. Davis proved sketches are more powerful than billboards. John Coltrane built the grandest of architectural music monuments. Tomas Mann showed me what despair really is while Dostoevsky made me understand suffering. Ellington is all about color and light. Bird rose into the skies with a path towards new horizons. Beethoven was made of courage, anger, heroism and superiority. Leni Riefenstahl proved Art can be immoral while Jacqueline du Pré showed it is immortal. Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn made me see how suppression and prosecution can not beat down Art. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chet Baker and Errol Garner relied not on technical wizardry but on a gigantic inner artistic spirit.
That’s how it is, how it should be and how it will be. Lucky us.
Thank you all and happy listening!
December 3, 2007
Don’t we just love to assign labels to people? We have famous people and those unlucky unfamous people. There are winners and losers. Some are rich, others poor. You have heroes and creeps. Cops and robbers. Good guys, bad guys. Pillars of society and scorchers of earth. Then the whole deal morphs into crime and punishment, Bible versus Koran, Red versus Blue, Cancer versus Hangnails and Canon versus Nikon shooters.
This is the story about the rich and famous, the not quite rich or famous and, most importantly, those not famous at all. It is also a story about art. It touches on some shameful facts but there are good things too. Nothing is black and white only. Something for everyone, I think.
It has long been a desire of the powerful to classify people into useful categories. Consumer companies such as Procter & Gamble owes considerable debt to market research which divides the World into those using Prell, Tide, Bounce and the infidels that do not. TV evangelists, politicians, NPR and Greenpeace split people into Donors and Parasites.
The Census Bureau classifies us in microscopic detail to the delight of the marketing and advertising gangs. The political districting gurus have a grandiose sand box of devious tactics. Some become crooked enough to drive legislators into neighboring states to avoid being railroaded. Starbucks drill into the data to determine the address of the next overpriced java dump.
I’m happy to learn there are 984 Slovaks and 89 Sioux in the City Of Seattle. Sadly, no Navajos appear to live in my city. 2,447 females require less than five minutes to get to their workplace. Some are my neighbors, no doubt. Of those working at home, 1,271 are not US citizens. 4,767 leave for work between 5 and 5:29 AM, which oddly is about the same number as those leaving between 11 and 11:59 AM. All data is downloadable from the Census Bureau for your entertainment unless, of course, you already have a life.
Then there is something called data mining as practiced illegally by various US government agencies such as NSA in the name of the holy War on Terror, aka the Religious Right War on Muslim. It’s purpose, in the eyes of the George W.’s of an unfortunate world, is to gain insights in as many aspects of your personal life as possible, thereby supposedly proving you are a Muslim and thus a terrorist. Never mind that you may actually be a Slovak, Sioux, Navajo or, worse, a Democrat.
Data mining is largely done by deep diving into the Internet, tapping emails and listening in on phone calls. When it gets more than lukewarm, your phone specifically is tapped, with or, most likely, without court approval. Big Joe demands all your private records from record keepers such as banks, online services and your veterinarian. Naturally, banks, airlines and others such as Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft and Google, have caved in to Big Joe. Joe McCarthy would be green with envy if he were to live in these joyous times. Many wonder why 250 million Americans buy into this horse manure. This is the people fanatically defending their right to bear assault rifles. Over their dead bodies as the saying accurately goes. That line in the sand stand, of course, defends the right to carry an assault rifle to the supermarket, not those Commies’
If you are like most people, data mining is not close to your top priorities. It is a subject almost as boring as Global Warming. No doubt you will ignore both of these issues until 1) your house is permanently under carbonized ocean water and 2) Big Brother decides you are no longer allowed to fly on US of A airlines to visit Grandma in Florida. Your charitable donations are suddenly terrorist money laundering. Your favorite cruise ship vacation is replaced by a prolonged stay in Cuba where no laws are pertinent.
Will data mining stop terrorism? It absolutely, definitely and assuredly will not. Data mining and the War on Terror will fail because George Bush has no idea what or who he is allegedly fighting. Winning means you have to know who and what to beat. It helps if you also know why. Ask any athlete. Tim Duncan does not play against some vague demographic segment. His job is to beat the heck out of Yao Ming and Shaq O’Neal.
Data mining, on the other hand, will generate gigatons of absolutely useless data, not winning a single game. It is pointless to wiretap 250 million Americans to gain insights into the minds of five or so terrorists located in Kazakhstan this week and in Lille, France next week and then possibly in the Sears Tower with a suitcase full of radioactive weapons of mass destruction and a smart looking suicide belt. The CIA will blame FBI who will tear into The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office who sends it off to NSA/CSS after which it is never seen again.
This is all due to the idea people can be classified, pigeonholed and dumped into categories, risk segments, code orange traps and hard drive locations. It is, to be true, all fantasy.
George Bush splits the World into those with him and those not. Those against him include everyone not with him, that is, Terrorists aka Muslims, Scientists, Environmentalists, anything French or German, Gays, his Dad, Hollywood, the Press, Fancy Food, Alzheimer victims, Math Teachers, ACLU and Anyone making less than a million bucks a day. He also dislikes journalists, doctors, lawyers, actors, his own cabinet and members of previous cabinets as well as any past, current or future members of Congress.
Hitler divided the World into mythical Aryans and those not, such as Jews, Gypsies, Hungarians, Poles, Cabaret performers and Homosexuals. Stalin divided his constituents into evil peasants versus loyal commissars. His Generals split their troops into those shot by Germans and those shot in the back by fellow soldiers for not advancing fast enough. The Generals too usually ended up shot by a jealous Stalin.
None of the three gentlemen above cared or cares at all for “different” people. That is a tragedy led by the powerful and directed at the powerless. People are split into categories resulting in the loss of freedom, rights and heads. The rules of the splits can be pretty much anything. Here are a few examples from the last 8 years or so, sorted by casualties:
Iraqi Wars, Afghan Wars, Ethiopia-Eritrea War, Somali Civil War, The First and Second Chechen Wars, Sudanese Civil War, 9/11, Algerian Civil War, Israel-Lebanon War, Sierra Leone Civil War, Waziristan War, Cote d’Ivoire Civil War, al-Qaeda misc. Murders, Turkey-PKK Conflict, Beslan School Siege, Bali Bombings, Madrid Terrorist Attack, Moscow Theatre Siege, Guatemala Civil War, Bojaya Massacre, Super Ferry 14 Bombing, Iraq Fuel Tanker Bombing, London Terror Attacks, Passover Massacre, USS Cole Bombing, Varanasi Train Bombings, Janupur Train Bombing, Karachi Bus Bombing, Indian Parliament Murders, Podujevo Bus Bombing and the Anthrax Attacks.
There is a different kind of prominent split that most of us like to ignore. That is the split of those that are Disadvantaged or those who are not. This includes the Mentally Ill versus us Sane. The physically disabled versus us fit. The oppressed, discriminated against and persecuted; the homeless, stateless, limbless, jobless or not. Anyone not fitting the orderly picture favored by those claiming to be Normal. Once you had Hippies and Beatniks. Now you have welfare mothers, suicide by police, walled suburbs, security cameras, phone taps, road rage and high school murder. It’s them versus us. Take no prisoners.
Perhaps one way to make the distinction is that the Outsiders are those that frighten the Insiders. The Insiders deep down know that the transition to Outsider is just a breath away. That is not a pleasant thought. You might suddenly and involuntarily join the damned, those fucked over one way or another. Jobs, status and security come and go.
Walk into any nursing home and you will not just find the elderly – you will find plenty of people that by their age and physical condition should be out there laboring away as us normal persons do. These people – traffic accident victims, punched out boxers, short-circuited CEOs, born “that way”, victims of violence or natural disasters – are institutionalized because a) they should be and b) someone or something is paying for their keep which is lucky indeed.
The US VA hospitals are filled with those suddenly Disadvantaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam or the dozens of other conflicts deemed worthwhile by brave leaders. Iraqi graves are filled with those permanently Disadvantaged by cluster bombs, religious leaders, Bunker Busters, Precision this or that, lack of milk, neighbors, drugged out Blackwater “security guards” not to mention Syrians, Saudis, Iranians, Egyptians, Kurds, Turks and Jordanians. Perhaps an Israeli or two play their game too.
I live in downtown Seattle. As in most downtown areas, human misery is close at hand. Screams in the night, mental illness, drugs, pan handling and all the other urban invisibles are all quite visible in my neighborhood. Being on a busy street close to a major fire station, sirens topple the normal noise level at a frightening pace. The major TV stations are close by and their remote units come and go, recording misery somewhere else. Their helicopters constantly head for some disaster or another.
Listening to the nighttime screams, the anger of those stuck out there is very obvious. It is true rage I hear. That rage is rarely specific and usually aimed at “it”. “It” isn’t you or me. But it leads to fear among the shop owners, the Yuppie condo people and the city officials. Rage on one side, fear on the other side. Careful demarcation of boundaries: them versus us, day versus night. It is remarkable how loud voices are at 4 AM when the traffic is gone. Perhaps it is despair I hear rather than anger. It might be both.
I have yet to see the rage of the disadvantaged turn into violence although it certainly happens. It does not, though, approach the violence created by even an average American President. Some of “them” I know by now. Others I recognize. Being an insomniac, I see both sides of the fence. Some of “them” are artists with great talent although the chance of a gig or exhibition is slim indeed.
Here is what I’m driving at. You’d be astonished how much art is created by the Different or those Disadvantaged. Take Hitler’s concentration camps and ghettos. A different post of mine included the harrowing, remarkable art produced by camp inmates. Some of those images are repeated here. Extraordinary music was composed in the camps. Only a small proportion is preserved. Hitler’s envy of real artists sentenced them to extermination. Here are just four of the names: Mendel Grossman – photographer, Leo Haas – painter, Alfred Kantor – painter, Paul Morgan – entertainer.
In recent times, the fenced paradise of Singapore banned, censored and prosecuted local press, local artists, theater performances, international press and magazines, pornography and music of various kinds. Sex and the City was only shown recently after much hand wringing. They call it Social Engineering.
The people of Singapore feel they live in a nice place which might be true in the mind of some. Certainly Singapore is record clean. There are immigrant ghettos in Paris and many other European cities that are not as clean or socially engineered. The various zones, authorities and partitions in the Middle East are in the daily news. The Baghdad disaster, parts of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto. If you live in one such area, Art may not be in the front yard of your life. Yet Art lives on everywhere – even in the Green Zone of Baghdad. I bet.
Many of us saw the glorification of the Soviet Worker’s Paradise: workers rising, workers working, workers marching or worker warring. It did not include workers drunk, workers departing for Siberia or workers suffering from AIDS. Apparatich, KGB and aging leaders were artistically invisible. Artistically, the World became one-dimensional.
The Soviet System demanded conformance to “Soviet Realism” which was neither realistic, nor had much to do with art. Lenin in 1920 denounced “Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and “other ‘isms’,” as non worthy elitist deviance. Dissidence meant gulags as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Ginzburg found out. Major artists such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev in music and, in literature, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Platonov, Mandelstam, Trifonov, Babel and Grossman all walked the thin line of becoming “Different” and rebelling against the state line. But check out some of Shostakovich’s works – there are plenty of semi hidden revolts against the dictations. All of which were at the mercy of Stalin and others. “Different” meant living a very miserable life.
In the US of A
Billie Holiday was banned from performing in New York as was Thelonious Monk. Joe McCarthy destroyed some 140 victims – many were artists. Rudy Giuliani unsuccessfully censored the Brooklyn Museum and its “Sensation” art show. Some five years ago, the New York State corrections commissioner announced that he banned the sale of artwork created by prison inmates to reduce the anguish of the victims of said inmates. Considering over two million people in the US enjoy free room and board, it stands to reason there should be a rather lively art scene. Certainly many artists were in jail for some or another offence in their past.
Let’s compile another list: Emily Araki, Asao Handa, Mobu Hashimoto, Taye Jow, Yoshiko Ushida and Richard Kanazawa. All were Artists, different and residents of American concentration camps during WWII. There were many more, all of Japanese origins. Yet the sons fought in Italy and elsewhere. On the American side.
NPR and the National Endowment for the Arts are perpetual Republican targets for extinction. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, All the Pretty Horses, the Harry Potter series, The Catcher in the Rye, Sophie’s Choice, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Inferno (Dante) all share the honor of being banned from schools in, for instance, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida and Texas. The same schools usually favor school prayers, various patriotic pledges and creationism. They tend to agree with Lenin on “Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism and “other ‘isms’,” being dangerous elitist deviance usually leading to pre marriage sex or worse.
Then we have the racial issues. It used to be those were viewed as mostly a shameful American problem. Today it is a global issue that will get worse. Global Warming will force relocation of hundreds of millions of people from tropical areas into developed areas on top of the current labor market flows. Politicians gamble it will not happen on their guard. But Nicolas Sarkozy of France already knows the score as do his riot police.
Racial profiling is yet another example of discrimination practiced by air lines, police and New Jersey Turnpike State Patrol. United Airlines throw Assem Bayaa off a flight claiming that because of national security, they don’t have to obey civil rights protection laws. Racial profiling is blamed for the shooting of Amadou Diallo by the New York City Police Department. London Police killed Jean Charles de Menezes because he looked Middle Eastern. Menezes was Brazilian. US Airways removed six Muslim imams from a flight after fellow passengers expressed fear.
My favorite fascist Ann Coulter jumped in on the US Airways act: “US Airways is my official airline now. Northwest, which eventually flew the Allah-spouting Muslims to their destinations, is off my list. You want to really hurt a U.S. air carrier’s business? Have Muslims announce that it’s their favorite airline.” Would Ms. Coulter like to fly Middle East Airlines on her next trip to Beirut? Maybe she’ll have to connect using Syrian Arab Airlines after crossing the Atlantic on Royal Jordanian out of JFK. No doubt service would be impeccable.
Mortgage lenders, insurance companies and the retail industry have their own version of profiling known as redlining. It means ethnic factors determine the availability of services. Blacks cannot obtain loans or insurance. Retailers refuse to serve certain ethnic neighborhoods. The late 1980s saw the emergence of the phrase Environmental Racism. It covers issues such as urban decay and excessive pollution in minority areas and the unavailable health care for, say, AIDS.
“Us or We” stand for Tide and Dell. iPods, SUVs and cell phone ring tones. A precious few are happy, well adjusted and always productive. Most of us are not. We cherish majestic homes, exercise clubs, personal trainers. Airline miles, first class upgrades, airport club rooms and special floor in hotels. Foie Gras, Beluga Caviar, Kobe Beef, 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, stirred, not shaken martinis on Bombay Sapphire and a spot of BC’s finest. Prozac, Prada, Nike, Viagra.
Illegal gardeners, cooks and nannies. Insider trading, child porn, spousal abuse, congressional pages. Cancer, heart pacers, redone faces, improved waistlines, hairlines and butt lines. The Sundance Cirque Lodge, The Causeway Therapeutic Center or perhaps the Sunset Malibu when things get out of hand? “We” congest the streets, cause global warming, kill thousands of species, make wars, snort cocaine and generally don’t care for one another.
Only the most stupid of us believe in useless stereotyping as shown above. There is not a single individual fitting the portrait. Some may come closer than others but labeling just does not work. Not all enjoy Beluga Caviar. Some prefer ballpark hot dogs and drive a Chevy Aveo. Others like Iranian Caviar better. Personally, I like spaghetti. I’m not much of a Prada guy.
Let’s consider the “Us” camp and some of its members. By most standards, membership includes strange individuals such as Howard Hughes, Michael Jackson, Paris Hilton, Jerry Springer, Kobe Bryant, George W. Bush, Howard Stern, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Boris Yeltsin, Ann Coulter, Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Flintstone and George Karl. All defy classification. They are different but have one thing in common. These people do not produce Art.
The “Us” segment contains untold numbers of serious, legitimate artists. Writers, painters, composers, topless dancers, photographers and maybe a blogger or two. Occasionally well adjusted, safe and sound, they go about the business of art. Some art may be a bit bland compared to the far corners of expressive power. It truly takes all kinds. Take Smooth Jazz and New Age Flutists – great companions with Prozac. No wonder the true Disadvantaged scream in the night. Their art is rarely bland.
To see the spread from the bland to the somewhat adventurous and, by exception, the truly original, compare, say, Perry Como and Janis Joplin. Doris Day compared to Eve Ensler. Miss Marple and John Barth. Rock Hudson and Sean Penn. Tom Clancy and Kurt Vonnegut. Amy Grant versus Eminem. Norman Rockwell against Pablo Picasso. John Grisham versus Norman Mailer. Burt Bacharach and Arnold Schoenberg. Ebert against Susan Sontag. Ricky Martin versus John Cage. David Sanborn versus John Coltrane. Janet Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Anita Baker against Anita O’Day. Danielle Steel versus Andrea Barrett.
Perhaps not all of the above are well adjusted. Some are or were addicted to various things. Not all are nice people. Some of the art is truly awful and most is very bland. None of them live on the street or reside in mental institutions. Some may feel at home in rehab centers but that’s not quite the same thing. This essay is not about these guys. This article is about the other ones: “them”.
“They” stand for poverty, rage, illness, irresponsibility, insanity, and screams in the night. They are institutionalized, discarded, feared, deep-6ed, 86ed, banned, ignored, hidden, driven out of town. They look bad and smell bad. They are drunk, high, low, infected with lice, AIDS or TBC. A few are violent. They annoy, panhandle and give us evil eyes. Many are in jail, asylums or various concentration camps around the World. Or they would be if we establishment types could find the time to round them up. Being parasitic, they deserve no care, no breaks and no respect. Politicians safely can ignore them. They carry no political weight, do not lobby much of anything and receive no DC pork.
Mental illness, in particular manic-depression and creativity go well together. Famous examples include Ernest Hemingway, Robert Schumann, Virginia Woolf, Michelangelo, Diane Arbus and Lord Byron.
“Outsider Art” refers to the work of self-taught mentally ill or disadvantaged artists such as Delaine La Bas, Adolph Wolfli, Nek Chand, Ferdinand Cheval, Henry Darrger, Madge Gill, Alexander Lobanov, Martin Ramirez, Achilles Rizzoli and Judith Scott. The 1922 book “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” by Hans Prinzhorn identified the Ten Schizophrenic Masters: Karl Brendel, August Klotz, Peter Mogen, August Neter, Johann Knupfer, Victor Orth, Herman Bell, Heinrich Welz, Joseph Sell and Franz Pohl.
The six images close by in this section represent works by Outsider Artists. The top pencil drawing of a woman is by Madge Gill, an English artist guided by a spirit. She did thousands of drawings like the one shown here. The woman in the drawing may be Gill herself or a stillborn daughter.
Martin Ramirez, a Mexican who lived in California, did the Man on a Horse. Ramirez suffered from schizophrenia. After his death, the painting became quite valuable. This is unusual: most of these artists are or were institutionalized with their work neither shown publicly nor sold. Even after death, when often their work first came to light, little is made public.
The drawing of a huge dog with his tiny master is next. No doubt based on an accurate view of the world according to most dogs, the artist is Bill Traylor. He was born a slave in 1856 on a plantation near Benton, Alabama. He remained at the plantation till 1934, described as an illiterate farmer with some English vocabulary. He then worked on road gangs and was essentially homeless. So how come this man is viewed as one of the most important American artists?
From 1939 to 1942, Traylor worked the streets of Montgomery as a street artist. He was 83 when he started this artistic career, eventually producing around 1,800 drawings. Friends brought him drawing materials and others provided small favors such as food and an occasional roof. His first show was held in 1940 – ignored by Traylor who was busy drawing. His next show was held in 1942 at a local high school. By chance, his work caught the attention of the NYC Museum of Modern Art. The Museum attempted to buy some of the works but was angrily rejected. By 1943 Traylor moved north to his children. He died in 1947 and his work fell into the shadows for thirty five years.
In 1982, he was part of a landmark exhibition of Black American art. His work was rediscovered and he is now a regular feature of the art scene. Exhibitions include about some twenty across the South in the last 10 years. He recently was featured in England, Germany and Switzerland.
Adolf Wolfli, Resident Artist, Waldau Mental Asylum, Switzerland 1895-1930
Adolf Wolfli is perhaps the best known of the Outsider Artists. Born in 1864, he was a farmhand, a laborer and a convicted sex offender by the age of 31. At this point he was committed to the Asylum where he remained to his death in 1930. He was violent, subject to hallucinations and diagnosed as a schizophrenic.
He started drawing in 1899, but nothing is preserved till about 1905. Over the next twenty five years, he accumulated a remarkable output of an imaginary 25,000 page autobiography and some 3,000 drawings and collages. Supported by some of the hospital staff, here is his established routine:
- “Every Monday morning Wölfli is given a new pencil and two large sheets of unprinted newsprint. The pencil is used up in two days; then he has to make do with the stubs he has saved or with whatever he can beg off someone else.”
- “He often writes with pieces only five to seven millimeters long and even with the broken-off points of lead, which he handles deftly, holding them between his fingernails. He carefully collects packing paper and any other paper he can get from the guards and patients in his area; otherwise he would run out of paper before the next Sunday night.”
- “At Christmas the house gives him a box of colored pencils, which lasts him two or three weeks at the most.”
He achieved a bit of fame in 1921 when he was the subject of an attention getting publication stating a mentally ill person can be a serious artist. In 1922, he was one of several subjects in Prinzhorn’s book mentioned above. The publicity allowed him to sell some drawings.
Yet that ripple did not last long and it was not till 1972 – forty two years after his death – that he was discovered by the world of art. His work started a remarkable tour through the world that included well over a hundred fifty exhibitions at locations such as the Museums of Fine Arts in Basel and Bern, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Universities of California in Berkeley and Santa Barbara, Musee Picasso, Antibes, American Folk Art Museum, New York, Kunsthalle, Kiel, Scottish Art Council, Edinburgh, Berliner Museum, Berlin, Centre de Cultura Contemporania, Barcelona, Museum of Kyoto, Kyoto, Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo and the Katonah Museum of Art, New York. This is just a sampling;
add many more museums, exhibition halls and galleries.
What about his work? Well, think an enormous collection of newsprint papers completely covered with text, drawings, symbols, poetry and musical annotations. Meticulously organized into volumes: Nine volumes of “From the Cradle to the Grave”, Seven volumes of “Geographic and Algebraic Books”, 3,000 pages of “Saint Adolf-Giant-Creation (allowing his nephew to conquer not only Earth but the entire Cosmos), six books of “St Adolf II” (his alter ego), six books of “Songs ands Dances”, four books on “Dances and Marches” and sixteen books and 8,404 pages on his “Funeral March”. Most of his drawings were part of the volumes but some, called bread art, were single sheet, occasionally sold and the basis of his modest early following.
The drawings are exhausting, epic, complex, grandiose, geometrical, adventurous, labyrinthine, mysterious, startling and based on an incredible imagination. He spent most of his mature life in an isolation cell, yet provided views on far reaching subjects he could not have observed through anything but imagination.
Here is a bit of trivia: Wolfli did his Campbell Soup Can (above) in 1929. Andy Warhol did his Can in 1964. It seems both of them liked the Tomato Soup. Warhol is the pop artist of fame. Wolfli is known for insanity. May the best man or image win.
Also interesting is the inclusion of musical annotations and hints. Recently, these annotations have been interpreted into actual performances. He is said to have inspired a range of musicians and composers. Here are a few words on the musical aspect of his work off his web site:
- “Naturally enough, the question whether Wölfli’s music can be played is asked again and again. The answer is yes, with some difficulty. Parts of the musical manuscripts of 1913 were analyzed in 1976 by Kjell Keller and Peter Streif and were performed. These are dances – as Wölfli indicates – waltzes, mazurkas, and polkas similar in their melody to folk music.”
- “How Wölfli acquired his knowledge of music and its signs and terms is not clear. He heard singing in the village church. Perhaps he himself sang along. There he could see song books from the eighteenth century with six-line staffs (explaining, perhaps, his continuous use of six lines in his musical notations). At festivities he heard dance music, and on military occasions he heard the marches he loved so well.”
- “More important than the concrete evaluation of his music notations is Wölfli’s concept of viewing and designing his whole oeuvre as a big musical composition. The basic element underlying his compositions and his whole oeuvre is rhythm. Rhythm pervades not only his music but his poems and prose, and there is also a distinctive rhythmic flow in his handwriting.”
Another curious aspect is that he apparently incorporated a detailed vocabulary into his work. This vocabulary included graphics such as birds, faces, decorative borders, snakes, musical staves and mandela shapes.
Adolf Wolfli’s creativity is only the beginning of his startling abilities. It is hard to even imagine what must have been going on in that isolated mind that astonishes a world about which he directly knew very little. There is only room here for a few of his drawings (above). Given the uniqueness of his work, I’ve prepared a short multimedia show of samples from his work, accompanied by his own music as interpreted recently. Hit the “Wolfli” button in the next segment and let the show roll.
Sometimes, Outsider Artists are referred to as “Folk Artists”. Other descriptions include “brutish, rural, untrained, intuitive, menial, peasant, marginal, clumsy, naive, primitive, extreme, mental, elaborate and fantasy driven”. Personally, I don’t quite agree with any of these classifications. Considering that Outsider Art has become a commercially viable art form, some recent output might be described as opportunistic, simply bad or exploitative.
However, in the case of Wolfli, his music as interpreted in the show below is decidedly Swiss Folk style. Perhaps not all of us favor that particular music legacy but few among us can claim to simultaneously be writers of autobiographies, adventures, poetry, algebraic and geographic text books and symbolic essays plus be accomplished visual artists, draftsmen and illustrators plus be composers.
Hit the button for a rare glimpse of a long ago Outsider Artist and his quite strange world and who beat Andy Warhol to the Campbell Soup Can:
There are Outsider Music and Outsider Photography artists. Perhaps we have Outsider Postmen, Outsider Plumbers, Outsider Accountants and Outsider Neurosurgeons. Outsider Bloggers most likely are quite a large group. It depends on how you classify people. I suppose my point is that classifying people is a futile exercise. There are some trivial classifications that are real. If you lost a leg you are a one-legged individual. If you were born in Moscow, Idaho, you are an American citizen. But if you claim such classifications can be extended to your credit rating or artistic ability, then you are on a slippery slope.