Monday, August 30, 2010

My childhood in the 1970s Part Six: Music

Apart from my adult friends, and the relatively few kids I knew like George, I would spent large blocks of time in complete isolation. If I wasn't doing work for the business or preparing a magic show I had lots of time spent away from other human beings. A lot of this time was spent listening to bands like Return To Forever, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and the Crusaders. At the same time I was exploring Fusion I was also listening to what they called straight-ahead jazz music of which the most rigid purist would approve: Miles Davis in the sixties, Art Tatum's solo piano, Phil Woods in the 1970s, and earlier Freddie Hubbard in the Blue Note days. I also loved the oldest jazz styles of Bix Beiderbeck and Armstrong. I learned early on never to disregard a particular jazz style. To me it was all simply good music. I am sure this music literally saved me from some kind of insanity or nervous breakdown. Though I am not usually one to extol the social or psychological utility of art, great or otherwise, I know that one can never underestimate the healing power of art, especially for the young.

When people would come over they always wanted to know what music I was into. The only thing I listened to that was acceptable to others, because it was popular in terms of record sales, was Earth Wind and Fire. Even this, though, was suspect because it wasn't white and it wasn't rock. To these peers the whole musical world revolved around Aerosmith, Kiss and Zeppelin. Because FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE had recently been released, even my swim instructor took to calling me "Frampton", presumably because it rhymed with Hampton. While I don't think I looked or acted anything like Peter Frampton the same cannot be said for my swim instructor, especially with his long curly locks and his playing of "air guitar" while we swam. And as if that weren't enough, he took to blaring that ubiquitous recording while we were doing laps in the pool, much to the chagrin of the parents and neighbors.

But I had other musical interests and I wanted to impose them on anybody who came to the house. It took only a few cuts on any of these jazz or funk records to drive away my guests. They just didn't "get it".

Socially this was a step forward from when I was a younger child. At age eight or nine, when anybody came around, I started to lecture to them about Wagner and would do a "show and tell" using LOHENGRIN or TANNHAUSER. Now, I knew NOTHING about the dramatic content of any of these operas by Wagner. But you can be sure that when the subject was Wagner's music I had become an expert after a fashion and wanted to shared my enthusiasm for this newly discovered beauty with the whole world. I was "the Little Professor" and I would point out, for example, the effect of the brass writing, and the "majesty" (my word choice) of the music. This did not go over very well, and even the parents of these children complained about my taste for Wagner and my overall manner. Wagner! Earth Wind and Fire might be more socially acceptable than Wagner because it was a best selling band, but among the racist whites I encountered this too was a problem. My relatives on my father's Southern side always would criticize me in this manner: "Mitchell why don't you got no white faces on your record covers?" was their refrain.

The three girls next door hated jazz. But they loved THE CARPENTERS. On the subject of THE CARPENTERS, I cannot comment.

It was only many years later, when I actually began my initial piano lessons with a spinsterish fifty-something Italian woman, that I got an actual aesthetic and musical response to my "jazz preaching". Once I brought Francesca my new copy of Sarah Vaughn's HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON with Oscar Peterson and my piano teacher proceeded to go over to the piano and, after but a single initial hearing, copy Peterson's lines off of the record, (at least the ones she could execute technically). She called doing that having "perfect pitch" and, whatever that was, I knew then that I didn't have it, let alone relative pitch. It would take decades for me to develop my ears through arduous labyrinth and torturous travels on my part. (It didn't help that the music teachers around me, especially Francesca, were adamantly opposed to playing by ear. This struck me as the grossest hypocrisy because Francesca had this marvelous ability to play an Oscar Peterson line with little effort on the spot and I bet she enjoyed it too. However there was this dogma about sight reading and the sanctity of the written score, a kind of fetish in the classical music world in my particular environment.

Ms. Francesca frightened me because her nose was so imposing and she reminded me of Margaret Hamilton in the WIZARD OF OZ. She even had this long wart that would often distract me during lessons. Her face disturbed me and everything that everybody was telling me about how it was "what's inside that counts" seemed to me hallow and in its own way superficial.

Because of my lifelong perceptual nature and sensitivity to appearances in general I never got used to Ms Francesca, though to this day people tell me she was the best teacher in town. I did like her for teaching the fundamentals of piano and, moreover, I liked her for her sense of musical taste and versatility. She conducted school choirs and I would always complain to her that the scores and charts they performed weren't hip enough. I wanted her to do the Hi Lo's while she preferred.... Barry Manilow.

Francesca also taught me the value of consistency in practice. Though I had worked hard on my magic shows and on the children's theater, playing the piano was the first time I was doing something where reason and emotion seemed linked, where my efforts were linked to something I valued, from within, rather than to something merely imposed on me from without.

Francesca and I embarked on a real cultural exchange. I would bring her these "fusion" records, and she would lend me her complete collection of Italian opera records.

I LOVED these operas, especially the ones by Verdi. I can't say I understood the Librettos in them but I listened mainly for the music: the "emotion and meaning in music" as Leanord Meyer would aptly put it. It was the passion and movement in the music that I listened for rather than the specificity of the plot.

I have two particular memories of early concerts. The first concert was a Bach Brandenburg Concerto by Bach and I was taken by my first crush and blonde nanny "Debbys", always clad in her perfect mini skirt. The hippies with which she surrounded herself were a bit too loud for my taste during the Brandenburg Concerto and since it was Bach which I loved, and since I knew the proper etiquette of theater attendance, I turned and gave her boyfriends (yes, plural) an angry "SHHHHHH". The rest of the concert I was able to enjoy in peace.

The second concert was THE JACKSON 5 at Madison Square Garden in New York with my best friend George's family. This too I loved, and their fiery rhythm and approach to song was doubtless an initial influence on my later tastes in American popular music.

I remember that when I was very young I would listen to Bessie Smith and rock back and forth like an autistic child, probably for an hour. I would replay the cut over and over until the record was worn , my little hands learning how to manipulate the needle with dexterity. The sound and feeling of the blues was like mother's milk for me.

My parents told me that I loved Ravel's BOLERO so much that I could tell which record it was because I had "memorized" the visual patterns in the groove of the record. If they showed me the grooves of LET IT BE and the grooves of BOLERO I could always tell the Beatles from Ravel.

The greatest musical experience of my life in childhood would have to have been when I met my idol and hero trumpeter Freddie Hubbard who died last year. Not only did I get to hear a great band in the 1970s - the one with George Cables on electric piano - but Hubbard shook hands with me and talked about his boyhood in Indianapolis with my father who also had some family who were "Hoosiers".

Knowing that I was in awe of him, Freddie put me at ease and let me look at his trumpet while he demonstrated how he made the sound with his "embouchure". One moment during the concert that most memorable was when he took a solo on the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Cables stepped aside and Hubbard simply sat down and took the longest solo on the Rhodes. This must have been during one of those marvelous and long funk tunes that they would play at that time. (I think it might have been KEEP YOUR SOUL TOGETHER). While Hubbard's playing on piano wasn't of the perfection or proficiency of George Cables, it was astonishing to me that he would do that in the middle of the concert.

He had a beautiful speech he gave me that I will never forget. He began his speech by telling me to "Keep Growing", which is how he signed the CTI recording I brought to the concert. It now hangs framed on my wall. He also added this:

"I say this to all children who appreciate music like this: just because you are all grown and big like me, you know big in size, and an adult man, that doesn't mean you stop growing. All your life there is more to learn everyday. So in a sense I'm never done growing. I'm still learning how to always play better every night and if I feel like playing a little piano on a gig it is because I've learned a little piano too and want to express that. So keep growing because that is something that never ends".

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Very Brief (and Partial) Defense Of Shallowness

We live in a world of appearances. This is not only a matter of habit or choice in culture. Perceptual relations make up a great deal of human life, whatever the beliefs of the society concerning appearance. The Republic of Iran may have felt they were banning the hairstyle dubbed "the mullet" for complex spiritual and cultural reasons, but you can be sure there was something visually unappealing in the extreme about that particular hairstyle to warrant such litigation. However much we may speculate about the most interior, intimate contents about others' brain, however accurate our channelers and mystics may claim to be on the content of the brains, or rather, souls of the deceased, and however people may claim to be so clairvoyant as to know others in some privileged manner - in some exotic concoction of non- verbal and body language reading, or in energy and mind reading - we can never be totally sure about other's mental states.

However, we can be very sure about their state of hygiene, and we can never escape the raiment in which they have chosen to clad themselves: such raiment never stops talking to (or more likely yelling at) us, however verbally silent the wearer. Every mind numbing and repetitive article of cheap sportswear will dwarf the little bit of eyes and ears left of their human frames.

And, increasingly, if the scientists are to be believed, there is so much more of them for us to have to accomodate, both in terms of bodily weight and in terms of population density. The world can be a noisome, overwhelming place when we act as if we don't occupy a world of three dimensions, of volume and mass. Whatever we may think, we are are NOT disembodied brains floating in the ethers. The world is nothing like the Internet, however much we may think we can make the world over in that most recent of images.

And the buildings in which we inhabit seem permanently here. We cannot escape their shadows as we navigate from one interior to the next. The 21st century is littered with reminders of architectural decisions made remotely in the past: these are buildings by planners and architects with the most inhuman and obtuse of theories, and buildings from which we ought to, in many cases, recoil in embarassment and even depression. Our buildings, whether commercial or cannot so easily be escaped unless we opt out of modernity altogether and decide to live as anarcho-primitivists claim we should live.

I mention these remarks at a most crucial moment in human history. The world appears to be ending, at least as we know it, especially if Jim Kunstler's peak oil theory is accurate, and, also given the dire geographical trauma that will follow from warmer temparatures. Oh the earth will most likely go on, of course, but life on it will more likely resemble something out of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD than anything that humans have acclimated themselves to for at least over a century.

Since we are living in a kind of end of sorts it would be most prudent to ask ourselves why we have laid waste to the visible surface of our lives, our environment. (It is too intemperate and indelicate to ask why we increasingly dress as we do, or why we try and achieve a monotonous sameness in our gym manufactured bodies)

All of us are taught from the beginning that it is what is inside that counts. We are taught to be suspicious about our world of appearances. This has deep roots in monotheistic faiths and other general doctrines that have circulated for millennia. It is fairly clear that two things will follow from such advice. One consequence is that our surface lives can become increasingly unattractive and ugly since we have deemed such things as appearance as unimportant.

The second consequence is a kind of reverse of the first one. We will pursue our surfaces in a compulsive and manic way as if mania and excess were the revenge of Aphrodite herself upon us for taking too seriously all of this talk about our invisible interiors. We will become absorbed in plastic surgery and modes of existence in which the surface or our lives is an obsessive and above all CONFORMIST project. (In, for example, some narrow and Platonic ideal of thinness).

But one doesn't have to be a Freudian to see that we are insiting on the importance of something precisely because we never fully respected it to begin with. That is, we insist upon most dogmatically that which we don't truly or fully possess. We commit plastic surgery, we value others solely for their visual appearance, and we wear ugly clothes and live and work in ugly buildings because our heart was never in the surface to begin with. We remain unconsciously guilt ridden that we are not paying adequate attention to this all important interior we possess, as if some secret would be revealed there that would tell us finally who and what we are all.

If we were more, rather than less, shallow, by satisfying the claims made upon us of our external world, we would find we have a deepened life.

We often conceive of individual, human life as like an onion. In peel after peel, and layer after layer we feel we are that much more special, important, and intimate. This is a spatial metaphor.

Yet I would argue that we are more temporal, rather than spatial creatures. Our depths, if we want to call it that, can reveal themselves in the fullness of time.

What if the Jungians are correct and Aphrodite is a real entity and she is exacting revenge upon us for not taking her seriously enough, for ignoring Her needs, both in the form of sick and false forms of beauty and in plain ugliness?

Of course one doesn't have to be a Jungian, let alone a Pagan pantheist, to understand that beauty is its own value, with its own place in our lives.

As Oscar Wilde remarked:

"It is only superficial people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is in the visible, not the invisible".

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s Part Five

Around the time lovely older teen Carla walked in one me during one of my earliest masturbatory experiences - and experiments - my mental perceptions shifted from Janet and Chrissie on my beloved THREE'S COMPANY towards Carla. It was not merely that she was a "real live" woman present as a fellow employee in the family business office: it was her sly smile and slight pause before excusing herself and, the completely liberatory lack of embarassment and shame towards my budding male sexuality that such a respectful exit from that wood pannelled, shag carpeted bathroom displayed. It was if she understood my sensations and we were united in common humanity. And Carla was as beautiful, indeed more so, than anyone I had seen in popular visual representaions, CHARLIE'S ANGELS and Cheryl Tiegs included.

It was only inevitable, given Carla's political activism, that she would exhibit to me some of her considerable mental qualities and powers. That book she showed me, OUR BODIES, OURSELVES was like a glimpse into another world: the world of women, with their wild curly hairdos, and denim outfits, and halter tops and short pants and skirts. And then Carla gave me two Judy Blume books from both a female and male perspective so that I would understand the "differences and similarities". The books were ARE YOU THERE GOD? ITS ME MARGARET, and for boys, THEN AGAIN MAYBE I WON'T. Judy Blume's skill in describing male sexuality in the latter, especially male orientation towards female physicality, was so accurate, it was a testament to her depths of empathy and perception as a writer, however middle-brow she may be considered in the annals of literature. And finally there were the sex ed pamphlets, the less said about these, the better.

Carla made it clear I was not to show any of these to my family, because as she said, and I am paraphrasing but it went something like: "We live in a patriarchal society and adults want to control the minds of the young to serve that system. And the main means of control is control over sexual desire and sexual relations". She did bring up my touching of myself in a most delicate way by telling me to be private about it and that someday I "would be able to experience similar things with a girl, but hopefully much later, when it both people felt right about it and to never rush or force it." Carla's words had a helpful influence on my development into adolescence and eventual adulthood.

One would think all of this terribly inappropriate for a boy, and yet it was this last part of Carla - her political consciousness and NOT the sex education material - that offended the other employees. And it was her suggestion that I come to a "rally" for something I barely understood called the ERA or Equal Rights Amendment that would prove to be most problematic for many around me. This thing called the ERA seemed most important for her. She said that children should come as much as women, and that the more men stood up for it it would be seen as having support and as being for families. I began to be a zealot for the ERA and my first act at school was to try to tell my peers and teachers about it and I would call out criticism of it, such as the line that it would make men and women the same and have to share the same toilets, as slander aimed at preventing women from having what was rightfully theirs. My parents got so many notes telling them that I was not to take a strong political stand on controversial issues because I disrupted the school.

Now it was this last point upon which my parents disagreed. My mother had always talked a feminist line but it was a line I considered harsh, unyielding and singularly implicated in some of the more negative perceptions society had about feminism. And she did NOT want me going to this rally because she worried about "how it would look" and worried that I could be seen as a "communist", even though she herself supported the ERA.

My childlike brain could not comprehent such subtlety in distinction. I interpreted it as hypocrisy. Moreover I felt there was something narrow and priggish here, as if my mother didn't want anybody having too much fun, especially attractive young women like Carla.

Alas I was never "allowed" exactly to attend that ERA rally. Instead of having the opportunity of being around the kind of girls I dreamed about I spent that Saturday around what you might call redneck types doing chores: stuffing boxes with the kind of people who definitely were opposed to the ERA didn't want anyone to think too much lest it was "unAmerican."

Another problem at this time was my obsession with music and musical instruments. This was a problem because I was isolated from anybody with an instrument and knew of no musicians with whom I could speak. Once a year at Christmas I was given five bucks(!) and I would go into the mall to buy these great Jazz/rock or "fusion" records. These records - the most exciting being the two record sets with the fold-out photos and designs - provided me listening pleasure for hours, fascinated by the musicians on the covers and their exotic electronic instruments - usually banks and mountains of keyboards. Because I could not play an instrument I would instead try and draw pictures of the instruments on scrap paper with a no. 2 pencil. My drawing skills seemed permanently stuck at an elementary school age, so I ended up drawing flat trumpets and black and white squares for keyboards. Where my drawing came alive was in representation of human hair: all huge afros, beards, and mustaches since I could not draw a proper human face and had nobody to show me. It was almost as if, by drawing the music, I could somehow, through some quality of supernatural MAGIC, become a musician.

I might add a few words about that mall before I go, the mall at which I would purchase these cheap fusion records. When I wasn't in the record shoppe I would be in a bookstore usually the Book Shack or Doubleday. It was in Doubleday the bookstore that I befriended an African American man named Lenny and he would tell me all about his philosophy of "Hedonism" which, he explained, in the vernacular meant "if it feels good do it!" but in philosophic language had to do with pleasure and pain and a man named John Stuart Mill. I would call him Lenny, the Hedonist. And he would remind me to be careful what I called other people in public.

Odder still, he gave me a book and, like Carla, told me not to tell my parents about it. It was called "LOOKING OUT FOR NUMBER ONE" by a guy named Ringer. My first impulse was to read that book and argue with it in the margins. I brought every objection up to Lenny who then listened to me with seriousness. I grew to love Lenny who, over a few months seemed to indulge this little kid with all of these questions, the chief question being, the one that I still ask to this day as a forty-something:

"Why is That?"

Unfortunately I never got a solid answer to that one from Lenny: my friendship with Lenny did not last long because I heard he was fired for making advances on a girl who had come into he store and she complained. Interestingly I think I knew the girl who had come in and I liked her too, but I did not know much about the "adult" language of men and women, still less about the ethics involved, to speak with her. I was so upset and tried to make sense of the secret life this Lenny had and what that life had to do with the face he presented me. I had questions over whether what he had done was wrong but of course nobody wanted to explain anything to me and, like the schools I kept changing, Lenny seemed to exit from my life with as much casual chaos as he had entered it.

My other friend I made there - the man who replaced Lenny at DOUBLEDAY, eventually became a newspaper reporter and, in a bright exception, he did not leave my life and I have been friends with him ever since. In Jason's case I showed HIM a book I was reading and it was BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski.

As for Carla, she left as well. I had suspicions concerning her absence. I never even got her last name and the few times I asked nobody seemed to know and certainly did not want me to have that information.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s Part Four

I have mentioned before in various ways that I am a creature of the senses, that, in William James' taxonomic antinomies I am perceptual rather than conceptual, however much I may conceptually dwell in the world of ideas and however hungry my brain may be for its own intellect.

When I remember my events from my past I remember snippets, shards, images. There is a story but the story is always subordinate to character, to place, and to image.

When I remember my past I remember not entire events but foreground and background. I remember Lydia, Sally and me playing in the trees and Lydia's wild curly hair that transfixed me, it didn't seem to remind me of hair I'd ever seen before, unless it was like Rita Coolidge's on television. I remember Sally's awkward and bookish glasses and her straight blonde hair. I told her she was prettier than Gloria Steinem which Lydia was not too happy to hear.

Not all of these "imagistic" memories are entirely pleasant however. Win and Jane, the hippie/"Jesus freak" couple with the VW minivan showed me religious cartoons of such horror: random and harsh pictures of the Devil with horns, swooping down to possess little children, humans not so far apart from me in age or demeanor. It looked as if these devils (it seemed plural) would have stolen my soul if I should go to sleep alone. And I had heard great forbidding rumors about the recent movie THE EXORCIST. Of course, in Win and Jan's minds they were getting me saved early through Christ by my being exposed to such comic books. But in reality, those cheap self published Christian cartoons did more to scare me than any commercial "adult" horror movie my dad took me to see. I had nightmares for days and only upon waking could I be assured that demons did not devour or infect little boys.

I felt as if I were naturally "high" as I could become engrossed in the tiniest details: the patterned carpeting, a mustache, Lydia's hair, ALL of Carla.

I felt overwhelmed by a world I barely understood but with which I was forced to cope. It would be many years, even decades before I would develop any sense of real agency in acting upon an external world. I am quite horrified when I read in psychology texts that such a sense is supposed to develop in the first years of life.

Sometimes the unpleasant memories are of a single physical trait on an other person. My best and first male friend George had a father named Olly and Olly had this mustache that simply gave me real creeps. It was long and it sort of drooped down. You could say it looked like Tony Orlando's mustache but it was not correct looking to my eyes and was somehow WORSE than any mustache I had seen. It was a little like Nigel's mustache - the bassist (played by Harry Shearer) in that classic rock mockumentary SPINAL TAP - if that helps to give a picture. Even worse this father had, shall we say, not always the best relations with his kids. Thus I was forced to witness as he sat his daughter on his knee and he lectured her in the most harsh and condescending way, drilling his budding genius daughter on historical and geographical facts. He would issue forth question after question and all the while I would stare at that, for me terrifying mustache, and then look at his daughter's blank, frightened stare as he "tutored her" in front of me and George as if we boys were invisible and didn't matter to him as much as his little girl. Olly's little girl was his genius project and wanted all of us to know how dumb we boys were in comparison to his perfect little girl, all the while twirling that damned "stache". And, just on cue, and in character, Julia would answer every question with unerring accuracy.

Sometimes when he was "done" with Julia I could see her rock back and forth for a while. She and George did not get along well and he would torture him because of his lack of intelligence, his slowness, and his banishment from her world with her daddy. But George always looked after me like an older brother, and was the only male peer with whom I could relate for my total childhood. (If you exclude my adult male friends like the stud Don or the newspaper man I befriended).

Olly would do a show and tell of "the greatest contemporary music" which consisted mostly of the band RENAISSANCE. Now I hated this music and yet, as if Olly's mustache gave him special powers we had to defer to his taste in music and, worse, hear him engage in lengthy musicological disquisitions on the virtues of progressive rock.

Sometimes my memory was of a part of person like Olly's incessant mustache. More often, it was a piece of home or institutional decor. And no single object haunted me as much as the orange and green fuzzy, extra wide and thick deep pile rugs that covered items in the bathroom and toilet in George's home. His mother seemed possessed by such decorating and decreed it suitable for anything associated with bodily functions. I felt and feared there was nobody to whom I could express my disapproval of this kind of design. As the years passed what started off as toilet decoration moved to other rooms. Like a Chia Pet the shag seemed to grow, even including home appliances, all in shades of mustard, green, and various acidic oranges.

Still worse was a neighbor's "rainbow" carpet. I lived near three girls next door - all sisters - but before I can think of any of these girls, all of whom but one I was crazy about, I must first confront that carpet. Their mother decided to take scraps of primary colored carpet and stitch them together. I am sure today or even then the shock of color might be considered charming and fun but it genuinely frightened me. It didn't frighten me as much as the mother did however, but that is a story for a later date.

Then there are memories of people who I never got to fully know. My dad used to hang out with an old man - you might have called him an old thespian since in his young adulthood he had been an acting star in South Florida. Now as a senior he lived in a rundown trailer park. (There were so many of those in the industrial wasteland which seemed to surround our home). But it was rumored that he was a witch or warlock and my father would go visit him for great lengths of time. Sometimes I would have to sit in the hot car outside of the trailer while my father went in to speak with Noah. Only once I was invited in and his trailer was filled with occult memorabilia and ephemera. Though the material was from a point of view opposite than that of the Christian stuff Win and Jan showed me, since it was by Alistaire Crowley and others, his "books" disturbed me as much as Win and Jan's comics, perhaps because of because of their deep mystery. My mother didn't trust Noah and didn't want me associating with him, but I guess my father won that particular battle.

Noah's appearance confirmed his reputation an eccentric since he was incredibly obese with a huge mane of unkept white hair and a beard that seemed to reach practically to his navel. Because he frightened me I was only too happy to sit locked up in an unhealthily overheated wide bodied red Thunderbird - and roast. Though I wondered what my dad was doing in Noah's trailer for so long. I would spend many an afternoon in that car in a shopping mall lot, (those few times he didn't take me along with him), wondering where my father had gone or how long he would be. But on this particular day it seemed a better deal than Noah's trailer.

Since I had appeared in a play with Noah, and it was a play that required me to sit through the whole performance for a single walk on and a single line as a token little kid, I had known Noah socially. Yet nobody talked to Noah as most were afraid of him. Anyway, for long periods of time I was told he took a vow of silence. (That is, except while he was onstage).

But what I remember most about that play was that there were girls in the cast, and since I had practically two hours of nothing to do backstage we got into some trouble. Apparently, as I heard later, when I was old enough to comprehend, these girls taught me how to kiss or "neck". But since my sense memory is stronger than any "holistic" scene I remember the sheer physical joy of our mouths touching and physical closeness. I later learned that they were actually trying to distract me so I would be late to go on stage. Were they being cruel or merely friendly. In today's age, which thinks of all things in terms of Psychological Correctness, of boundaries, of appropriate and inappropriate, I wonder how this would seen. I have no idea how "innocent" it was but I know it gave me sensations that were most exciting and even comforting. How I hated for it to stop, and for the adults to pry us apart and scold the girls and for me to go on stage and deliver that one fleeting line.

As far as my stint in children's theater was concerned, I much preferred a part where I could cut loose and really improvise. My best stint in children's theater was when I got to play a drunk chef. I would study old Red Skelton routines and other bits from a time when plying drunk for laughs was more canonical in comedy, before contemporary "AA consciousness" had thoroughly overtaken the culture. Thus, the end result of such background culture and study was my act of a drunk chef and I planned to play it to the hilt.

Without telling my father - he was often the director of these "plays" - I planned to get so drunk and spill so much wine on myself that I would take a dive - a pratfall - into the front row. Rather than get worried the whole audience screamed with laughter. I felt like a child Marx Brother - Harpo to be specific - getting a whole theater to applaud like that. Though afterwards I was given some stern talking to for departing from the prescribed blocking, however safely I had planned the fall. I promised not to repeat it if they would let me slur my words and spill extra wine.

In writing these memories I hope to get some semblance of pattern. But I must start from my perceptions because as William James said:
"The deeper features of reality are found only in perceptual experience. Here alone do we acquaint ourselves with continuity, or the immersion of one thing in another, here alone with self, with substance, with qualities, with activity in its various modes, with time, with cause, with change, with novelty, and with freedom."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Scales Of Value

I remember an interview with my favorite living jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock wherein he discussed the need for different levels of value in music, how all of his work couldn't be of the level of his VSOP quintet. In part this was a justification for taking on pop projects, for indulging in his love of R n' B and funk - (and he appears to be carrying the popular as far as is possible, what with doing projects with the likes of John Mayer and Christine Aguilera) - especially when faced with a hostile jazz "purist" as the interviewer. The interview took place in the mid 1980s and, curiously, Hancock used the example of Macdonalds french fries and how there was a place for that kind of food. From the point of view of today's food culture and gurus like Michael Pollard, it would be unthinkable that anyone would issue a defense of french fries, especially with the mounting and objective scientific evidence that they are simply toxic, foodist "new Gastronomy" or not. Of course Hancock can be forgiven this mistake because, despite, or rather, because of, the fact that fast food was not as scrutinized then as it is now. Leaving aside the particularity of food production, Herbie Hancock's metaphor still stands. Not all meals can be nor should be four star restaurant quality.

Similarly, I can't imagine, even in my most elitist moments, a steady diet of only Tarkovsky movies, Milton's poetry, Matthew Barney's installations, and Susan Lori Parks' theater. There IS something almost priggish or narrow in such exclusivity. Still, I am afraid for a culture that does not reserve the right to make evaluations of itself. In the "flattened" culture that our post-Internet age is we may mistakenly believe that we and our lives are in some sense "flat" too, and may lose the desire to aspire for higher things, or worse, even recognize such things as "higher" when we see them. As Richard Etlin puts it perfectly in his marvelous A DEFENSE OF HUMANISM:

"In the end, the belief in value resides in a conviction that is known deep within the soul in a spiritual locus that nurtures ethics as well as aesthetics. Not all people - either as individuals or social groups - will bide by the Biblical commandment not to kill. Yet this violation does not nullify its ultimate importance, nor does it reduce this dictum merely to a a culturally determines attitude. The impulse to honor and preserve life comes deep within us. The aesthetic value that art offers issues from the same source".

Etlin makes these remarks in the context of differentiating between the "sociology of art" - that of contextual and cultural biases in evaluation - and the aesthetic of art.

Etlin uses the simple but powerful comparison of decorative art with Rembrandt:

"Decorative motifs, for example, whether on wallpaper or along the string-course of a building, through the rhythmic repetition of their patterns, the grace of their forms, and the liveliness or harmony of their colors, will generally offer simpler pleasures".
Etlin then compares this to the "deep humanity conveyed by the Rembrandt self portrait."

In terms of an aesthetic scale the Rembrandt is surely higher, in its complexity and richness and its layers. Yet this does not mean that the decoration and the self portrait can't be compared because their function is different: they are both works of art and works of culture. It is simply that one is vastly more complex than the other. As Etlin explains in a footnote, "ornamentation can rise to a higher position on the aesthetic scale" and cites scholar Christopher Dresser as an example: in THE ART OF DECORATIVE DESIGN (London: Day And Son, 1862; American Life Foundation, 1977 reprint). Etlin also mentions Louis H. Sullivan as his personal choice of an architect who rose to the highest level.

In truth we need both simple and complex pleasures.

Of course all of this talk of high and low is bound to make us uneasy, particularly when craft and decoration have been denigrated historically. Another objection will be that, because decorative design and portrait painting are different in their uses, it is invidious to even compare them. This dilemma is especially problematic for me, as I have a deep love of artwork that is connected to traditions of craft, for example, Judy Chicago, among many others, and would be among the very first to defend such work's inclusion in any canon should it be attacked for being in any way "lower".

My response, though, to anxieties about inequality, would be that such comparisons are helpful and necessary if only to gain a sense of the world around us and to ground that sense in something other than personal whim or the vagaries of history and place. In a sense I concede the critic's point that it is most useful to compare one decorator or designer to another rather than an important portrait painter, but for taxonomic reasons alone, merely to point the difference in function is to point to matters richer and deeper than mere UTILITY. It is to make the same comment Herbie Hancock wisely does (and as one of the great improvisers in the world who performs both art and popular music, Hancock would surely know), when Hancock speaks of the need for different kinds of food (though we may forgive him his choice of McDonalds in light of the more contemporary revelations about the more unhealthy content of that particular "fast food").

In a sense, when it comes to artistic or any other kind of evaluation we are engaging in the most delicate enterprise, which may in fact connect it to ETHICAL matters:

We want to incorporate context, bias, and point of view. We want to be sensitive to how we are influenced by changes in history. Yet, at the same time, we want to not lose sight of a certain objectivity in the "aesthetic scale", in Etlin's formulation. And, thirdly, we want to be open to new ways of seeing, as artists are, in my view usually the ones who lead the way. The very best of them are prophets and they are ahead of us.

Of course one of the most important aspects of ANY art is that it is in part a process, and on that note, we may well want to listen to a selection of Hancock and finish this discussion.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Questions of Value in the Arts

As I have said often before in various ways, the question of value in arts, letter, and humanities is one of the most important considerations both in the comprehension and evaluation of the world around us, as it admits of no easy answers.

It is in the very nature of fashion to tend towards extremes of all kinds, in part to create commercially viable "drama" that can win "mass appeal". Thus, if in the conservative past it was in vogue to regard works of art as hermetically sealed products that delivered us THE truth, uninfluenced by the grit of everyday life, in the "innovative" present it is in vogue to regard works of art as little more than windows into the changeable and unstable psyche of transient time periods, cultural expressions of balkanized and differentiated tribes, and as narrative myths created by psychoanalytic biography and personal prejudices. If, in the 1970s design was colored dishwater brown, out of sheer boredom, the 1980s must logically bring in garish teal and mauve. And so on.

Art at its best, and where it counts the most, is not as context dependent as the current fashion would have it (that is, the fashion that says works of art are but emanations of their culture). But art's raw materials are our personal and collective biographies. The end result - and all the arts have an end result, however process oriented they may appear - is more than its raw materials: it is something at times quite motley and wild. The higher its value, the more visits it repays, the less of its secrets will be revealed with a single, initial experience.

It is good to demonstrate all the sorts of ways we can go wrong with our misreadings in art as in life. By example we can learn. When a journalist whose expertise is politics and war coverage takes offense to a film about war because she cannot find in it a clear confirmation of that journalist's pacifist assumptions, said journalist cannot be said to have actually SEEN the movie in question, even if every frame was looked at and retained in memory.

The trouble - and the great promise - of works of art is that they have biases. They have points of view, and it is this, rather than "taste" that is a sticking point. In this sense the current fashion has got it partially right: there is always a scene at work. We are political and sociological animals.

I remember a friend of mine who could not bear to listen to Frank Sinatra. She HATED Frank Sinatra and screamed and covered her ears when he was inflicted upon her at the diner she worked. The trouble was, she knew a bit about the most negative and unfortunate aspects of Sinatra's biography and character, and moreover picked up on and associated those details with his manner and musicianship more generally. Sinatra was not Sinatra but patriarchy or male power and swagger, or the father that molested her. Whenever I use this example some are quick to defend her reaction, even if they like or love Sinatra with the phrase "knowing too much can ruin things for you". There is a deep sense that this waitress in encountering Sinatra was encountering energies and sensibilities utterly opposed to her in every way, as much as the difference between, say, a hand-grabbing smiling extravert and a touch adverse, frowning introvert.

We all, each of us, occupy mental spaces and cultural worlds of mutual incomprehension. Indeed this very incomprehension is one of the reasons we have art. All too often we are told that art exists to heal to unify. Actually art more often exists to keep us chastened and accepting of our separations.

But to reduce all artistic evaluation to taste, to give up on any kind of objectivity is to fall prey to a version of that old sophomoric relativism where taste is all that can be known and works of art are reducible to their intended demographic.

The trouble, of course, is that those things that are objectionable in Sinatra (if we assume for the moment's argument that they are actually present in the music) are in fact negative qualities that may very well contribute to that which is positive in the music.

And, conversely, such qualities are utterly irrelevant. We can listen to Sinatra and know nothing of the man. Indeed we might be the better judge of him if this were the case. (What philosopher John Rawls calls in another context "the veil of ignorance"). Swing rhythms, and chords and Cole Porter melodies do not literally communicate a message of male oppression or the dead weight of tradition. They actually transmit emotions of a great deal more universality than that; they might even be "life affirming". But Sinatra as a man and singer had a point of view which comes through his performance and musicianship. My female acquaintance may very well want to spend the rest of her days listening to ani defranco and Billie Holiday, whom she preferred. But the very same principle holds for the latter two examples as well. They are every bit as biased. (Though their bias is of those who are historically not privileged and silenced. Whether this means we should listen to them more is, in the last analysis a political and ethical question quite apart from AESTHETICS which is the present concern). Interestingly Sinatra has a great deal in common with Holiday which should tell us something about musical style and the biographical or cultural fallacy.

Indeed we actually go to singers for their biases. Too often though we want the bias to be only our own.

I have often dreamed of an arts curriculum where we would read only texts that represent the opposite of our lived experiences. Men would only read women and viceversa. Men would read George Eliot and Charlotte Gilman. Women would read Philip Roth and Henry Miller. This would be an arts program where encountering the "OTHER" (to use a real VOGUE word) would be a genuine practice and not merely a slogan.

In the arts we read to meet and (re) discover ourselves. But, I think at best, we read to encounter new mysteries, to DEfamiliarize ourselves. We read to disabuse ourselves of any hope of final unity, indeed we might regard such hopes as themselves part of the problem, as a kind of negative prejudice.

But as long as we disregard questions of value we might well be at the mercy of commerce and politics. Value will not go away as an illusion. There will only be new struggles around value, at least as long as we exist for more than survival.

Perhaps it is time for questions of taste to be replaced by questions of value.