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Friday, December 1, 2017

Wasting time, and other lies about art

The artist’s first responsibility is to tell the truth. But what does that mean?

Child prodigy Alma Elizabeth Deutscher, courtesy Askonas Holt.
“Some people have told me that I compose in a musical language of the past and that this is not allowed in the 21st century. In the past, it was possible to compose beautiful melodies and beautiful music, but today, they say, I’m not allowed to compose like this because I need to discover the complexity of the modern world, and the point of music is to show the complexity of the world.

“Well, let me tell you a huge secret: I already know that the world is complex and can be very ugly. But I think that these people have just got a little bit confused! If the world is so ugly, then what’s the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?”

That was said by 12-year-old British child prodigy Alma Elizabeth Deutscher. I didn’t understand that at 12; I don’t think I understood it at age 40.

The artist’s first responsibility is to tell the truth. But the truth is enormous, and an artist can only bite off so much. For me that has included times of serious self-questioning and times of feminist rage. Right now, the greatest truth I want to share is a command: look around and notice our blessings.

So much of modern culture is bleak, negative, and destructive. Meanwhile, we’re healthier and less stressed than any time in history. Our kids don’t die of tuberculosis and our men are not being conscripted to march off to war. So why do one in six Americans need prescription drugs to get through their days, and so many others dull their reality with opioids or booze?

I know they’re not faking their distress. But the gap between our actual condition and our perception of it is enormous. As an artist, I can’t bring myself to contribute to it by pointing out any more problems. Who needs that on their walls?

Wall hanging in Planet Coffee in Ottawa, Canada, part of series hommage Barack Obama, by Dominik Sokolowski.
A friend was recently in Ottawa and saw the picture above. “This is a large wall hanging in Planet Coffee in Ottawa, Canada. Why is President #44 on display in Canada and not the US?” she asked.

Sometimes art is propaganda. But in general, art is a personal statement that conveys the ideas and feelings of the artist. This, by the way, is not a flattering portrait of President Obama. It seems, instead, that the artist is very conflicted.

The other answer to her question is that Americans may need an escape from the relentless bad news of politics right now. More relentlessly bad news about sex crimes is not the answer. Some conversation about our blessings would be more helpful.

Here's an idea that never went anywhere, a maquette of a painting-sculpture, by me.
Last night, a friend said that he never understood how ‘you have too much time on your hands’ came to be an insult. “It’s the rallying cry of jealous, small minded people who think that uncomfortable employment is the mark of a moral character.”

It’s a slam I’ve heard many times. In fact, I’ve had to consciously let go of my Puritan work ethic to make headway as an artist. Sometimes my visions are not brilliantly developed, and often they look suspiciously like play. But it’s in that fizzing that the artistic mind does its work, and it often happens when we’re engaged in the most boring of tasks.

Part of that work ethic is the idea that art has to make us uncomfortable, or it’s not ‘real art’. Rubbish. It’s the ability to see the world in a new, happier way that makes a child such as Alma Elizabeth Deutscher such an asset.

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