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Close up of Nagala that, from a certain angle, feels more planetary than painting
I’ve been in a particular kind of intimacy with my latest body of work (such a wonderful phrase to describe a variety of artifacts that feel connected…) Yes, you bring them into existence. You labor over every inch of their surface. You lovingly coax them along. Then something happens. They begin to talk back. They take on a life of their own. And then, if you are lucky, they find a place to live somewhere else.
I’ve been packing up an upcoming show for weeks now, lots of large paintings heading west. My intimacy with each piece has expanded into a full familiarity with their backsides, their potential unwieldiness, the scope of their girth, the width and length and weight of each one.
It has been a period with a different kind of focus, but a kind of focusing nonetheless. Being present even in this effort has its own rewards albeit harder won.
From Sarah Robinson’s highly companionable small book, Nesting*:
If we can be still long enough, details of the world reveal themselves of their own accord. Steven Holl counsels, “To open ourselves to perception, we must transcend the mundane urgency of ‘things to do.’ We must try to access the inner life which reveals the luminous intensity of the world. Only through solitude can we begin to penetrate the secret world around us. An awareness of one’s unique existence in space is essential in developing a consciousness of perception.” Rather than forcing our experience into a prefixed Platonic ideal or the totality of a planner’s prescription, contextual information is simply allowed to emerge. This is deep listening, the source of both poetic making and responsible action…
Through listening and observing, appropriate form emerges from the unique variables of the situation. Local insight yields diverse outcomes. This is perhaps why much of what indigenous cultures produce bears the signature of their landscape. Being situated is to be at the site, the unique unrepeatable place that is context.
*More about Nesting here.
Agnes Martin. Her wisdom and point of view has stepped in and shifted my thinking many times over the years. This week I happened upon an interview with her, and it was like a Heimlich maneuver dislodging a blockage. She is so unabashedly mystical. Some say that she didn’t read a newspaper for the last 50 years of her life. Given her world view, it seems to me that there really wasn’t much need.
She reminds me of my favorite monk who lives in near isolation in Gotsang, a meditation monastery in Ladakh. He has been there for 45 years. We sat with him for most of a day when I was there two years ago. Even with a language barrier it was clear to all of us that he knew so much more about the flinty core of consciousness than any of us ever would. Just sitting with him, something in me shifted.
Two backs to the world…
A few highlights from the interview with Agnes Martin:
In this world, that’s the only thing you need to know: What you want.
I paint with my back to the world.
Best things in life happen to you when you are alone. All revelations.
What am I going to do next? That’s how I ask for inspiration.
I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for.
That’s the trouble with art today. 50 ideas before you start, and the inspiration disappears.
Art is responded to with emotion. The best art is music, the highest form of art, completely abstract.
Art is not intellectual at all.
You can’t think about beating the rest of them while you are painting. You have to keep a clear picture in your mind.
Don’t let any other thoughts in. The worst thing you can think about while you are painting is yourself.
I wait 3 days before I decide about a painting being done.
I used to meditate til I learned to stop thinking.
Now, empty mind. When something comes in, you can see it.
Maybe it is because Harvard has planetary status in the Boston/Cambridge area, but it seems everyone is still talking about J. K. Rowling’s commencement address last week. Her topic–“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” is delicious just in its titular power. But the speech (which you can read or watch at Harvard Magazine) has lots of wisdom to offer even if failure and Harvard are hard for some people to place in the same sentence.
Of course some of the graduates took umbrage at the choice of having the author of a series of children’s books as the keynote at a school that, according to some students interviewed on NPR, was used to hearing from the intellectually gifted and powerful, like Madeleine Albright. (We won’t even go there, not now anyway.) But most people I know who heard her were moved by her message.
I’m excerpting a few paragraphs about failure. I’ll highlight her second theme, imagination, in tomorrow’s post.
Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.
Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
After several days in California, I’m readjusting to the stubbornness of a winter overlord who won’t give up New England. Succession planning? We’re working on that. Spring is off stage, bedecked in faille, fluttering her white and pink organzas, just waiting for an entrance cue.
I had some memorable moments last week, both indoors as well as out. One morning was spent at the Gilbert & George exhibit at the De Young Museum. These two have made themselves into art icons over the last thirty years with their provocative poises, proddings, posturings, promulgations. Even though I have not ever been what I would term a G&G advocate, their campy pranks aren’t just empty suit stunts and theatrics. There is more going on than that.
For example, the following statements by the artists were posted at the beginning of the exhibit:
ART FOR ALL
We want Our Art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood. The decadent artists stand for themselves and their chosen few, laughing and dismissing the normal outsider. We say that puzzling, obscure and form-obsessed art is decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People.
PROGRESS THROUGH FRIENDSHIP
Our Art is the friendship between the viewer and our pictures. Each picture speaks of a “Particular View“ which the viewer may consider in the light of his own life. The true function of Art is to bring about new understanding, progress and advancement. Every single person on Earth agrees that there is room for improvement.
LANGUAGE FOR MEANING
We invented and we are constantly developing our own visual language. We want the most accessible modern form with which to create the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art-material must be subservient to the meaning and purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are.
THE LIFE FORCES
True Art comes from three main life-forces. They are: –
and THE SEX
In our life these forces are shaking and moving themselves into everchanging different arrangements. Each one of our pictures is a frozen representation of one of these “arrangements“.
When a human-being gets up in the morning and decides what to do and where to go he is finding his reason or excuse to continue living. We as artists have only that to do. We want to learn to respect and honour “the whole“. The content of mankind is our subject and our inspiration. We stand each day for good traditions and necessary changes. We want to find and accept all the good and bad in ourselves. Civilisation has always depended for advancement on the “giving person“. We want to spill our blood, brains and seed in our life-search for new meanings and purpose to give to life.
Unfortunately saying doesn’t make it so…I didn’t find this exhibit of large format images to be any more accessible to the average viewer than most other contemporary work. There’s definitely an essential tension between these populist, anti-art world sentiments and the fact that G&G are driving their luxury car down the center lane of the Art World Circus Parkway, busily exhibiting their work in museums everywhere and merchandising a boatload of posters and printed ties.
But the sentiments expressed in these words, idealistic and naive as they may read when viewed in the hard-edged context of contemporary museum scale art, mean something to me. While I don’t want to flatten the complexity of the tangle of issues that exist in contemporary art dialogue today by promoting a bipartisan view of Art World vs Anti-Art World, it might be useful to make a few categorical distinctions. Doing so has been useful to me.
Here’s one set of demarcations that I have been road testing, and it seems to be holding together. Sally Reed, artist and smart friend, has borrowed traditional literary forms, epic and lyric, and applied them to the making of art.
Epic art, says Sally, deals with large arc issues like politics, philosophy, cerebral calibrations, identity and does so through installations in public spaces like art museums and international art fairs. It is often built on a strong narrative armature, with a heavy storytelling and/or content orientation.
Lyric art is more human scaled. Personal. Demanding a relationship with the viewer on an intimate level. This is art that usually exists outside of narrative, outside of time.
I make work that would be classified as lyric. But I have been amazed and moved by both types. Most of what gets written about and discussed however is epic. Advocacy for art that is intended to incite the intensity of a full body experience is hard to find.
More from Sally Reed:
No, I am not “telling a story” — for me it’s more like (how’s this for grandiosity?) creating a world. Or more modestly, creating a place, a “chamber.” When a piece is finished, it seems I am ready to invite people in. Or at least their gaze, their thoughts and feelings.
My problem with narrative is that it often is sequential and always takes place in time. I feel that when I am making art, when I am at my best, it takes place outside of time, as a dream does. For me, the experience of making (when I am in the flow) or experiencing art, is outside of time. I think this might be why many narrative based visual pieces that I like initially can bore me on a second or third viewing. And also why certain masterpieces are endlessly fascinating; there’s always a new way to approach, a new way to experience, to sort of “unfold” all the wonders with which they are packed.
There is more to say on many of these themes, which I will continue to explore going forward.
How refreshing to find an art “feel good” counter story in the New York Times, especially one that offers pre-coverage of the ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, “I can’t wait to hate it” Whitney Biennial. This piece made me feel hope, like someone opened a window in a stale, stuffy room with tired furniture and too many people talking loud.
The values in this article mirror many of my own. And since this point of view typically doesn’t get much air time, I am savoring this rare expression of authenticity and stand alone integrity. It also draws a sharp contrast to Terry Teachout’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about artists who lose their gifts when they get caught up in self-importance. (An excerpt of Teachout’s piece can be read on Slow Painting.)
I’d like to think that this point of view is the bellwether for a new and more meaningful set of art signifiers.
Fritz Haeg is not the best-known artist in the Whitney Biennial, opening next month. He has not had a breakout solo show at the Zach Feuer Gallery. He is not being wooed by Larry Gagosian. His prices at auction are nonexistent.
“I don’t even sell work,” he said with a laugh.
But in an art world growing jaded with such signifiers, Mr. Haeg, an architect by training and a landscaper by nature, may end up the surprise star of the Whitney show. Among the “homes” he designed for 12 “clients” are a beaver lodge and pond for the sculpture court, an eagle’s nest over the entry and other cribs around the museum for a mud turtle, mason bees, a flying squirrel, a bobcat and other critters that once lived on the Upper East Side.
Given that Madison Avenue is one of the world’s fanciest shopping streets, you would think Mr. Haeg is casting stones. In 2005, for his first nature-ruption series, “Edible Estates,” he replanted front lawns in places from Salina, Kan., to London, with vegetable gardens.
But his work is more than simple eco-commentary. From his Los Angeles home (a vintage geodesic dome), Mr. Haeg has carved out an intriguing niche within modern architecture, performance art and eco-activism.
This is clear even with his new “Animal Estates,” as the Whitney installation is called. The beaver lodge, for one, will be stained black. “It’s going to look as if Marcel Breuer had designed a beaver lodge,” he said.
Mr. Haeg grew up northwest of Minneapolis, near St. John’s University, with its buildings that, like the Whitney, Breuer designed in the 1960s. St. John’s, a Roman Catholic university run by Benedictine monks, made an impact on the young Mr. Haeg, whose father graduated from the school. “The Abbey Church there is burned into my subconscious,” he said.
Today, even as Mr. Haeg is putting his beloved geodome on the market and deaccessioning unnecessary objects, there is one thing he is hanging onto. That is a teapot made in the late 1990s by Richard Bresnahan, who since 1980 has run the St. John’s pottery program, working only with local materials, from clays and glazes to wood for the kiln.
“It’s one of the only things I’m keeping,” he said. He bought the pot, a traditional Japanese double-gourd shape, a few years ago on a return visit with his father to the campus. “The first time I visited Bresnahan’s studio, I was blown away,” he said. “This is a part of the art world that’s really been marginalized: handcrafts and the stories of how things are made. I don’t think many artists think about where their materials come from.”
The teapot meshes not only with his ideals equating art’s ends and means, but with his retro ’60s aesthetic, a blend of pop-kitsch and eco-sincere. “It reminds me of my geodesic dome a bit, the way it’s this sphere up on three feet,” he said. “And the glaze — it’s very hippie, like it’s still forming itself. And there’s a nice conversation between the light, handmade cane handle and this big orb that’s solid and made of clay.”
And despite the exalted pedigree of the piece, he uses it all the time. “I drink a lot of tea,” he said.
Though Mr. Haeg calls himself a lapsed Catholic, the teapot reminds him of his admiration for the integrated way of life observed by the Benedictines at St. John’s: praying, teaching, farming, hiring high-modern architects.
“They really believe that everything matters,” he said. “There’s something so simple and primitive in the best possible way of what the life at St. John’s is and what the clay pot represents. It’s sort of a reminder that design isn’t just about physical acquisitiveness. It can be a means to a more fulfilled life.”
If it doesn’t make you embrace the Benedictine creed, it at least makes you think about switching to tea.
New York Times
Crown Point Press, a major force in the Bay Area art scene for 40 years, has produced prints with and for some of the greats including Richard Diebenkorn, John Cage, Richard Tuttle, Wayne Thiebaud and Pat Steir. In addition to a gallery and bookstore in its well appointed space on Hawthorne Street in San Francisco, CPP has a tremendous set of files, brochures and descriptive spec sheets on the artists who have worked with founder Kathan Brown and her team of Master printers.
I spent several hours rifling through the extensive resources and files during which I found a small monograph on Judy Pfaff, one of my favorite artists. It features an in depth interview with Pfaff by Constance Lewallen of CPP.
Here’s a memorable passage from that exchange:
CL: [Your] work is not ironic as so much of the work being shown today, in which the artist is the art critic as well…You once said to me that a positive way of looking at this phenomenon is that now artists have created another arena for themselves–they can be critics, they can be businessmen.
JP: When I am in a generous mood I think that. But often I think it is very depressing that the whole art world seems to demonstrate that attitude now–cool, detached, competent. I think one of the things about being an artist is that you should be allowed to test murky, unclear, unsure territory or all you have left are substitutes that signify these positions. Having it all together is the least interesting thing in art, in being alive.
CL: Someone once wrote that your work deals with art at the fringes of confusion of life itself.
JP: I like that.
In the “Earth stood still for a minute. Seriously dude, it did” category: My son Bryce came with me on a 2 hour pilgrimage from Boston to Hanover, New Hampshire–Dartmouth College–on Thursday night to hear and see Jason Moran perform with The Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and guest artist Marvin Sewell on guitar.) I’ve written about Jason on this blog before, but in case you didn’t catch it I can say it again and again: He is one of the greats. If you ever get a chance to hear him, take it.
Jason has been exploring the deeper connections between jazz and the visual arts for several years. Earlier albums pay homage to the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Egon Schiele and Robert Rauschenberg. Recently he has collaborated with and explored the works of visual artists including Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper.
In the fall I went to Washington DC to hear In My Mind, a multi-media performance that is a tribute to jazz piano god Theolonious Monk. Jason’s latest undertaking, Milestone, continues to explore the boundaries of jazz performance, the audience/performer interface and how the personal and the public sides of an artist weave in and out. The players move around the stage, sit facing the audience at times, just listening to previously taped conversations along with the audience. Jason is moving outside the armature of a typical jazz performance and looking to create a different kind of experience for anyone who is there, including the musicians. And even though Jason’s wife, soprano Alicia Hall Moran, was not present at the concert, she was very much there in spirit. Her singing and spoken voice are accessed repeatedly, giving the sense that her ambient presence is hovering over everything happening on stage and in the hall.
As Jason describes his approach with Milestone: “We made a full-length theater piece out of an ordinary jazz concert, and Tarus, Nasheet, Marvin and I didn’t really know too much about stagecraft so we got a crash course from Alicia. She was the director and my collaborator as a writer. In Milestone I wanted us to play the part of ourselves almost, and bring the audience inside the heads of this band; show that while we’re up on stage and you’re looking at us, we’re involved in our own examination of you.”
Jason, Marvin, Tarus and Nasheet stayed afterwards to talk about the music. What righteous, thoughtful, soulful men each of them is. When I asked a question about that fuzzy line between the personal and the work of art itself, Jason made a very provocative comment. He said that he cared about content, and it was something difficult for his kind of jazz to provide. Without lyrics, he said, the content is harder to access. With Monk’s music for example it is vital to understand that Monk’s grandparents were slaves, that faith healings were part of his heritage, that the music he made came from his experiences, and that the story of where it came from matters. Jason talked about how he wants to make his own music more content-rich (my phrase) by including and exploring the personal dimension as well as new forms of experiential delivery.
Ah, content. It’s an ongoing question for me as a non-representational artist who values mystery, the unresolved, the uncertain, the unspoken. Jason is extending the frame in which his music sits, exploring new and bold ways to bridge the gap between maker and listener/observer. All the way home, driving in moonlight off the snow covered fields of New Hampshire, I kept thinking of the Seamus Heaney comment about the wiresculpture qualities of Eastern European poetry: “The density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”
Like the universe, my only answer to all of this is, Yes.
I found a passage from a poem by Seamus Heaney, quite by chance. It stopped me in my tracks:
”The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.”
Just coming out of a long period of living life beneath the surface of things, those words cut through to the bone. So I went in search of the poem in its entirety. In the process of looking, I found an article about Heaney in the New York Times, written by Francis X. Clines in 1983. Heaney is one of my favorite poets, and this article was full of such insightful gems that I can’t help but share a few.
Heaney is wary of the puff power of words and of the poet’s surface calling, which he senses as especially threatening in America, to offer tidy comforts. At times suspicious of the beauty of his own verse, Heaney, these days, can watch the laurels come. He fights to keep things basic, to re-mind himself of the simple wisdom of Finn MacCool, Ireland’s mythic national hero, that the best music in the world is the music of what happens. In his ”Elegy,” dedicated to Lowell, Heaney reminded himself, ”The way we are living,/ timorous or bold,/ will have been our life.”
He opens his own poetry notebook to remind himself again of the warning of the late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: ”What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”
”That’s a wonderfully resonant idea,” Heaney says, talking with some of the awe of the postulant himself. ”If I could make poetry that could touch into that kind of thing, that is what I would like to do.”
As a poet, Heaney holds with the lesson laid down by Yeats: ”If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has that same root.”
In his conversation and classes, Heaney particularly cherishes and quotes Wordsworth and Yeats, and prizes their habit of composing aloud. ”Poetry as a revelation of the self to the self,” is one thing he finds in Wordsworth. In Yeats, he says, it’s the relation between the process and the finished poem: ”From the beginning things had to be well made, the soul had to be compelled to study, the images had to be masterful.”
He seems to find advice everywhere, agreeing with Robert Graves’s ”Dance on Words” – ”To make them move/you should start from lightning.” And with Whitman: ”Make the works. Do not go into criticisms or arguments at all. Make full blooded, rich, natural works.” From his earliest layman-reader’s enthusiasm with Gerard Manley Hopkins, through Lowell’s critical blessing, then friendship, extended during the American poet’s visits to Ireland, Heaney seems to relish whatever place he holds, promising or small, in the poetic tradition. He hardly pleases everyone. Some critics sensed an early failing – ”a marked reluctance to strike inwards, to cross the threshold, to explore the emotional and the psychological sources of his fear,” as one put it. But others feel Heaney’s later sonnet writings deal well with this. The critic Donald Hall wrote in The Nation of a range of Heaney themes and attributes – love, violence, desire, memory, intelligence -but then he added: ”For all the qualities I list, the most important is song.”
Heaney wants to be purged of poets’ tricks and perhaps for that reason he is willing to try to let a layman know how a poem is made. ”Of course, the reward of finishing the thing is pre-eminent still, perhaps,” he explains. ”But it’s much challenged by the actual pleasure of feeling something under your hand and growing.”
Heaney is a poet mindful of what he calls the ”amphibious” nature of Yeats. ”He lived the amphibious inner and outer life so well,” says Heaney. He smiles and summarizes the trick of the poet as if it were in mechanics, not magic: ”Being in two places at once is, of course, the only way.”
The statement is less casual than it seems, for Heaney’s poetry is marked by the amphibious, by the narrative lyric rooted in the outer life of place but nourished from his inner life. What he feels was his first real poem, ”Digging,” may still be, 19 years after its composition, the best introduction to Heaney’s voice.
”The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary,” Heaney says. ”You are saying to people, ‘Everything’s all right.’ And, in fact, one of the things America exposes you to quite radically is people’s hunger to be comforted. And it’s very moving, and it’s authentic, but somehow you get co-opted into a language of comfort that is quite bogus.”
For his opening classes at Harvard, Heaney usually prescribes selections from East European poets, stark verse that is hardly the language of bogus comfort, but is ”antipoetry, a kind of wiresculpture poetry,” in which he finds that ”the density of the unspoken thing is where the meaning lies.”
Francis X. Clines
New York Times
I’m a huge fan of Stephin Merritt, inspiration behind the Magnetic Fields and a slew of other collaborations. He has that Elliott Smith-like proclivity to combine unexpected lyrics with a wide range of hummable music. (I like this description: “bitterly smart lyricism and a musical-survey style.”) The results don’t feel forced or manipulative, just delightfully paradoxical. Like fried ice cream.
And then there is this, a riff on Merritt’s wardrobe strategies, from a recent piece about him in the New York Times:
“I have a strange relationship to variety,” the singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt said recently, as he sat at a West Village cafe meticulously tearing a croissant into little bits. He was discussing his wardrobe — absolutely all of his clothing is in a white-to-brown color palette — but also his career. In music, at least, “I like variety,” Mr. Merritt said…
He started dressing in brown about five years ago. “It’s going really well,” he said. “I had a green shirt that looked brown when I bought it, but I recently got rid of it.” All his pants are khakis. His homes — he has an apartment in New York and house and studio in Los Angeles — are decorated in brown and bright red. “If I didn’t make these decisions ahead of time, because my tastes tend to be sort of eclectic, I would have disasters,” Mr. Merritt said. “This is not an O.C.D. thing. This is a way of warding off what other people regard as horrendous, egregious errors in taste.”
Apparently, he’s right. “I knew him during the all-black phase, I knew him during the Hawaiian-shirt phase, I knew him when he wore, I think it was a 20-foot-long braid up on his head,” Mr. Handler [fellow musician and author of Lemony Snicket] said. “I admire the all-brown.”
This is not as fanciful or trivial an issue as it may seem. The All Brown approach sounds very sensible to those of us who have serious “everything is interesting” proclivities. I love to look. There’s no color combination that does not interest me, no symbol that does not intrigue, no panorama I can ignore. Things have a power all their own, and my susceptibility is legend. While a hierarchy of better and best clearly drives my art making decisions, I can be hypnotized by anything. The minute the light hits the retina, I’m a goner. Going All Brown feels like a reset, like finding a safety zone.
It is an easy seduction for an artist–any artist–to complain about being misunderstood and unappreciated. But according to Oliver Sachs (by way of Trevor Hunter’s excellent blog, New Music Box,) musicians may have a neurological right to that claim:
At last week’s Chamber Music America conference, keynote speaker Oliver Sacks brought up an astonishing fact: Musicians, he noted, have recognizably different brain functions than non-musicians. This is something that has interested me for a while, and it’s noted in every book on music and the brain that I’ve read recently. However, Sacks also said that there is nothing comparable with painters and writers; they have the same neurological organization as those who do not share their abilities. The implications of this are fascinating.
Much sweat and ink has been spilled over the perceived lack of interest in classical/new/art/experimental music for decades now. But what if it is this profound effect that music has on the plasticity of our brains that is primarily responsible for this? It has the potential to explain why, as many have noted, works by abstract visual artists still have the potential to captivate a wide audience, yet comparable aural offerings are enjoyed by only a handful. It indicates that our visual appreciation of the arts is more innate, more primal, while our appreciation of music is irretrievably affected by our own abilities.
Of course, this has only come to be socially relevant over time. In smaller, pre-industrial societies, the low level of specialization meant that everyone participated in the culture’s music, and thus the differentiation between the brains of musicians and non-musicians was rendered moot by the fact that there were no non-musicians. Even in the much more specialized Classical and Romantic eras in Europe, whose composers commanded a vast repertory of arcane knowledge, both the patrons and the audiences were overwhelmingly indoctrinated into musical thinking. Only in a society like that would it have been so profitable for Liszt to make piano transcriptions of other composers’ works, since it was more likely that intended listeners would be able play through a piece themselves than hear another group perform it in concert.
But now, composers absorb more techniques and sounds than at any other time in history—the continuing specialization has led to a knowledge base that’s fully comprehendible to only those who are closest to it. Yet, on the other side is the startling fact that it is now possible and even common for a member of society to be non-congenitally unmusical. If there is an actual neurological difference in the perception of music between its most dedicated practitioners and those who are only listeners, then it would be akin to a difference in color perception between painters and museumgoers. This gap between musician and non-musician has widened through normal social development, without it being the fault of any particular group. But what is there to be done about it?
For those of us who write music that is particularly incomprehensible to the public, deliberately limiting our vocabulary might yield more economically viable results. But it can also feel artistically hollow, since we’re not using our full expressive capacity out of fear of alienation. More education or exposure is needed to give the audience access to the intellectual meaning—not to be confused with “functional understanding”—of the full range our current musical language, so that they may glean an emotional meaning. However, political and practical considerations will prevent this from becoming reality for the foreseeable future.
This essentially leaves me stumped. So, rather than shedding tears over the comparatively small number of people who understand what I do, what many of us do, I find it much more fulfilling and constructive to focus on and take pleasure in the community that shares my neurological organization.