By Marc Gilson
We’ve seen how Claude Debussy composed rich, sensuous music as a painter creates vivid paintings, and howWassily Kandinsky created bold, expressive paintings as though they were musical compositions. To complete this series, we’ll take a look at an artist who was neither painter nor musician, but who found ways of using words to create pictures and sounds in the minds of his readers, and who inspired America’s first counterculture.
Writing at Escape Velocity – Jack Kerouac
“It ain’t so much whatcha write as it’s the way thatcha write it.” —– Jack Kerouac
He was a thorn in the side of the establishment. A literary and cultural revolutionary. He was a Buddhist, a poet, an alcoholic, a free-thinker, and a reluctant guru who inspired an entire generation, yet crumbled under the weight of his own success. His life was the proverbial candle burning at both ends, and his name has come to represent a compelling but cautionary tale of genius, success, and excess. He was one of the most enigmatic and iconic literary heroes of the 20th century. Yet as far as Jack Kerouac was concerned, “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
Born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents, Jack (Jean Louis) Kerouac spoke French before he learned to speak English. Known to family and friends as Ti Jean, the young Jack wrote stories obsessively and was captivated by radio dramas like “The Shadow.” Many of his readers don’t know that Jack was athletically gifted, and had it not been for a severe leg injury his freshman year of college, we might know him more as a successful football player than the poet and writer he would become.
Dropping out of college (due to the leg injury, as well as his overall frustration with formal education), Jack began developing close friendships with a range of like-minded individuals such as Allen Ginsburg, William S Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. The relationships he forged with these and other artists and thinkers would come to embody a unique spirit of youth in 1940s New York and beyond.
What they shared was a sense of disillusionment about the so-called “American Dream,” “The Ideal Family,” and other attitudes they felt were disingenuous – and even dangerous – myths being marketed and sold to an ever more gullible middle-class. Jack in particular felt a fervent sense of patriotic duty to resist these influences and preserve what he thought of as the “genuine American experience.”
Occasionally argumentative, intensely free-thinking, and hungry for life experience, Jack found himself challenged and stimulated more outside of school than within. Even though school and Jack didn’t get along, Jack was driven by a need to make a contribution to society.
So in 1943, despite the bad knee, he joined the US Navy. But he was eventually discharged for psychological reasons, being branded “schizoid;” a term that, where Jack was concerned, basically suggested that he was as unmalleable as a piece of steel. Translation: too stubborn to serve.
Feeling like he had failed at both school and the Navy, he turned his attention back to his first and ultimate love: writing. His first novel, “The Town and the City” sold poorly, but it gave hints of his unique take on the contrast between small-town values and big-city attitudes. The book also reflected Jack’s growing frustration with what he felt were the oppressive aspects of a nation becoming increasingly dehumanized and obsessed with consumerism. From an early age, Jack had little tolerance for pretentiousness, and would come to represent its antithesis in writing and in life.
Among his friends, Jack was known for a sharp wit and curious mind. With his movie star good looks and a gift for quick talk, Jack was a magnetic personality. He carried a notebook with him everywhere he went. He was constantly seen scribbling off-hand ideas and long, rambling letters to friends and family, jotting down virtually every loose thought flowing through his 78 rpm mind. This was not a private journal; he shared virtually everything he wrote with anyone who would read it. (Jack would have loved Facebook and Twitter!)
Although immensely liked by most, Jack could be enigmatic and difficult at times. Even his closest friends described him as manic – funny one moment, dark and raw-nerved the next, sometimes animated and talkative, then suddenly distant and reserved. Often, Jack’s mood was determined by the amount of alcohol in his system. Usually, it was a lot. But whatever the degree of inebriation Jack never stopped writing. Never.
By the 1950s, Jack was seeking a salve for his mental restlessness through both writing and travel. After a long and inspiring road trip he returned back home to New York in 1951 and began work on what would become the iconic manifesto for the first American counter-culture: the Beats. After several fits and starts, Jack eventually dedicated himself to cranking out the work he would become best known for.
Taping long sheets of tracing paper together, and trimming them meticulously to fit his typewriter, Jack sat down and wrote the final draft of “On the Road” in an almost nonstop fit of caffeine and alcohol fueled creativity. The paper taping was done as an attempt to avoid the momentary interruption that replacing a single sheet of paper would impose upon his fast-flowing creative process. The result was a 120 foot-long scroll (certainly one of the more unusual literary submissions in modern time).
Inspired by his travels across America, and infused with the influences that would define the Beats – experimental drug use, jazz, sex, and free-form poetry – On the Road would become his greatest success, and according to some, the impetus for his demise. It was 1957. Jack was 35 years old. He had less than 12 years to live.
Though still debated as to its literary strength, On the Road was a widely-read and complex novel; an articulation of adventure, personal exploration, social critique, and self-destruction unlike anything seen before. The critics of the time generally loved it, and Jack would soon find himself thrust onto a stage, playing a role with which he was not comfortable: the mouthpiece and harbinger of a new generation. He became the embodiment of something revolutionary – the rebellious answer to the “Ozzie and Harriet” world of the family-oriented, media-obedient middle class. Jack was new, Jack was inscrutable, Jack was avant-garde. And it quickly began to destroy him. (To read the famous New York Times review of On the Road, click here)
Critical acclaim, the holy grail of every writer, did not produce the outcome Jack had hoped for. Though hailed as “the voice of a generation,” he was often viewed more as a curiosity than anything else. There were cautionary warnings implied in the positive reviews; “this is what can happen to your children if you’re not paying attention,” was the warning parents of impressionable youths heard.
This was not what Jack had expected. Rather than shaking the masses out of their coma of conformity, On the Road became a well-conceived, but ominous message in the mind of mainstream America. In a sense, Jack became just as disillusioned with the success of his work as he had been when inspired to create it. He couldn’t reconcile the irony that he had achieved mainstream success by indicting the mainstream. He feared he’d sold-out and become a literary cog in the very machine he sought to dismantle.
Jack was completely unprepared for the consequences of his own celebrity. He was chased by fans, hunted down by journalists hungry for a story, and became a kind of reluctant celebrity and savior for the destitute and disenfranchised. He couldn’t leave a jazz club without photographers and devotees hounding him after a long night of drinking. Newspapers and magazines clamored for interviews, or even a curbside drunken quote. He got so tired of interviewers asking him, “Why did you write On the Road?” he began to answer consistently, dead-panned, and sarcastically, “Because it’s what I experienced.” For some stupid reason, he was beaten up outside the San Remo Bar in New York one night by some drunken thugs who recognized him from TV and magazines.
The added pressure and attention drove him further into substance abuse. Alcohol staved off the need to worry about what others thought of him or how to best handle his rising fame. He typically began drinking upon waking in the morning, and continued through the day until passing out late at night. And that’s not counting the nights when he didn’t go to bed at all.
Not all of this behavior can be laid upon the success of On the Road, though. Even before the book’s success, Jack was seeking ways of managing his ever-restless mind. Booze was an easy remedy, but it came with rough consequences. He needed more than drink alone provided. He needed respite, peace of mind. And he needed to get his head together.
For this, and partly thanks to the influence of his friend, Buddhist poet Gary Snyder, he took up Buddhism. Buddhism, especially Zen, was gaining popularity in America in the 1950s. With its focus on clearing the mind, seeking one’s own truth, and looking inward for answers (rather than to an established authority figure or institution), Buddhism naturally attracted many members of the Beat community. Jack approached Buddhism with his usual intense zeal, and devoted himself to its study and practice. He devoured Buddhist literature and internalized the precepts, eventually composing his own “dharma,” a 420 page collection of his own thoughts derived from his studies and meditations.
The Buddhist themes of emptiness and impermanence resonated deeply with Jack, especially in the wake of his stifling celebrity status. Buddhism asks, among other existential questions, “Who are you?” Jack didn’t really know. There was a split between who he was trying to be and who the public said he was. In some ways, Buddhism helped, and in others it only stoked his fears that he was, as a human being, dissolving.
Meanwhile, the sequel to On the Road was eagerly anticipated by Jack’s publishers, critics, and readers. Wary of escalating the discomforts of success, Jack managed to produce a new book anyway, if only to get his publishers off his back. The Dharma Bums was published in 1958. The book was masterful in some ways, sloppy in others, and though popular among his fans, it garnered less positive critical reaction.
More troubling for Jack personally, The Dharma Bums was dimly viewed by some in the Buddhist community who felt Jack was a poor representative of the ancient teachings. Jack’s interpretation of Buddhist literature was entertaining and sometimes insightful, but often overlooked or completely missed the deeper points of the ancient practice. Buddhism was making its own headlines in western culture but was already experiencing trouble properly and clearly representing itself to a culture largely unfamiliar with its ideals. A hard-drinking, loose-talking American rebel was not exactly the kind of ambassador Buddhism wished for.
Having tried and failed to represent and elevate Buddhism in his writing, Jack took the criticism personally, but couldn’t argue with the assessment. He sought to downplay the Buddhist connection. Angrily remarking to a friend he said, “I’ve become so decadent, drunk, and dontgiveashit. I’m not a Buddhist anymore.”
Despite his successes, Jack was feeling that he’d failed in nearly everything he’d done. But the entertainment industry was still smelling blood. Beat culture was picking up momentum and there was a growing appetite for the strange-talking, bare-fisted, unconventional Beats among adults and youths alike. And at the center of it all was Jack.
In 1959, Jack was convinced to write a screenplay for a movie called “Pull My Daisy,” which was intended to capitalize on the Beat culture phenomenon. The film sensationalized the Beats, and featured Jack prominently as the narrator of the film. Though later acclaimed as “innovative,” and “the only legitimate Beat film,” it fell flat upon its initial release. Audiences found it confusing and disjointed. That only confirmed in Jack’s mind the disconnect between the ideals of the Beat Generation and the craving of middle America for something new and unusual with which to sate its appetite for entertainment.
Jack sensed the inherent hypocrisy at work in his life – that a career committed to the more eclectic aspects of art, writing, and life as a whole was being hijacked, water-down, and molded into something palatable to the milk toast masses. Jack had become the very thing he detested: a product, sitting on the shelf with all the other products, branded with a price tag, ready to sell.
Whatever Jack’s personal reservations, the Beats continued to grow in popularity and began to take-on their stereotypical and long-lasting image. In the collective American consciousness The Beats became beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking, bongo-playing, poetry-reading misfits. Men and women of the Beat Generation were often deemed sexually-deviant because of their reluctance to fully endorse the concept of traditional marriage and monogamy. They did not oppose such traditional values, but they didn’t embrace them either. They were often seen as a confused subset of youth – living out a kind of misguided rebellion their hard-working, church-going parents found detestable. It seemed that that the more The Beats tried to evangelize their message, the commercial response was a sour one. The Beats became, at least to some, a joke.
But to Jack, all of this was an unfair, cartoon-like portrayal of a set of beliefs that had become near and dear to him. For Jack, “Beat” meant a kind of lifestyle representing a state of mind having almost nothing to do with fashion, and was meant as an intentional act of resistance, not against religion or hard work, but against the forces of greed and consumerism gone wild. Whatever else it was, Jack felt strongly that the Beats should not merely be viewed as an oddity. If Jack had anything to say about it, The Beat Generation was not about drugs, violence, or debauchery. It was actually something quite patriotic, independent, liberty-loving, and thoroughly American.
Unfortunately, Jack wasn’t the only Beatnik influence, nor was he always able to personify the more virtuous aspects of the movement. The Beats, as people, too often showed their weaknesses of character – weaknesses that the media often hyped as much as possible. Even so, mainstream America was still engaged in a kind of seductive relationship with the Beat Generation. Their art, attitudes, fashion, and lifestyle became a kind of guilty pleasure for some, a sign of America’s supposed moral collapse to others, but compelling to all. In short, the popular media was not interested in the higher ideals and artistic aspirations of Jack and his friends, but instead fixated on the more disparate and unusual attitudes and behaviors of The Beat movement.
This displeased Jack immensely. Ironic as it seems, the father of the wild and eclectic Beats was, perhaps, far more conservative in his values than most realize.
While Jack often felt a degree of responsibility for how the Beats were publicly perceived, it’s important to note that he was not the sole architect of Beat Generation. This was an artistic and cultural movement spanning nearly 30 years, with a plethora of original thinkers and innovative artists behind it – some who thought like Jack, and some who didn’t. It was also one of the first artistic bi-coastal movements in America, with many of the Beat artists moving westward in search of new experiences.
Jack too, was artistically active on both west and east coasts. This illustrated another basic principle of the Beats compared to middle-America; a kind of itinerant lifestyle, with groups of artists moving nonstop like small nomadic tribes along the highways and byways of America. They weren’t tied down to a job, family, house, or town. They were mobile, like gypsy minstrels, often earning their travel money by producing and selling their art from town to town.
While it’s easy to assign the impetus of the Beat movement to simple social discontent, the reality is that there was another potent artistic influence without which there might well have been no Beat Generation at all: jazz.
Jazz was and is its own cultural movement; one far older, richer, and ultimately much longer-lived than the Beat Generation. American jazz was in full swing by the time Jack Kerouac began writing On the Road. It was the era of Bebop and and Free Jazz, embodied by jazz giants like Lester Young, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Charles Mingus; innovators in their own right. Though it’s debatable as to whether jazz was (or has ever been) “mainstream,” it was, at that time just before rock n roll displaced it, the dominant modern musical force. The impact of jazz cannot be overstated when talking about the period in America between 1930 and 1960. In some sense, the Beats were merely a sidebar or chapter in jazz’s history, yet Jack was the first – and perhaps the most notable one from his generation – to recognize, endorse, and harness jazz’s power from a literary standpoint.
Explosively innovative, and by turns sentimental, rebellious, or outright sexual, the red-raw power of jazz seemed to know no bounds. In nightclubs nationwide, jazz of all flavors and hues could be heard echoing nightly out onto the sidewalks of Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco, and it was in this dark, smoky, urban nightlife of the jazz culture that Jack found himself inspired and in his element.
It’s no wonder jazz appealed to Jack and the other Beats. It was the soundtrack to their wild and unsettled lives, and in Jack’s case, the very well-spring of artistic inspiration. But why?
Like the Beats, jazz was not focused on marketing or mass appeal. Unlike mass-market popular music which courted the affections of the middle and upper classes and was nurturing a growing addiction to sales figures, jazz didn’t give a damn about that. Jazz was not packaged up neatly like a pretty Christmas present with ribbons and bows. It was not concerned with crooning its way in the hearts of gum-smacking teen-aged girls or earning praise from top 40 radio DJs. It was dynamic and fluid, but always stood on its own without apology or explanation.
Jack began to feel that jazz was both a reflection and embodiment of what he – and The Beats – were supposed to be. Jack spent hours in jazz clubs, soaking up the wildness of the music; the sensuality, the sentimentality, the aching themes of loves found and lost, and the thrilling surprises of the soloists. He began to liken himself to a kind of jazz musician, favoring improvisation over form, even in writing. “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues on a Sunday,” Jack said.
To prove this assertion on paper, he argued against strict rules of grammar and punctuation, claiming that such requisites interfered with the flow of expression when writing. Commas and other punctuation were overused, “usually useless,” and were, in Jack’s way of thinking, a hindrance and distraction to the expressive act itself. They got in the way of expression and therefore were to be dismissed as quickly as possible.
Jack preferred a kind of free-form verbal expression in which the written word was allowed to speak unfettered and unedited; a direct dictation from an inner, more genuine jazz-like spirit. To listen to Jack Kerouac read a poem was no different than listening to Coltrane or Parker improvise a solo: the structure is there, but it can change under your feet. And the highs and lows might surprise you, momentarily confuse you, and maybe just break your heart.
This change in writing style was more than a simple break from formal poetic expression toward “open form” prose. For Jack, it was less an attack on the modern writing craft so much as an embrace of spontaneity and honesty in art. Jack strove to establish a new kind of compositional literary style he termed “spontaneous bopprosity,” or what some scholars came to call, “bop prose.”
Jazz, to Jack, represented a new kind of language in which whole and profound conversations could be discerned by the careful listener between the wild solos of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, with not a word or glance between them. Jazz musicians listened, they expressed, and they conversed – no words necessary. This feeling was exactly what Jack wanted to create verbally and in writing, from syllable to syllable.
As musicologist Phil Ford has explained, Jack believed writing should be done the same way as jazz. He strove to “write at escape velocity;” the point at which the writer is unencumbered by the editorial inner voice, self-doubts, or even punctuation. You want to write? Then write without stopping, thinking, judging, editing, second-guessing. Let it flow, man! The only pauses Jack felt were a genuine part of writing were no different than the pauses Charlie Parker made while taking a breath during one of his ear-bending solos. They were silences in reverent service to the word or note.
To write genuinely meant getting one’s analytical mind totally out of the way of the process. This, believed Jack, was the only real way to honestly express oneself – as an experience of the moment, in the moment, and defined by that moment. While Phil Ford doesn’t necessarily believe Jack imitated jazz compositional structure intentionally at all times, he does believe that Jack’s method of writing provides us with a unique “glimpse into the creative intellect in flight.”
Whatever can be said about his literal intentions, there is no doubt that Jack succeeded in his efforts to inject the tangible textures of jazz into his writing. But you have to pay attention to his work to see and feel it. This has caused many to see Jack as more of a “performance poet” than writer, in that his thoughts on the page seem to beg to be spoken aloud (and definitely carry more power when they are). There is, in fact, a discernible difference between reading a Kerouac piece and listening to Jack read one. This is wonderfully demonstrated by the video embedded below, a clip of one of Jack’s appearances on the Steve Allen Show, in 1959.
Jack used language as a kind of dynamic medium, in which the nuances of tempo, tone, and accent defined the piece, just as the same elements often define a jazz performance. The result is a kind of stream-of-consciousness outpouring of vivid scenes and experiences as seen through Jack’s sharp observational eye. A single piece of his prose could contain elements of parable, fable, travel narrative, metaphor, and journalistic play-by-play, all braced by and infused with the flow and movement of a master jazz expressionist. It’s word after word, image after image, strung like beads on a rosary or Buddhist mala, each one solidifying in the wake of the last mental picture. Check out “The San Francisco Scene” to see what I’m talking about. Listen to it carefully. Listen to him shuffle his emphasis and pages as he creates a feeling in time and history no one has ever successfully emulated.
Today, Jack Kerouac is viewed by many as a kind of cultural hero who took on the restrictive and oppressive ideals of “the establishment.” But during his lifetime, he was far less inclined to accept that mantle. As he neared the end of his rather short life, he grew even more frustrated and critical of what he saw as a gross over-simplification and sensationalism of the ideals of the Beat Generation, to the point of nearly publicly disowning the Beat concept altogether. It probably wouldn’t have mattered much if he had. The times were changing, and Jack was being left behind.
Although the counter-culture of the 60’s is often quick to credit Jack as a kind of father-figure, Jack saw things differently. As the Hippie movement of the 1960s succeeded the Beats, Jack didn’t welcome the comparisons kindly, and viewed the 60s counterculture as pointlessly hedonistic and self-absorbed. Whereas the Beats had reacted to the growing tide of commercialism in America by creating art, Jack saw the Hippie movement as little more than a bunch of pot-smoking, long-haired malcontents who preferred to sit around and bemoan their frustrations via a kind of passive opposition to “the establishment.”
Sit-ins replaced poetry performances. Psychedelic rock overshadowed jazz. Tie-dyed t-shirts replaced work-a-day trousers and a pork-pie hat. The Hippies were not The Beats, did not espouse the same ideals as The Beats, were not as artistically adept as The Beats, and you didn’t dare confuse the two in front of Jack or you’d suffer an earful. His reaction to the rise of the Hippie culture and the demise of the Beats was to become angry, disillusioned (yet again), and to withdraw into his own world; a world of solitude, alcohol, and according to some, madness. Jack’s bright candle was burning out, and with it in some ways, so was the Beat Generation itself.
Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969 due to a range of health problems, including internal bleeding and liver complications brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking.
Like many great talents, Jack was eventually overcome as much by the weight of his own success as his physical ailments. Yet he remains a singularly potent example of a flawed yet brilliant artistic force who believed that the power of expression was not something to be defined, structured, or imposed upon by traditional form and technique.
In 2007, the University of Massachusetts bestowed a posthumous honorary degree on their native son. If he’d been alive. it’s quite possible that Jack would have refused the honor. And though the Beat Generation is a powerful but historical phenomenon now dissolved, Jack and the other Beat artists continue to inspire and invigorate new generations of young artists who strive to live and create at escape velocity.
Architects of the Senses -Epilogue
In this series on art we’ve looked at three rather disparate artists. A painter, a musician, and a writer; all from different cultures, times, and backgrounds, but all sharing in the same honest desire to advance the practice of expression via their respective arts. By now it’s obvious that I’m no art critic. I love art. But while I’ve read a lot about it and spent time immersing myself in it, I can’t claim to understand the finer points of art criticism. While I realize that it takes a certain kind of hubris on my part to write a three-part series about art, given my ignorance, I harbor four very persistent beliefs about art I wanted to share about how we can better approach and use art as a tool for our growth as both individuals and as a world:
1) Beginner’s Mind
It’s critical to retain the ability to approach art without an advanced knowledge of it. Too often we leave the apprehension and love of art – especially classical art – to the art students and critics. Art is not meant for that. We should remember that there is great power in great art, and this power should not be the sole purview of art experts and collectors. Art is generally created by men and women who want their work to be seen, read, heard, appreciated – or even criticized – by as many people as possible. Regardless of your understanding or exposure to art, you should feel free to pull up a chair to the table, and sample the vast array of art available to your senses. Visit art museums, listen to music of all genres, watch classic and independent films, observe avant garde painting. In short, open yourself to a wide variety of art, old and new. It’s one of the truly great pleasures of life.
There is an adage in Zen: “Beginner’s Mind.” This means simply approaching life – and art – without preconceived notions, biases, opinions. Approach art not with the mind of an expert, but with the mind of a child, with the simplest of minds. Look at a painting. Do you like it? What does it make you feel? It might seem attractive and compelling. Or it might seem stupid and repellent (that’s okay too). Doesn’t matter. Just walk up to it and look. Look closely. Then step back and look from a distance. See what you see. Feel what you feel. It doesn’t matter whether others see a masterpiece or a piece of crap. Your feelings about it are all that matter. That those feelings are being challenged, stretched, affected, is all that matters.
2) Understand the Context
As you explore art, remember that it was made within a context. Why was Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” so powerful? Consider the racial climate of 1960s America. How did George Gershwin compose “Rhapsody in Blue” as a synthesis of jazz and classical music to reflect the spirit and energy of 1920’s New York? What was Edvard Munch trying to tell us by painting “The Scream?” Mozart wrote his gorgeous and immensely powerful “Requiem Mass” when he was near an early death at the age of 35; commissioned for someone else, yet he likely realized it would one day be remembered as his own funeral mass.
There is always a context to art, whether it’s cultural, political, or merely reflective of the life experiences of the artist him/herself. It’s not just interesting to understand artistic context, but also sometimes critical to a full appreciation of the art in question. Learn the back-story. Art is made by artists – and artists are people – people who suffer losses, experience life’s ups and downs, and often sacrifice greatly so that you and I might glean something of value from their creations, and the times within they were created – long after they’re gone. Artists come and go, just as we all will. But art is a kind of public legacy – left to us, in our good keeping – to experience and to share. What greater gift can a human being offer?
3) Value the History
While I just got through defending the importance of context, also remember that art isn’t something only happening right now. It’s been happening for millennia. Don’t be afraid of exploring the past. Speaking for myself, none of my top-ten favorite movies were produced this year. None of my personal favorite songs are on this months’ Billboard Top 40. That’s not to say that there aren’t some amazing, worthy, and talented artists working today. But too often, in this age of immediate gratification, the shelf-life of art is about that of a blink of an eye. So it seems important that we seek out art of all generations, all cultures, and all times. If necessary, ignore what’s popular today. If it’s really that good, it’ll be around tomorrow, and the next day. Instead, look to history, to the works that have stood the test of time. There is a reason, after all, we’re still listening to J.S. Bach – and playing his music at weddings, for example – 260 years after he died. Do you think Brittney Spears and Maroon 5 will experience such artistic longevity? Maybe, but don’t spend all your time on such things when the world is full of timeless, affective, transformative art.
Examine the paintings of Monet, even if you don’t like Impressionism. Listen to Vivaldi and Beethoven for a few minutes, even if you don’t like classical music.What about Johnny Cash? Hank Williams Sr? Patsy Cline? I don’t like country music – that’s what I tell people. Yet if I listen, carefully, I begin to appreciate and love those artists and their works because I understand a little of their lives and their ways of seeing the world just by listening to them. Listen to Brian Eno’s vision of ambient music. Or Toumani Diabate’s spirit-lifting Malian music. Or Gustav Holst’s monumental “The Planets.”
Don’t limit yourself to what you think you like or don’t like. Not all art is meant to be guzzled like a beer. Some things are only really appreciated when sipped, or otherwise absorbed more slowly. And be patient with yourself. Art you hated at 20 might well be appreciated by the 35-year-old you. More often than not, a dislike of classical art is really a matter of maturity, and therefore just a matter of time. With our hurry-up lives I’m as guilty as anyone of being impatient when it comes to entertainment. If a book or movie hasn’t grabbed my attention within the first few pages or scenes, I sometimes give up and move on to the next one. Not every “classic novel” is one I enjoy. But when I think of my favorite books, movies, and music, they’re often the works that take time to develop and evolve in the mind. In art, patience can yield rich rewards.
4) Share Art with Youth
Most importantly, and I mean this emphatically, art should be shared with youth. Sure, sometimes they resist. There’s so much to distract them, artistically-speaking. But if you’re the parent of a young man or woman, or influential in some youth’s life, don’t hesitate to look like a “dork” and play some Mozart for them, or show them a Hitchcock film, or let them hear Jack Kerouac read a poem, or show them a da Vinci sketch. Do your homework – be ready to explain why this art is important. It does not matter whether they like it as much as they like the new pop top-40 single. It matters that they listened, watched, observed.
Art is changing, and in my own opinion, not necessarily for the better. Life moves fast these days. Art and music programs in public schools are always the first to endure funding cuts when times are tight. When kids are left without access to artistic influences, they’ll rely on the “junk food” readily available to them via the internet and TV. While there is some amazing mainstream art being produced today, too often that means reality TV, corporate pop music, and films with more explosions and cleavage than plot. I don’t wish to come off as a purist or snob. I like cleavage and explosions as much as the next guy. But if you’ve read this far, you surely recognize the importance of sharing art – real, lasting, thought-provoking art – with the younger generations.
A couple years ago I was walking into a department store behind a few young teenaged boys and girls. Next to the electronics department was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Marilyn Monroe. I overheard one of the kids say, “Wow, Madonna sure looked good back then.” Ouch! It’s easy to chuckle at this – I did. But on the other hand, that experience suggests to me that something is being lost. Perhaps it’s an awareness of artistic and cultural history. We learn about history from the standpoint of wars, political upheavals, and financial fluctuations. How often do we consider history from an artistic perspective? And when we do, how do we parse out the influence of one artist from another? As for our kids mistaking one blonde icon for another, do I think of Marilyn Monroe as a sophisticated artist? Is she as important, artistically, as Gerogia O’Keefe or Picasso? Or even Madonna herself? Maybe not. But she’s important in her own right. She contributed something to our cultural and historical DNA. And she ought to be remembered, and at least distinguished as such. She is not Madonna. Madonna is not Marilyn. Educate kids about this. Help them know their Madonnas from their Marilyns. Teach them to recognize Stravinsky from Strauss, Mahler from Mozart, Glass from Gershwin. When public school budgets are cut, it’s the arts that get cut first, even before athletics. Artistic knowledge is under threat of being relegated to obscurity from the needs of a world hungry for sound bites, youtube videos, and Twitter feeds that don’t usually embolden and feed the human spirit in quite the same way as genuine art does.
Thank you for reading these pieces. I hope in some small way I’ve either confirmed your love of art, or inspired you to explore the world of art a little more deeply – a world of mystery, expression, and never-ending wonder.
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” — Pablo Picasso