Tuesday, September 6, 2011

You can have a Career in the Arts

Yes, you can, and you don't have to be Sammy Davis Jr.

It is liberating to contemplate art that is essentially art and not hype.  When it began to dawn on me that music can get along fine without all the puff that sells music, I was listening to a duet from Verdi's La Traviata, that of Violetta and the elder Germont, at a recital in the studio of a vocal coach in the Magnolia neighborhood in Seattle.  Something clicked.  This is the real thing!  There were maybe twenty five people in the audience, but the singing was better than many professionals I'd heard at Seattle Opera or on recordings. The ohhh sensation was a bit like the feeling that hit me, when I was a kid and I realized that my father's friends were more interesting than any of the actors in the movies. Dad took me occasionally to the Orpheum Theater because I liked Victor Mature on the big screen, but Dad's Italian relatives and friends, I soon realized, were a lot more fun than Demetrius and the Gladiators, or Shark Hunters, and there were more real cowboys in my mother's family than in any of John Wayne's westerns.

When I read John Steinbeck's novels, I began to realize they were about people I knew, some of whom I respected and loved and others who were a real pain, but Steinbeck, most of the time, could connect his lyric prose to farm families and fishermen who meant something to me.  I'd had some encouragement from writing instructors in English composition classes.  I thought, hell, I can do this, and I started writing a novel.  Before I knew how big a fish I had on the line, I had written three novels, one of which got me to finish school and my degree at the University of Washington.  Of course, the first novel was supposed to make me rich, but things turned out much better than that.  I hadn't realized how rich I already was until I started dredging up pieces of my life to memorialize in print.  There are many definitions of fiction.  Mine is living everything that you missed while it happened.

What is art anyway?  Well, OK, that's too big for a blog post of the dimensions I have in mind, but I can tell you what art isn't.  It's not an aspiring poet who reads something by Theodore Roethke and then tries to write in the most Roethke-rhythmic vein imaginable. This is some reflection of a world that shimmered momentarily in Theodore Roethke's mind.  A professor who taught writing at the University of Washington, who knew Roethke, told me he could be a windbag. Why revive verbiage from somebody else's reflection of a world long gone, when you have the world vividly focused right in front of you?  I suppose it seems better to live on Guggenheim fellowships and the salary of a tenured professor than work at Home Depot and write poetry at the lunch counter, but my former instructor said Roethke had to drag him to a bar and corner him for an afternoon to have a conversation.  I've had fine conversations while working for a living, with people who really wanted to talk.

Artistic authenticity is putting your work in front of people in some old-fangled auditorium, preferably without amplification.  Get up and read, sing, or play your instrument for people who haven't paid fifty bucks for the privilege of hearing you.  Some of them will appreciate the experience and remember it.  There is a recent account of Joshua Bell playing his violin in a subway station in New York City.  Most people walked right past him, oblivious to what they were hearing.  Play for anybody who will listen.  When nobody will listen, listen to yourself play, or play for your laptop computer.  I'll add a link to you from my blog.

I met my wife in a music studio.  For nearly thirty years since then we have both had careers in the arts, or serious arts distractions; it's all a matter of perspective.  Art is embellishment of life--the reincarnation of life, inhalation and exhalation of life, singing.  When I was in high school on the track team, there was a hurdler who sang in the shower: "There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing.  No I never heard them at all, 'til there was you... "  It was nearly fifty years ago, but I still remember his lyric gift. He had a career that meant more to me than most of the singers I've heard since. And I've been onstage with some stunners!

Your artistic career is authentic, more so for not being hyped into the monstrous proportions everywhere cavorting on digital screens.  Put your work online. Read it for your friends.  Have a party!  When all else fails, food will draw an audience.  And it's fun, not a scary and scarring experience that gives new meaning to the idea of suffering for art.

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