This Art is My Art

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Here’s a thought:

Art is a lie that reveals the truth  

–  Pablo Picasso

I googled the above quote when I came across it last week, un-credited and at the center of someone’s Twitter page, because those words sounded too profound for any person on social media in 2014 to have come up with on their own.  #sorrynotsorry.

Well, it turns out I was right and that tweet did not come from that twit.  Not only that but said twit did not gain me as a follower for failing to give Picasso credit.   That might sound harsh but I was even harder on myself for not knowing Picasso said this very famous phrase that I pretty much had never heard of until I came across it in my quest for more information on a political story.  I mean, how old am I and where do I get my news???

Like everyone else these days – I get my news from everywhere.  Except it isn’t always news.  Sometimes it’s a lie, sometimes it’s a version of the truth and very, very, very seldom, it is actually the truth.

OK.. maybe mostly lies

OK.. maybe mostly lies

Of course, the truth is sort of overrated.  Long ago I realized not to press the person who was dumping me for the absolute unbridled facts of what went wrong (Note:  You don’t necessarily want lies, just a slightly softer version of their reality).  I also gave up on getting unvarnished feedback from everyone and their mother on everything that I write.  As any veteran writer will tell you, the latter will only lead to disaster.  Much better to seek the opinions of a few trusted friends who will give you a Picasso-esque version of a critique – which in the end is no less valid than the brutal beating you could receive from a studio executive, editor or nameless critic in your own field.   Plus, it’s usually worth a lot more.

It is not that any of us should advocate for lies or deception or existence in a dream world.  But sometimes what is true, beneath all the buzz and talk and data, is not what you are plain staring at.  Sometimes the absolute truth is an interpretation from someone with a better take than yourself – someone who has waded through all the options and the facts and the sides of something, and has come up with an alternative look at it that feels much more right than a thousand page document or photo album that simply presents the facts.

This is why we need artists (and art) and why I believe, as many before me have believed, that we all have an obligation to produce it in our own individual ways.

It is not a waste of time – nor a road to economic destruction any more than stubbornly sticking to your version of only what you see before you without input from anyone else.  Part of being a human – an advantage, actually – is the ability to process and reason information for yourself and those around you and to consistently put it out into the world as you live your everyday life.

Sometimes this system can go awry.

Sometimes this system can go awry.

We all do this with every decision we make, the work we do, the people we love, the friendships we make, and the conversations we have.  But we sometimes get hamstrung by what we perceive as the facts rather than to stand back and use simpler logic or artistic interpretation in order to shed light on the truth of an event or problem or simple everyday occurrence.

In my googling, I came across an article in Psychology Today that discussed Pablo Picasso’s dilemma more than a century ago in 1906 when he wanted to push the boundaries of what made a great portrait.  One of his early subjects was the renowned writer Gertrude Stein and after reworking his painting of her one too many times he was not happy (NOTE:  Uh, that’s right, Picasso was no different than the rest of us in that regard).

Anyway, eventually he came back to what he was painting and decided rather than to get as close as possible to the absolute objective truth of what we see when looking at Ms. Stein, he would give us his more extreme interpretation. This mask-like, more flattened portrait became very famous and an early signature of Picasso’s Cubist period.  It was also a favorite of Ms. Stein’s (the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me, she said) even as it was rejected in many other circles at the time as an indulgence that didn’t look enough like her.

When challenged about his Stein portrait, Picasso famously answered his critics this way:

Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will.

Picasso's lady

Picasso’s lady

I suppose it’s up to us to decide whether Picasso’s tart retort refers to what Ms. Stein will indeed look like one day when she gets to be, say, my age – or whether the will he refers to is his own determination to so commit to the truth of what he sees when he paints that one day his image will overtake what the rest of us see when we look at, or even think of, Ms. Stein.  Or perhaps, it’s simply a little of both.

The great thing about art – whether you’re the maker or the audience – is that when it’s operating at its highest level it captures a version of the truth that can resonate the essence of what is real, what you see before you, better than what is actually right before your eyes.  It needn’t cover everything but must cover an essence of the artist’s chosen everything.

In a society of rational thought and laws and everyday reality, this is too often seen as a kind of flighty indulgence that doesn’t have any real meaning unless you’re talking about a Picasso (Note:  And even then…) But certainly that is no longer accurate by any stretch of even the most unimaginative when we rationally examine our present day lives.

Does anybody truly believe Reality TV is real?  Or that Fox News is fair and balanced?  (Note:  I’ll bet if you got Bill O’Reilly soused he’d even accede to my way of thinking).  And to be fair — I love reading the New York Times but its iconic motto of All The News That’s Fit To Print certainly begs the question of why some stories are fit and others are not and who decides which is which.  There are times when a particularly witty tweet from Andy Borowitz or a very astute Facebook post from one of the many friends I have who are smarter than myself, has given me a truer assessment of a contemporary issue than anything I read on the subject in the paper of record or any conclusion a so-called expert committee comes to after examining the so-called hard data.

You just can't argue with gems like these...

You just can’t argue with gems like these…

Pete Seeger, the famed folksinger-songwriter, died this week at the age of 94 in the home he built himself in upstate New York.  I was fortunate enough to see Mr. Seeger play at a small anti-Vietnam War demonstration at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens when I was in high school, and I thought he was old then. (Note: This was after his censored appearance on CBS’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour singing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – a metaphorical song he wrote about Pres. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War). I also wondered why someone so well known would take the time to be at this somewhat tiny demonstration when people like Jane Fonda were making international headlines with their own Vietnam War protests.  My logical thinking, forged by the American educational rewards system of bigger is better, at least audience wise, was that if he were really famous and important he wouldn’t be spending his time singing to me and a bunch of others in, of all places, Flushing – the uninspiring town where I lived.

We'll miss ya, Petey.

We’ll miss ya, Petey.

Faulty as this reasoning was, no doubt some people (many?) still think this way.  Consider we are still paying the most attention to:  who sells the most records, tapes CDs downloads (whatever!), who makes the most news; and who is voted the best of anything in our worlds.

Yet the very essence of Mr. Seeger was his ability to travel to all kinds of places much more obscure than Flushing and use his words to express the plight of the people.  And, quite simply, he never stopped doing it.  You might not have heard of him but you have certainly heard of several iconic songs he wrote and/or made famous, such as If I Had A Hammer, and We Shall Overcome.  The truth of those songs came from decades of seeking out the truth in hundreds of small towns and talking to thousands of working class individuals through which or whom he could employ his art to tell their truths.  Or at least THE truth in the way that he saw it.

One could argue lines like “If I Had A Hammer’s…It’s the hammer of justice, It’s the bell of freedom, It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters, All over this land…” have spoken an equal or perhaps much more effective political truth than a library full of factual reports on the economic analysis of inequality.   Or that they rank far superior to the many multi-million dollar opinions from some of the most respected think tanks in the world on why, during many of the decades in which Mr. Seeger lived, we needed or didn’t need to go to war.

By the way, this is not pie-in-the-sky hippie talk.  Consider what usually stops and starts wars (Vietnam – Iraq – WWII).  It is general public outcry or too many deaths among the masses of survivors willing to risk everything that finally wins the day (Note: usually it’s a lot of both) after too many years or decades or even centuries of fighting.

Artistic expression is an indispensible fuel to this change.  Just as it can also be used selfishly to whine, piss people off and/or generally just entertain.  Like this little ditty starring Nathan Lane and the cast of Jersey Boys directed towards Fox News’ Sean Hannity after he floated the idea of leaving his home state of New York in order to relocate to more right-leaning states like Texas or Florida.

Click the picture for the full (brilliant!) video

Click the picture for the full (brilliant!) video

Okay so maybe this video – or your essay, painting or photograph or play or movie – is a little whiney.  And you’re absolutely positive it will never bring peace on the battlefield, end global warming or even make you a dime. (Note:  I’ll bet Mr. Lane would have done that for free if union rules had allowed him).  You still must try to do whatever you can to contribute to your own version of truth telling.  And that is because even the very best of any of the above in their fields don’t do this alone.  They are merely one element contributing to an overall collective truth at any given moment in time – one in which, like it or not – we are all some kind of part of.

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The Great Chair-dini

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In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court famously overturned a lower court decision in Ohio that deemed the 1958 Louis Malle film Les Amants (The Lovers) pornographic and therefore unfit to be shown in a Cleveland movie house. The theatre manager at the time had been fined $2500 (which I’m hoping was returned because with minimal investment it would probably mean at least $250,000 to his heirs today) for enabling the very lucky patrons of the Heights Arts Theatre to see this movie which, incidentally, starred Jeanne Moreau and had already received a special jury prize from the Venice Film Festival, among other accolades.

Then: pornography, Now: Tame enough for ABC Family

Then: pornography, Now: Tame enough for ABC Family

However, what makes that tidbit of entertainment history noteworthy isn’t the fact that one group of American judges half a century ago found a French film to be too dirty for public consumption while another group thought it to be – well –entertaining – but the words used by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to explain why Les Amants wasn’t hard-core pornography.

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description,” wrote Justice Stewart. “…But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

We’ve come a long, or perhaps even short way in 50 years, but the fact remains: Creative work has always been impossible to rate and categorize on any objective scale because by its very nature it is subjective and therefore defies grade-ability   I find this particularly infuriating as a teacher in the arts since I am often required to measure the success of a particular piece of work – a fact that is really an opinion, which means that it is essentially unknowable as a fact.

Plus — what is success anyway?  Selling it for a lot of money?  Great reviews from the outside world?  Jealousy from your peers masquerading as audible gasps of awe?  Or perhaps just simply an “A” from me?

Though, this is how an "A" feels.

Definitely how an “A” feels

It depends on how hard-core your tastes, you, and your rating system is.

But after decades as a critic, writer and teacher -and once I get past the required basic skills of whatever art I’m rating, judging and debating – all of the very best work I experience share one thing — magic.

Ahhh, moan and groan all you want and call me Ishmael.  You all know what I mean.  Maybe you call it something else but it’s that feeling you get when…(ahhhh, where are you Stefon?)…. Okay, I know it when I see it.

For those who don’t – definition, please:

Magic – 1. The use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.

a.  the ART of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.

When people criticize some piece of entertainment that they see or read as being phony I always laugh to myself (and sometimes even out loud or to their faces) because:

Of course, it’s phony!  That’s what makes it art – and entertainment.  It’s made up!  The trick is – to make it not SEEM phony.

I think worrying about being phony is out the window...

I think “phony” is out the window…

The entertainment industry has often been accused of being chock full of charlatans.  This is another amusing observation since who else would specialize in the art of phoniness that doesn’t seem false and the practice of making things up that more often than not appear to be real, if not con men or women?   I do wish I had known this in my twenties and thirties since it would have made my early years in the business a helluva lot easier.  But nevertheless I finally do get it now and I am passing it on to those of you who don’t know or haven’t admitted it yet and want to save decades of therapy bills.

Or, to put it another way:

You need to be a master magician in order to be a great artist or great entertainer.  A purveyor of the phony executed in the sincerest way possible.

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You will finish your script.. You will finish your script

How do you recognize magic and the master magicians responsible for it?  The answer is easy – you know it when you. …(yes, I’m going there again)………….see it.

Some phoniness is skill and some of it is simply inherent talent so it’s easy to get confused.  For example, I just returned from New York where I saw Nathan Lane and Bette Midler each prove how a handful of artists are simply born that way and why it’s foolish for the rest of us to try and catch up or even figure them out.

It’s not that there is not a great deal of skill in Mr. Lane’s evocation of a closeted gay actor in 1930’s NY vaudeville in The Nance or Ms. Midler’s portrayal of Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers in the one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last.  Certainly, each understands the craft of stage acting and the ins and outs of what you have to do as a performer to interpret a text and create/evoke a character.  But you simply can’t teach, learn or acquire what either of them does live eight shows a week, month after month. That kind of talent – the ability to turn from comedy to drama and back again on a dime while eliciting audience tears, guffaws and something even more of a rarity these days – intense silence – simply by playing pretend right before our eyes is simply – a gift.  I’m the biggest showbiz groupie there is and have been watching each of them do this onstage in countless shows over the last 30 years and I can tell you only this – try as you might you will NEVER figure either of them out.  Nor, do you want to.

A whole lotta talent for one picture

A whole lotta talent for one picture

For the rest of us mere mortals, there is still hope because even the duo of Midler & Lane have stumbled in mediums other than the live stage (Isn’t She Great, anyone?

So, simplistic though it may be, think of this as a starter kit that will set you on the road to being your own creative magician.   Because anyone who has been in the game and achieved some measure of success in more than just a few minutes can tell you that absent any kind of real talent at all, there are still several basics tricks of the trade that can move you up a notch or two on the playing board.  (And believe me, it is a game).

1. Deliver or exceed on the premise:  

Now You See Me is a film now out in theatres that is all about magic – literally.  The premise:  A group of magicians perform a major series of heists masquerading as magic tricks against corporate America while eluding elite law enforcement officials.  The requirement:  Really, really cool slreight of hand/mind you can’t figure out, snappy dialogue, adrenalin-filled twists and turns, and one or two major plot surprises.  So who cares that the third act is not as great as the first one and a half or that 75% of the major critics in the country panned it? Certainly not me and the rest of the audience, that’s who.  $50 million plus in 12 days and 75% positive crowd reviews on Rotten Tomatoes tells us the filmmakers knew exactly the kind of movie they were making and gave it to us — in spades.  And to push the metaphor even more uncomfortably, that’s not a card trick, just good playing

2. Don’t bore me:

Don't bore Nina!

Don’t bore Nina!

Nikki Finke was just another smart, prickly journalist covering the entertainment industry who more than seven years ago decided to start her own website, www.deadline.com by combining great reporting skills with an over-the-top, take no prisoners style that suffocated traditional journalism (and occasionally its standards of objectivity).  But she was never, ever, ever – not even once – boring.  Today, Ms. Finke has pretty much single-handedly redefined daily coverage of show business, made millions selling her site to a larger conglomerate (Penske Media) and in the process might have poison penned herself out of the pinnacle position at the top of the very mountain she built. 

From vulture.com. All hail Queen Nikki??

From vulture.com. All hail Queen Nikki??

Still, as Ms. Finke herself very well might respond – So what?!!!  Or – If you weren’t such a lousy reporter you’d know the real story.  Or – I don’t have the time to waste on the many moments of stupidity you managed to create in your just one paragraph of text.

Though she sometimes crosses the line into petty personal vendetta, Nikki’s reportage almost consistently scoops her competitors and is seldom wrong.  There’s an innate creativity to what she does that, as a former entertainment reporter, I can testify is extremely difficult to achieve in the field.  She’s mean, she’s an original and she doesn’t make you yawn – which seems to be the right combination for success these days whether you want to admit it or not.   Her philosophy is probably best summed up by the instructions she gives readers who choose to post in her ever-popular comments section:

…Don’t go off topic, don’t impersonate anyone, don’t get your facts wrong, and don’t bore me.

3.  Be original:

Icon

Icon

It’s hard to imagine that Susan Sontag, social critic, thinker and novelist who has often been hailed as one of the great intellectuals this country has ever produced, grew up in the 1940s in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles (Sherman Oaks, to be exact) writing, while still in her teens, lines like these:

Childhood: a terrible waste of time.

All of us would be misguided to try and be Sontag.  But what she herself recognized early on was that she needed to pursue what she wanted to the nth degree and ignore those who wished she would stay quiet, or at least enjoy life a little bit more.  For her this meant devouring piles and piles of classical literature at any early age – from Balzac to Dostoyevsky to Pushkin; having affairs with both women and men in the sexually repressive 1950s and beyond; and recognizing all along that she, as well as everyone else, is nothing more than a creation of their own desires and actions.

As the famous writing teacher Brenda Ueland once wrote, Everyone is original and has something to say.  But few of us stay in touch with the idea that it is feverishly acting out our very originality that will bring us happiness and allow us to succeed (though perhaps not in the way we were taught – which is another type of original thinking in itself).

Check out the new theatre piece in NY I regrettably didn’t get to catch based on Ms. Sontag’s journals, called Sontag Reborn. Or, better yet, read some of Sontag’s essays or books and tell me you still think magic is limited to pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing your girlfriend or boyfriend in half.  Besides, the latter’s been done to death anyway, both literally and figuratively.

4. Be Bold:

Sometimes an infographic says it all.

Sometimes an infographic says it all.

I write those two words at least once a month here.  That’s because I remind myself of this almost daily.  It’s great to be original, interesting and to deliver on a promising premise.  But unless you have the courage to put yourself fully out there as you create, sell and then recreate and sell some more, you probably won’t get where you want to be.

There’s a revival of a musical in NY at the moment called Pippin.  In it, the great comic actress Andrea Martin, who got her start on the classic Canadian TV series SCTV (for younger people – she was the Kristin Wiig of her time), has one extended show-stopping number called No Time At All where she gives her grandson uplifting advice about life and on the vagaries of growing old.  Now, knowing the song and hearing that Ms. Martin was going to be playing the grandmother I thought – Okay, so Andrea Martin makes me laugh, even if she is a little young for the part, but she’ll still be fun.  Then I went on to The Google and discovered Ms. Martin is actually 66 years old, the exact age the part was written for.  And she’s doing this role on Broadway, swinging from a trapeze (Spoiler Alert:  Live.  Really.)

Her best role (in my opinion)

Her best role (in my opinion)

I think of my Mom, who sadly died at that age, and then I think of what the age of 66 evokes and sounds like to most of us and I wonder (sometimes even out loud when no one is in the room)  – am I really being bold?  And why aren’t I?

And then I consider – just how much bolder can I get?  What’s in my way?  What’s stopping me?

And then, when I get the nerve – I look in the mirror (Cause I’m vain). With the lights on (Usually to find my glasses).  In the morning (Well, my version of it, which is often not before 8) Right when I wake up.  (Okay, sometimes 9).

It’s not always a pretty sight but this image does start my day out with one very bold action (You’re just gonna have to trust me on this one).

…With that out of the way, the other 23 and a half hours usually gets relatively easier.