given at Rockport High School Fine Arts Awards Night 5/22/03
31 years ago this week, I was walking home, dejected and empty-handed, from the
Cranbrook school Awards Night. The last chance for any official recognition of
my artistic accomplishments at that school, yet my name was not called once. Why
during my junior and senior years I had. . .
and directed a Renaissance consort that performed at school functions
and conceived an evening of Shakespeare scenes with music [from which the school
literary magazine, Gallimaufry, derived the name it maintains to this day]
a solo classical guitar recital
as dancer and actor
coffeehouse-style gatherings for student poets and songwriters
and performed a Rock Mass for Baccalaureate
. . yet I left that ceremony feeling like a nobody.
When I arrived
home, I found a visitor. Stan -- who had graduated from Cranbrook two years before
and was now attending Harvard -- had come to stay with my parents for a few days
because my dad, a Cranbrook English professor, had been his favorite teacher.
Stan had been a high achiever when at Cranbrook, athletically, academically and
theatrically. He consoled me in my disappointment by saying that he hadn't felt
right about which students were recognized at the Awards Nights he had
attended, and reminded me that the award categories had been created to recognize
students who participated in organizations like Band or Glee Club rather than
mavericks like myself.
Then he asked if I would get out my guitar. After
listening with rapt attention as I played a few classical pieces, he said, "You
know, I get so much more from sitting in the intimacy of your living room watching
and listening to you, than I would from being part of a large audience in a concert
hall. It's a real gift that you can do that for someone." I was reminded of this
years later when my brother in New York City told me that pop star David Bowie
was quietly booking himself into small clubs down there as member of a band called
"Tin Machine." Perhaps tired of playing stadiums, Bowie must have missed the London
coffeehouses where he'd gotten his start.
Perhaps some of you have seen
the movie "Babette's Feast," in which one of Paris' finest chefs flees to a remote
village in Denmark to start a new and simpler life as a house servant. Keeping
her background a secret for years, she dutifully prepares the bland meals that
her employers have always known until one day she unexpectedly wins a lottery
in France. But rather than use this 10,000 francs to go off on her own, she spends
it on all the food and supplies needed to put on one opulent Parisian meal
for her employers and their neighbors. "All the artist wants," she says, "is the
chance to do her art well." Asked why she would thus leave herself penniless,
to remain in servitude, she replies, "An artist is never poor."
don't mean to say that poverty is a good thing for artists, or for anybody; but
rather that if we artists are to be happy, to stay vital and to genuinely move
our listeners, viewers, or readers, we must remain true to our creation-joy. For
once an activity stops feeling creative to us, our souls become parched.
This may be what Rockport choreographer Ina Hahn meant when she told me that she
feels detached from performances of her work because her creative process
ended with the rehearsals.
You have perhaps three choices before you
as an artist. The first is to plug yourself into the corporate culture -- which
is structured to profit from the undeveloped tastes, short attention span and
addictive fascinations of the average consumer. To play it safe, this public is
generally fed a re-packaged, already-familiar and easily-digested product. There
is nothing inherently wrong with choosing this option. You can find plenty of
interesting challenges working your way into existing enterprises. But should
you land that position playing in a symphony orchestra, or scoring a TV sitcom,
or designing billboards, you still aren't doing anything to counteract the national
decline going around you. Unless you're part of the solution, you're likely to
be part of the problem. And, as with any business, you are valuable to your employers
so long as you are providing a marketable commodity and are expendable once you
are not. At the same time, certain famous performers have used their visibility
to raise awareness on important issues, particularly the environment. But given
their dependency on the corporate world, these artists are not positioned to adequately
address the roots of the problem.
The second option is to focus on educating
these consumers, to provide them experiences that would enable them to appreciate
art at the level that your spirit longs to work at. While this requires faith
and missionary zeal, you don't have to be religious to believe that art transforms
souls, whether it is a child redirecting previously destructive energy into the
beginnings of artistry or an adult resuming participation in the artistic process
for the first time since childhood. I am proud of my friend and collaborator
Carl Thomsen for what he has developed in the Legends school program
The third would be to just do whatever your muse dictates without concern for
or interest in your audience. There is also nothing wrong with this option. It
seems appropriate, after all, that artists have periods of withdrawing from the
world. Just think of the fine work left us by the reclusive Emily Dickinson. But
for others to enjoy your work they're going to have to find you somehow.
I, like many artists, have pursued all three options from time to
time, though I never had much stomach for option one and could not remain within
option three for long without wanting to be heard by someone. Evidently my preference
has been to build from the living room outwards. Rather than compete to be one
of the few heard where concert goers have already been lured, I seek to create
more concert goers by bringing my music to those who happen to be in my community.
I may get heard by fewer people than if I were on the BU Celebrity Series, but
I am in a better position to sense what my listeners are experiencing.
A few years back I attended an alumnae weekend at Hampshire College. Film documentary-maker
Ken Burns -- who graduated a year ahead of me -- showed us clips of his "Jazz"
television series. He stood before us barefoot and wearing cutoffs -- appearing
much as he did when a student there -- as he received our thunderous applause.
With moisture in his eyes, he said that such acceptance of his work by former
classmates meant more to him than all the national recognition he'd received thus
What does recognition mean to you and who do you think you should
be getting it from? First of all you should be getting it from yourself -- for
being perpetually down on yourself creates an unsatisfying experience for those
who are trying to compliment you. But once you can do that, I think it's
healthy to want recognition from others. But how many others? Here we come to
an essential longing that I believe rich-and-famous artists have in common with
the rest of us: to be appreciated by a few people who really see us for who we
are. For in the end it isn't that satisfying having a lot of undescerning people
saying how great you are. We want to know the truth -- not just that we have a
wonderful talent, but how we may improve on it.
If we can accept this
as being the kind of recognition that truly nurtures us, it follows that we can
give it just as well as we can receive it. How much it would mean to those
next to you to be recognized and appreciated by you for something you noticed
about them! And it doesn't have to be an artistic achievement. It can be the way
they said something that needed to be said, or did something considerate, or even
just the colors they chose to wear.
Thanks for the opportunity to speak
to you. May peace, prosperity and creation-joy be with you all.