HOME PAGE FOR GUITARIST-COMPOSER JEFFRY H. STEELE
JHS DIRECTORY

Recognition

Speech 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. . .
. . . 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."

Now I 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 far.

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.

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