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Archive for November, 2009

Maverick Art

In 1913 when Igor Stravinsky’s ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’ opened in Paris, the audience reaction was extreme.  Even the opening bassoon notes drew catcalls from the crowd; before long fistfights broke out in the aisles and the police were called in.  Now of course, it is recognised as one of the great pieces.  The writer Ben Okri says in his book of essays, ‘A Way of Being Free’, ‘Poets are set against the world because they cannot accept that what there seems to be is all there is.’  He also makes the point that it is not that the poet is ahead of his or her time, it is that they are more acutely aware of the present than those around, so that they seem to be ahead of their time.  And by ‘poet’ I think we can assume artists in general are implied.

But not all artists.  If every artist who claimed they were ‘ahead of their time’ actually were, then we would be surrounded by geniuses, each of us ignorant of the great riches they have to bestow upon us.  It appears to me that the artists who are more acutely aware of the present are fairly indifferent to ego-flattering terms such as ‘genius’.  Almost by definition they have to be indifferent, otherwise they are attempting to fit in with the crowd and its prejudices.  They have to pay attention to their inner flame, not the caprices of society.

One example for me would be David Lynch.  When ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me’ premiered in London, there weren’t exactly fist-fights in the aisles but there was a hostile critical reaction and general indifference from the public.  I actually went to the second night and although the cinema wasn’t crowded, it was fairly full with devotees of the television series and there was a beautiful relaxed atmosphere, like we were all friends even if we didn’t actually speak to each other.  I doubt anyone there was disappointed, somehow we all knew the Lynchian language and understood something of what we were experiencing.  Outside that cinema though, the negative response continued.  The interesting thing for me though was when Lynch was asked in an interview how he felt about the public  reaction, and his comment was simply something like ‘When you are really aware that you have created something good, then outside reaction doesn’t affect you, whether good or bad’.  Now, over a decade after the movie was released, it is recognised as a masterpiece, as an eloquent rage against an unfair universe.

If you look at Lynch’s attitude then there is nothing of the ‘suffering artist’ in it, rather a clarity and indifference.  Going further, I would say that as much as Lynch understands the rules of cinema he also ignores them.  You read any guide to writing a screenplay and it always states the Three Act theory:  that a movie is in three definite sections and if you deviate from that as a writer, you will fail.  This is perfectly true for most movies, but I wonder if anyone has told Fellini about this rule, because I can’t for the life of me perceive those three sections in ‘8 1/2’ or ‘La Dolce Vita’ – those movies are too complex to submit to such a basic pattern.  Of course, you can easily impose the three acts on them, and insist they are there dogmatically, but I for one won’t be convinced.  However, a new writer or director who ignores this pattern…well, it will be the equivalent of using discordant bassoon notes to open a ballet – there might not be riots in the aisles, but there will be plenty of rejections from producers.

Like many teenagers growing up in the seventies in the UK, I listened avidly to John Peel’s late night show on Radio One.  This was the cutting edge music, Peel’s avant garde and excellent taste legendary and reliable.  Yet I remember when he played David Bowie’s album ‘Heroes’ for the first time, when it came to the second side of the LP, with its scarcity of lyrics and sparse, haunting melodies created by synthesisers and the Japanese koto, Peel made a comment like ‘I think Bowie ran out of ideas here’.  A few nights later, with characteristic honesty, he retracted his statement, saying that on repeated listening he realised the excellence of the tracks.

As far as I know he didn’t retract his derogatory comments about Tori Amos’s music in Glastonbury in 1998.  In fact, he had to put up with a year’s worth of letters written in green ink from outraged fans.  And Tori Amos is very interesting as an example of a maverick:  she just does what she does, indifferent to fashion or popularity, burning with her own intense flame no matter what the public reaction.  If a maverick artist is popular that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re properly understood.  John Peel was hardly alone in his disparagement of her work, but are the supporters necessarily any more insightful than the detractors?

Tori Amos’s fan base is largely, but not exclusively, female, encouraged by her strong feminist principles.  Certainly those principles are a major part of her drive, but they are not the entirety of it, otherwise she would not be so compelling.  Take the opening lyrics from ‘Bliss’ off the ‘To Venus and Back’ album:

Father, I killed my monkey

I let it out to taste the sweet of Spring

Even from these few lines you can perceive feminist issues – her relationship with her father is a recurring theme – but it is the sheer audaciousness of the lines, their left-fieldedness, that gives them their punch.  Even so, she does not stop there, choosing to incorporate an unusual spacing and rhythm, thus creating different emphases from what one would expect:

Father I

Killed my monkey I

Let it out to

Taste the sweet of Spring

In the video of the song, the camera pans across the audience at a Tori concert, showing a wide range of people, and there is something so moving about their devotion and openness, as the song builds up to a crescendo with its mysterious lyrics, and a spiritual fervour, that you end up not just listening to a song about bliss, but experiencing it, ‘tasting the sweet of Spring’.

The director of ‘Bliss’ obviously responded to the song with great sensitivity and understanding.  Most of Tori’s videos seem blessed with superb direction, such as the disturbing ‘Spark’ or the extraordinary ‘A Sorta Fairytale’, and the singer seems to work well with others, managing to retain her integrity.  In contrast, Bowie – who has been described as a chameleon or, less charitably,  a ‘highly intelligent leech’ – would adapt by perceiving what current trends were and immersing himself in them, adapting them to his own needs. Deep down the integrity remained, but he would dress it up for public acceptance, thus displaying great business as well as artistic skills.

So how do we spot these maverick artists?  Well, often we don’t.  By definition, they have broken away from the herd and are too far away to spot easily.  The examples above have all managed to stay within range, or at least seem to, but not everyone is so fortunate.  John Donne’s love poetry is regarded as amongst the best in the world, but for four hundred years it was pretty much ignored.  Yet, as a maverick, I doubt he cared very much during his lifetime.  He was too busy living.

And it is that flame within that all maverick artists have in common, whether publicly recognised or not, in their own time or another, later one. ‘Be the unsame same to stranger as to friend’, is an ancient Hindu meditation, and I think that is the best advice to give.

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