One of the most polarizing improvisations of this Fall had to be Phish’s marathon “ambient” jam during “Wolfman’s Brother” on Halloween in Las Vegas. For those of you who don’t follow the band, it’s not unusual for this song to spark long, exploratory adventures. But this one was different.
Somewhere around twenty minutes into the jam, sonic ooze and aural smoke began to curl eerily around the crannies of the Thomas and Mack. Much as they did in their ambient jam at the Lemonwheel, Phish was probing new territory. Sure, I had heard Phish play dark before, but they were always playing dark. No big black furry creatures this night. The music pulsing from that stage was fully pregnant with human doubt, fear, frailty, even despair. It was darkness made sound, and I found myself…unsettled.
I remember looking around to see how others were reacting. Many folks were sitting down, suddenly heavy with some burden. Many others were noticeably sighing. A few had tears in their eyes. One or two were fiddling with personal effects, as if to distract themselves. Others had just tuned out the blackness in favor of muted conversation. Almost no one was dancing.
The whole experience was…unsettled. I didn’t “like it.” But I was rapt.
All this got me thinking about art. About why art is, and why we care. About what it takes to produce art. About what constitutes good art and what constitutes dreck.
Then I realized how pathetically unqualified I was to answer such questions. So I did what every practiced philosophical cheater does, and I opened a dictionary of quotations [Everyone should own one of these. The one immutable truth contained inside a dictionary of quotations is that brilliant minds disagree vehemently on damn near everything.].
Ironically, some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking ideas about art came from people I’d never heard of. Some guy named Walter Pater writes, “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” I like that. We all probably agree that music is a unique medium, and a powerful one- improvisational music even more so. What makes it that way? Is it spontaneity? Is it the potential for crashing failure that attracts us to improvisational music, the same way we’re drawn to car chases and trapeze acts? Is it that, unlike art rendered painstakingly in a studio over months or even years, we can witness the creation of music and somehow participate in it?
Some other obscure cat named W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “Art should be appreciated with passion and violence, not with a tepid, deprecating elegance that fears the censoriousness of a common room.” I think I get where he was going with that. I’ve been in art galleries that felt more like morgues, at rock shows that felt more like fashion shows, and walked away every time feeling sad for myself and the artist. And while I don’t think that Somerset was suggesting we club our neighbor over the melon in tribute to Van Gogh, I think that art (be it music, words or any other medium) is a place to play. It asks that we feel something back. If a tepid, deprecating elegance is how we express oneness with a work of art, so be it- but we ought not be afraid to react. Now, I felt, I was getting somewhere.
Not surprisingly, a lot of pretty smart folks talked about the marriage of art and pain. James Baldwin (hey, there’s a name I recognize!) said that “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” That idea, take it or leave it, isn’t too far afield from what the not-so-famous Lionel Trilling put forth when he suggested that “What makes the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.” Leave it to the ancient Greeks, though, to say it shorter and better. This one is attributed to Horace, sometime around 13 BC: “If you would have me weep, you must first of all feel grief yourself.”
OK. I take issue with some of the words in the last paragraph. First of all, I don’t think that all worthy art is some kind of vomitus of anguish. On the contrary, I think that some of the greatest art ever made is vomitus of joy. I don’t see how anyone could gaze upward in the Sistine Chapel and not feel Michelangelo’s unbridled love for God, or hear “Ode to Joy” and not feel Bach’s.
I agree in spades, though, that the best art is built on a foundation of true and powerful feeling. That it’s hard to write, sing or paint about loss if you’ve never lost, and that it’s hard to dance with joy if you’ve never felt joy. I also agree that art that conveys melancholy or despair can be extremely powerful and moving, especially if you’re feeling that way, too. Maybe that’s because it makes us feel like we’re not alone, or that some other schmuck out there understands because he’s had it even worse.
I’m not sure. But I do know that the Dalis, Picassos, Beethovens, Wrights and Hemingways of the world did some of their best work in their darkest hours. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every song, poem, novel, sculpture or painting must speak directly to the experience of its creator (Jerry Garcia never lost his last red cent at a card table, but he still managed to belt “Loser” like a desperate gambler among dangerous men). Art can be allegory for experience, too.
In the end, I guess the quote I liked best came from a fellow named Igor Stravinsky. In his own autobiography, he said, “Art postulates communion, and the artist has an imperative need to make others share the joy which he experiences himself.”
Read that one more time.
I like that statement not only because it includes the notion of an audience, but because it goes to the question “why art?” Art, it seems to me, is simply an attempt to express and share some truth- in other words, to share life. And while it’s the license of the artist to use artifice, illusion or outright falsehood, it’s his responsibility to use them to get to a truth we can share. To achieve not just communication, but communion, with each other. To the extent that art communicates truthfully and brings about communion, it is good art, and to the extent it fails, it is probably not.
As that “Wolfman’s Brother” came down on me, and I watched the vast range of reactions to the music bleeding from the blue-lit stage, I realized that I was listening to art. Unsettling art. Disturbing art. Decidedly non-Phishy art, at least in my framework of prior experience.
But that’s the beauty of art, and music as an art-form. It allows the artist to continually re-invent himself through new expression, and allows the audience to consider new ideas and explore new play-spaces inside their own minds and hearts.
I can’t find it in myself to argue with the many fans who were “repulsed” or “put off” by that jam. I can’t find it in myself to criticize those who sat down in their seats, re-arranged their wallets, carried on quiet conversations, thought silently, cried or screamed. We were unsettled, and that’s okay. We were unsettled together. In communion.
Wrapped in music.
Rapt in art.
Chris Bertolet is busy establishing an ink-farming commune in the hills outside of Biloxi, MI. He drives a mule cart, and likes to time TV commercials.