Photography of New York by Dave Beckerman

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Month: February, 2008

Letter from Dirk

9 February, 2008 (19:09) | No comments

My good friend Dirk, who lives now in Belgium — and I have been corresponding recently about the subject, I think, of what is art. Here are a few snippets:

I was basically making the argument that the role of the artist was to find what was unique within themselves, and to nurture that and express it, and that by doing so they would be able to communicate universally. A bit pat — but something that I’m working on. But of course, when you are really doing it, you don’t try, you just do it.

Anyway — Dirk gave me an interesting, and literate response to my search for uniqueness. Here it is:

Excerpts from Dirk’s letter:

“But in my book even that one special thing that you do better than anyone else is equally fundamentally un-important.

As far as I can see contemporary art suffers rather than benefits from this constant quest for uniqueness.

First of all, it’s not because it is unique that it is art.

Secondly, to ask if ‘this’ or ‘that’ is art - and/or great art and/or unique - just leads to nothing, and certainly not to art.

Still, in one way I agree with you, but in the context then of what Quentin Crisp says: we are all unique (already), but - if we so desire - we need to polish up our identity, and present our polished selves to the world if we want to be noticed, notorious, or recognized, or … famous.

But our uniqueness is not something you can tack on to your (beautiful) self, but rather something that’s inside you and that you need to bring to the surface, a bit like the statue that is already in the stone …

What makes a ‘great work of art’? That’s of course a hopeless debate … Schopenhauer feels that it is the universal values in it which allow the creator and his public to communicate in a somewhat ‘timeless’ experience, and that the elation we feel is directly related to this stepping out of everyday time-bound reality. Interesting theory. In any case, I disagree with your emphasis on the uniqueness and individuality. That is not enough, and for a truly great artist of no concern: it is automatically so.

Do you think Bach worried if his work sounded like Bach, and Ansel Adams if his pictures looked like an Ansel Adams? I don’t. Not that I believe in group art. Dostoyevsky by committee is of course impossible.

(Did you know that Dostoyevsky saw himself as a writer of detective/murder stories, and that he ‘transcended’ his goal in a way that, I’m sure, he himself could not explain either, ergo, there is a case of an artist who discovered a statue inside that was bigger than what he expected: you only need to be driven, the rest takes care of itself.)

Then again, to my mind, a new work of art does not have to be ’something (very) different from what they’ve seen before’. That’s just a common Western obsession. If you listen to music of (the contemporary) Arvo Part (Tabula Rasa) it sounds downright medieval, with often nothing more than fifths and octaves, and it certainly could have been written ‘long ago’. Yet is is very beautiful, and unique. But it’s not ‘artificially’ unique, it’s not ‘calculated’ unique, it’s not ‘manifesto’ unique, it’s unique simply because of his strong personality.

The dilemma of the artist, as I see it, is simply to perfect his style and his chosen skills to the point that what is already inside comes to the surface; the dilemma being that this takes a lot of effort, without any guarantee whatsoever that there is something ‘worthwhile’ inside. There’s always some statue inside, but it may not be bigger than a lump of sugar. The dilemma being that you don’t know where you are on the scale, and not even if you are very succesful, I think. The fan club is never big enough: at Harvard all the professors stocked up on champagne around September, but only one - or two - got the Nobel Price, and the next day they were astonished to realize that there is life outside Harvard, if someone else got it. It’s like ‘happiness’ and even ‘misery’: where are you on the scale? The problem with it, I think, is the value judgment. Am I good (enough)? You really don’t know, and if you get to the point where the world has an opinion about you, you still don’t know. So the only thing you can do is live your life - and exercise your folly, if you so desire … In my present state of mind I choose for throwing myself hard at the piano playing - realizing full well how cosmically unimportant it is - and I really don’t worry if I’m good or as good as … I experience I’m getting better thru practicing (and I enjoy that) … I could lament that I should have done this when I was 10, but that’s water under the bridge now + at 10 I could not have practiced the things I practice now … In fact I do it because it improves the quality of my life, because it gives me hope (not naive stupid hope, but hope nevertheless). And self-generated hope is a very worthwhile kind of hope.This reminds me of (I paraphrase):

Man stands in his life, grotto,
Always with a sense of being enclosed.
He dreams of sun and open air and freedom.
The way out is always narrow And arduous to cross
He fills his lungs with air.
He swims.
He reaches the point where If he goes any further He won’t be able to return:
Point of no return.
Will he continue?
Will he go back?
There is a picture of hope.
(This is from a book of Off-Off Broadway; can’t remember the author).