Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Question to Ponder...

"Is a musician an artist?"
(submitted by Jake C.)


Suze said...

yes, of course a musician is an artist.

Pam said...

Interesting. That's exactly what I said. But, I was wondering why Jake posed the question, so I'm waiting for someone to have a different opinion.

Jake said...

Okay, fine. Here goes. :)

Perhaps the first question is, what is an artist? To me, an artist is a creator, one who, to be corny, channels from the aether and brings something completely new into existence. The painter, the sculptor, the author, all are weaving something whole-cloth from essentially nothing beyond their inspiration and the tools of the trade. By this logic, a composer is an artist, no question.

But as a performer, I actually have a hard time thinking of myself as an "artist". I certainly bring my singular conception to what I'm performing, but I'm not actually creating anything new besides the performance itself. Especially as a classical musician where I'm more locked into the score than if I were just going off a lead sheet.

Additionally, the training of the musician is so completely different from the training of the artist as to be ridiculous. We are not encouraged to make mistakes and find our voice; we are told to get it "right". We are not given tools of creation; we are given tools of reproduction. Our practice time in the garret is not dedicated to churning out ideas (canvas after canvas or story after story), it's dedicated to perfecting our technical skills. In fact, almost the entirety of our training as performers is in those skills needed to understand and achieve a mimicry of the creation set before us.

So Suze, the curtness of your answer belies a strong opinion on the subject. Care to elaborate? Why "of course"? Is this simply a point of pride and identity, or are there good reasons for this assertion?

As Scott Adams likes to say: Go.

Pam said...

i was wondering where you were coming from and now, i have to say, I think you make a good point. very interesting.

Suze said...

Well, I was expecting that kind of an answer. To question the artistic validity of performing music someone else already wrote isn't a new thing. Sure, it's not as original as composing something new or painting on canvas, but it's still art. We most certainly ARE creating. We're creating a sound experience for the listener. There is a heck of a lot that happens between the music written on the page and the final performance. That is art. It is also work, but when is art NOT work?

How many times have you heard a great performer and thought or said "Now THAT is an artist!"

I guess it depends on how you define "artist" and how original you think someone has to be before you call them an "artist" as opposed to just a "musician."


Pam said...

Ooh! This is GOOD! :-)

Suze said...

Since I have 2 minutes finally when no one is pooping or whining at me, I'm going to add a bit here...

I, personally, have a pretty broad definition of "art." I often say "such-and-such is really an art." Like teaching, or collaborating, or making really good pizza, and while the latter isn't within the realm of my professional field, I still think of it that way. Basically, I think something becomes an art when it is done exceptionally well AND when it introduces something new. I've certainly heard musicians I wouldn't call "artists" because I consider them mediocre, and I've eaten chocolate so good I would call its creator an "artist." If I hear a performance of a Beethoven sonata I've heard 1000 times, but it's done in a way I've never thought of before, I call that art. If I see a crappy painting, I wouldn't call it art. Not good art, anyway.

Besides, when it really comes down to it, it's hard to tell exactly what's truly original. Visual artists have a lot of specific training about how to do things the right way, believe it or not.

Does that help clarify my point?

Terri said...

I have to weigh in here and agree that musicians are artists. And a lot of other folks are artists in their way, too - they see things others don't and translate it, or create it, in a unique way for others.

I've trained with some amazing negotiators and facilitators. The great ones are definitely artists - they see connections, commonalities, and points of agreement where no one else in the room does. They instantly and accurately assess the individuals, their arguments, and what they need out of the conversation. They can frame those words, shape the situation, and literally lead the group into a totally new environment - that's an art to me.

We consider photographers artists, right? But they're not actually "creating" in the way that authors and painters and sculptors do. They're taking the world and reframing it, translating a vision into a format others can enjoy. I think music is like that, too. We touch upon something bigger than ourselves, something others may not see or hear, and convert it into moving experiences and expressions.

Ooh, such a great discussion!

Andre said...

Dear Jake et al,
I tell my composition students at the start that, aside from the beating of your most private heart, your first audience is the performers you write for. We *do not* make music without performers.
Composers, to my mind, are simply musicians who write stuff down. Performers are musicians who perform stuff written down. But BOTH are musicians.

Contrary to the 19thc orientation that posits composers as philosopher kings, (and the megalomania that overtook *way* too many of us throughout the 20thc) this discussion would seem alien to musicians of the Classical era. (Few musicians of any sort were artists then. We were hired help.) "Composers" and "performers" were not so separate then. Performers had been improvising for a good while. That the artistry of performing classical music is even in question now speaks to how far we need to go to repair the breach.

There is much to be said also about how we need to demystify the compositional process, which for me is much more like making a couch than sitting around waiting to be ravaged by muses. In Sum: while I appreciate your reverence of great composers, in my opinion what composers do is not inherently better (or worse) than what one does as performer, or conductor, or educator, or scholar, or librarian. All are musicians. All can be artists.

Andre said...

P.S. and Jake, let me add that I think it's awesome that you're struggling with this question of artistry! I wish I could say that every teacher of music encouraged students to find their own voice. Sadly that's not at all the case, and composers have suffered at the hands of lust for perfection too. But it's really more than ok to make mistakes. If folks wanted to hear a "perfect" performance they should listen to a robot. Music is a human art.

Bigger than that though, artistry, as others here have pointed out, is not defined by what you do but how you do it.

wishing you good!

Scott said...

I naturally agree that a musician is most certainly an artist. If it helps, ponder it this way:

Do you consider Rembrandt an artist? I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't. But his paintings are realistic portraits of people. He didn't make those people, nor did he choose what they did with their faces, clothes, and so on. He perhaps chose their pose and the light of the room, but that's about it. Then, he just took their visage, created by whatever you believe is responsible for making humans, and dressed up by the person themselves, and translated it on to the canvas for others to see.

Performing musicians are like Rembrandt. They take things found in nature (in most cases, that nature is the music shop), shine a light on them, and present them to the world. ART!

Jake said...

So, I should come clean. I do in fact, and rather vehemently, think that musicians are artists, and all of your responses are a wonderfully collective exploration of why. Andre, I particularly appreciate your thoughts, but do know that I truly and passionately abhor that 19th C. ideal of "philosopher-king" composer.

The reason I ask this is because of something that happend several years ago. I was assistant-teaching at a summer arts workshop (for the early music class) in Vermont. Among the faculty were many truly impressive artists, and people who really identified themselves as "artists" in so many ways. When I was invited to sit on the artist discussion panel, I was quite honestly floored. Me? An artist? That wasn't my training at all! I'm not an artist, I'm a musician! But I did sit on the panel, and it really did help me to see how alike we all were. Took off a lot of blinders about art and music both.

I'm gratified by the level and passion of response here, but that in itself serves as a note of caution to me. It's as if, particularly as classical musicians, we are particularly sensitive to this topic. It's certainly not acceptable among our kind to suggest with a straight face that we might not be artists, since that's a blow against something very primal in our identity. Suze's very first response, "sigh," says it all, in fact. It says, "Haven't we resolved this yet? Isn't this question so beyond the pale as to be unaskable?" (Apologies for my interpretation, Suze!! That's what I read in it, at any rate.)

I don't think this discussion is over, not by a long shot. In fact, I think the lack of widespread, public, passionate debate about what it is that we do, as classical musicians, is a very fundamental part of the alienation that so much of the world feels about this thing we do. It is simply not enough for us to declare ourselves one thing and proceed on our merry way without real engagement at a broader level.

Thank you, Pam, for posting this! And thank you all for responding - as Terri said, "Ooh, such a great discussion!"

Pam said...

So I guess I'm not totally clear on what it is you want to discuss here, Jake. Are you questioning whether imitation is an art? Do you feel less like an artist because you feel you don't have the liberty to be creative while performing classical music? I'm not sure that's what you're getting at, but if I were to run with that, I'd have to say that I think there really is nothing "new" out there. We are always imitating in some way no matter what we do -- even when coming up with an "original" composition or piece of art. What is original is the way we present what we present, because we each are unique individuals. But how unique are we really?

Jake said...

I think that what we need to discuss is that we classical musicians have become stuck in this idea of what we are to the exclusion of other possibilities. I mean, look, I posit that musicians are not artists, and this thread gets something like 8 different versions of "GASP! HOW DARE HE SAY SOMETHING SO OBVIOUSLY WRONG!!" As soon as I indicate that I don't necessarily believe that supposition, nary a peep.

That, to me, is a HUGE problem, because it indicates a complacency and an unwillingness to truly engage with the question of WHAT WE ARE and WHAT WE ARE DOING. (I generalize for the sake of discussion, as a couple of these posts were quite thoughtful and worthy of exploration.) But we are a dying breed, and if we can't even manage a conversation about what the heck we are, (are we artists or not? what does it mean to be an artist anyway? is it even tangentially IMPORTANT whether or not we are artists?) then I say classical music deserves to go the way of the dodo.

Let the pummeling begin. :)

Pam said...

i was just re-reading these comments again trying to come up with something good to say in response to jake's last post, but i find myself wanting instead to highlight this brilliant quote from Andre:

"There is much to be said also about how we need to demystify the compositional process, which for me is much more like making a couch than sitting around waiting to be ravaged by muses."

I love this. Making a couch. Awesome.

Scott said...

Jake, you posted: 'I mean, look, I posit that musicians are not artists, and this thread gets something like 8 different versions of "GASP! HOW DARE HE SAY SOMETHING SO OBVIOUSLY WRONG!!" As soon as I indicate that I don't necessarily believe that supposition, nary a peep. That, to me, is a HUGE problem, because it indicates a complacency and an unwillingness to truly engage with the question of WHAT WE ARE and WHAT WE ARE DOING.'

Not to be too simplistic here, but sometimes the simplest explanation is the most correct one. The "nary a peep" you hear is because we all realized we were preaching to the choir. Just as I don't need to fervently argue about the merits of buying local to my fellow shoppers at the farmer's market, I don't feel the need to passionately convince these readers of my point when they all already agree with me. It's a waste of energy, and is pretty darn close to narcissism, making your point to a crowd that you know will smile, nod, and give you the thumbs up. I do feel quite strongly about this question, but I also feel quite palpably that as there's no conflict left to resolve here on this issue, then I should save my breath for folks who need help understanding, rather than those who already understand.

Jake said...

Scott, thanks for answering, but perhaps you misunderstood me. The problem I see is that classical musicians are very complacent in their self-image, to the point that continuing a discussion about something about which people obviously feel very strongly is not even worth the effort. Your statement that there is no further conflict so therefore there's no further need to talk is seriously disheartening. Conflict is the basest form of interaction, but it is by no means the only.

Among the comments here are a great number of ideas that merit exploration and development and challenge, and I submit that if we are unwilling to explore those ideas, we shouldn't be calling ourselves musicians at all. Let's just pack it in, folks, because there's no such thing as preaching to the choir (the percentage of atheists is most church choirs should put that turn of phrase to bed). It is IMPOSSIBLE that everyone thinks the same way about any of this, and it is disingenuous to assume that we all agree, simply because we're no longer trying to prove someone else wrong.

Suze raises the question: what is an artist? Andre raises the point (though obliquely) that in the past, musicians most definitely did NOT think of themselves as artists. Terri broadens the very concept to include negotiators and facilitators. There's so much to bounce around it's just amazing.

But we don't. There's no-one to prove wrong, no "conflict" anymore. So we lose an opportunity to enrich our understanding of what we do, of who we are. And that, in my opinion, is a beginning of why the joe on the street wants nothing to do with classical music. Is THAT not something to care about?

Scott said...

I hear you, Jake, but I don't agree with your assessment of the "problem" with classical music's popularity. You make it sound as if we classical musicians aren't reflective, and are overconfident in the value of our art form. But in my experience, the problem is exactly the opposite. Almost every classical musician I know is constantly questioning their skills, doubting their talents, and generally being un-confident and overly critical to the extreme. Meanwhile, the rock musicians I know just make music and enjoy it and don't bother pondering whether or not it's art, and are generally confident that they perform as well as they need to.

So I guess my lack of further questioning here is because I'm tired of all the pondering, questioning, and doubting. I diagnose the "problem" as the opposite of your diagnosis. I just want us classical musicians to make music, and love the hell out of it, and stop being so fussy. My friend who plays bass in a fairly successful punk band has no confidence issues related to his music, and spends no time pondering these kinds of question. He just plays. And enjoys it. I think we should do the same. I enjoy a good soul-searching question from time to time, but I more often enjoy just saying "aw, f*** it," and just making some music.

Anonymous said...

(by Ann, a middle school friend of Suze)

I love this. I remember when I was a kid and people used to tell me I was "creative" all the time. I didn't see myself that way, and still don't. I very rarely have creative thoughts, where I think I bring some new idea to the world. I mean, not even a one-liner. But maybe about once a year, I have what I consider to be a new idea. I think people were saying I saw things differently than others. I think it was just because I had wierd parents.

Anyway, I agree with the following definitions of art: creating something new (if it's in any way beautiful), reproducing something beautiful accurately (preforming something composed hundreds of years ago, preserving its beauty and musicality), shining light on something that's always been there but hasn't been noticed before.

Do you think that last one is really what is happening with "creating something new"? Isn't everything already there? It's only the ideas that are new. We're not creating new matter. Just rearranging it or spotlighting specific parts of it.

For some reason, Kevin James comes to mind as an "artist" who reproduces things. I don't tend to think of his sit-com as artistic (though possibly a fan who has paid more attention might find something artistic about it), but I do think some of his stand-up is artistic. I saw him imitate his "girlfriend" choosing a halmark card, and that image has stuck with me for years, becuase of its accuracy. Also, the scene between the boyfriend and girlfriend trying to get into the car--he unlocking the door, and she pulling up on the door handle at the wrong times "how about now? Now?" A very artistic idea and preformance, I think. (I also think I consistently misspell preformance.) Anyway, lastly, the wedgie walk, where he does a side shuffle, and asks why anyone would believe they were hiding that they were trying to dislodge their underwear.

I think musicians make sounds beautiful--sounds we hear every day--in their accuracy (pitch--so many people think they can't hear the differences in pitch, but how beautifully musicians control pitch--artistic), musicality, etc. It's skill, like Suze (I think) said, but also reframing, like another lady said. I love that--I think that's what a lot of art is--reframing what we already see and hear every day. Juxtaposing.

I don't think of myself as a musician, by the way, because I don't think I have the artistic sense to be one. I played euphonium for years and never developed a good sense of rhythm or pitch, nor a good control of my volume. Same as with visual arts--everything is just a little off. I think some people are either born with the skills they need, or they are developed (perhaps at just the right time, when that area of their brain is ready to grow).