What Today Brings
“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde
I had a bit of an emotional hangover the day after this Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, the excitement and the spectacle, the glamour and solidarity always get me to thinking about the arts, my past, present and future as it relates to my own art. I am of two minds, and as far as
I can think, there are two artistic worlds. There is the glamorous side that we saw on the Golden Globes, the lights and orchestras, diamonds and pearls of Grace Kelly and Nicole Kidman and a darker world of the arts that Vincent van Gogh and Dylan Thomas experienced. I drank the Kool-Aid of the glam squad way back when I first saw Ann Margaret wiggle across the stage in a red sequined jumpsuit in front of a booming orchestra in the Circus Maximus showroom of Caesar’s Palace, and a bigger dose still when I saw Sammy Davis Jr. tipping his hat under a spotlight to Mr. Bojangles, and then gobbled the whole pitcher as I clung to the side of the stage night after night as The Lennon Sisters tapped along to a fake tap track, jingling, jangling and harmonizing in matching costumes so perfectly similar but individually tailored to each sister’s personality.
I was smitten by all of this but by the time I was a teenager I became equally fascinated with the darker, decadent ones, the wild and untamable art of Oscar Wilde, Billy Holiday, Charles Bukowski and, even more artistically honorable, are the ones who never got their due. I hailed to the misfits, holed up in a shack somewhere pounding on a typewriter or attacking a canvas, hurling themselves in vain toward some anonymous end. What is art but when, as the Greeks put it, we purge. No matter what we are spewing, it feels good to let out all that is swirling in our heads.
Our fellow Woodford County neighbor, Sam Shepard, had his share of both the glamorous and the dark sides of art, but in most of his writing, he explored and exploited the seedy side of life. In True West, he set the scene, “The effect should be like a deserted junkyard at high noon...” The world he created in that play, the characters and dialogue are so tangible that we don’t have to go to the Mohave Desert to experience the desolate nature and wasteland of Lee and Austin. Sam Shepard’s unrelenting dialogue, the wind, the crickets, the anger, all things forever associated with the great American playwright, I’d take that over a chance to don a ball gown any day. Tennessee Williams is another hero of mine who is as far from the Lennon Sisters as they come. His artistic world is filled with tortured souls, and he surrounded himself with their flesh, their illnesses and their skeletons. He, like Shepard, opted for a good scene instead, perhaps, of a happy, healthy day of living. “I’ve always regarded myself as an incomplete person and consequently I’ve always been more interested in my own kind of people you know, people that have problems, people that have to fight for their reason, people for whom the impact of life and experience from day to day, night to night, is difficult, people who come close to cracking. That’s my world, those are my people and I must write about the people I know.”
The artist as a tortured soul is cliché but not on display at the Golden Globes Sunday night. Remember how Billie Holiday conducted her life? She filled her days with alcohol, pills, heroin, bad romances and heartache. Then she turned it all into gold. Gut wrenching performance after gut wrenching performance, her heart bleeding into the microphone, she sang out a plea for understanding and begged for meaning from the most intimate depths of her soul.
Are artists narcissist? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that narcissism is the ‘undue dwelling on one’s own self or attainments.’ Was Sam Shepard a narcissist? Was Tennessee Williams? Was Billie Holiday? Were they not able to see the forest for the trees, not able to see past their own noses or did they feel that way simply worked for them. No one made Tennessee Williams fall in love with hustlers that could never love him back. No one put Sam Shepard alone on a desert highway, no one put a needle in Billie Holiday’s arm (well… they probably did but you get my point). Why the fascination with sadness and pain? The work, the play, the book, the song.
“Do I understand nature? Do I understand myself? No more words. I shroud dead men in my stomach… Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance! I can’t even imagine the hour when the white men land and I will fall into nothingness… Thirst and hunger, shouts, dance, dance dance!” Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell
We come here and either grow closer to our true nature or let it be beaten out of us. Society for centuries past has attempted to tame the artistic temperament. Those who don’t understand try to stamp out what doesn’t fit into the worldview they have chosen to live by. From the public lynching in the Middle Ages to the burning of witches, to the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde and Lenny Bruce, the fear of the unknown has caused unspeakable pain to those who stood up to their true nature. Enter Holden Caulfield, enter Jack Kerouac, enter Patti Smith, enter myself, never feeling a part of, but with much inside burning to come out.