by Lou Santacroce
(written in commemoration of multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine’s 40 years in music)
Chapter One of “Musicage,” a book consisting of conversations between John Cage and Joan Retallack is titled after one of his sayings: “Art is either a complaint or do something else” (which, admittedly, is his mesostic of something said/written by Jasper Johns). It strikes me that this is what every real artist has done thruought history, and what all true artists are doing today: registering a complaint. The art of the past survives because it represented a complaint about and against the prevailing and accepted art/trends/trendiness of that era’s status quo. That they are accepted as part of the artistic status quo in the present age is irrelevant to how they were perceived in their own day.
The amazing thing is that these rebels and revolutionaries of yore -- so revered today that they are presented to us as models which we must copy if we are to be considered artists by the blessing-bestowing, grant-granting establishment -- were never wholly accepted as artists in their own time. Rembrandt received a commission from a group of guild members who wanted to see themselves memorialized on canvas; they refused to pay him when he returned with a life-sized work depicting them in animated conversation, standing on the street after a meeting – i.e., as real people – rather than in the accepted portraiture mode: seated, expressionless and immobile as statues. Manet’s paintings – though they were routinely allowed into exhibitions -- were also routinely hung so high that people had difficulty seeing them. Cezanne’s early canvases were attacked by gallery patrons wielding umbrellas. Joyce’s publishers sold out the entire first printing of “Dubliners;” every copy was bought by a self-appointed guardian of literary morality who then burned the lot. “Ulysses” was banned in the US for 30 years. Early critics of bop accused Charlie Parker of playing out of tune and people are still shaking their fists at Cecil Taylor. These, of course, are old stories.
What is it about these artists’ refusal to knuckle under to the status quo that so angered those critics of bygone days, and continues to make the critics of today flush crimson? What is it about those who refused to crank out the “business art” that I’m forced to look at while waiting in my doctor’s office, or the music I’m forced to listen to while working out at the local gym, or the eye candy disguised as literature that I see workers devouring on their lunch breaks…what is it about those mavericks, those real artists, that causes critics temperatures to rise? Several things; for one, people get testy not because they are being deprived of their Thomas Kinkade, Winton Marsalis or Daniele Steele fixes – since those charlatans, and others like them, will always be there to sooth the delicate sensibilities of the people whom H.L. Menken dubbed “the herd” – but because every time the sound of a Charlie Parker or a John Coltrane or a Cecil Taylor or a Milo Fine reaches their ears, every time a Samuel Beckett or a Patricia Highsmith dances across their eyes, every time their point of view is disturbed by a Worhol or Lichtenstein, what comes with it is the haunting and irrational fear that that these sounds, words and images will drive the business art, the muzak and the eye candy lit from the marketplace. And irrational is, indeed, the word; as if, suddenly, Barnes and Noble were going to stock nothing but Beckett and Musil; Amazon were going only going to carry CD’s by Evan Parker and Morton Feldman ; Van Vliet (yes, I like his canvases, and not just because he used to be Captain Beefheart) reproductions were going to elbow big-eyed street waifs out of existence at the local arts & crafts store, and the consumers who, above all else, must have something simplistic to consume will have nothing at which to throw their money or bury their heads in so as to forget the banality of their miserable lives.
The critical herd panics even more, since most of them make their living by explaining the easily explained to people who desperately need permission to like or dislike something. How, after all, will they make their living trying to explain what they cannot comprehend? So, they write and speak the language of hysteria, as in (to use a ridiculous example) the wailing and gnashing of critical teeth over the advent of the Sex Pistols and the punk movement of the late 1970’s, as if John Lydon were truly the antichrist (remember how well that comparison worked when they tried it on Mick Jagger during the 1960’s?) who would bring all of music crashing down around us.
Second, the herd bears a seething and lingering resentment toward the above-mentioned artists and others like them, not because they merely bucked an existing system, but because – in many cases – they risked virtually everything to do so. Charlie Parker could have made a decent living wailing away in Jay McShann’s band (or Ellington’s; Duke made the offer) and Coltrane could have done the same by sticking with the early, “Favorite Things” version of his “sheets of sound” innovations (or, again, by joining Ellington). If Cecil Taylor had gone no further than his early work (say, the “Jumpin’ Punkins” period), he would have had a reputation similar to Lennie Tristano’s and would have lived a lot more comfortably through his middle years. And Milo Fine could have ended up as the mid-west's go-to drummer and spent a lot less time cleaning offices.
So, why didn’t they? Because there’s something more important than being comfortable. Art is more important than being comfortable; real art is, in itself, a form of discomfort; discomfort with the present tense, with the notion that this is the way it is and the way it shall, should and always be; and these beliefs, combined with the knowledge that it really IS worth sacrificing everything in order to take the next step, to register the complaint and to keep registering the complaint until SOMETHING begins to move, angers “the heard” like nothing you can imagine; the fact that SOMEONE had the guts to take that fateful, sometimes fatal step and THEY did not! You see, deep down, the herd knows and feels its collective cowardliness. They feel it every hour of every day as they perform mind-numbing tasks at soul-stealing jobs. It gnaws at them as they trudge from home, to work, to the bar, and back home to their oldies radio stations and Nostalgia TV channels (re-living the days when things were better HOW?); the knowledge that there is something better and the knowledge that they do not have the courage to reach out and try for it. Do they ever complain? Sure; they complain to their friends in the bar (complaints that always end in , “Ahhh, whaddaya gonna do?”), they complain to a TV set that runs the same piece of footage over and over (hey, it’s a 24 hour “news and information” channel; gotta fill that time SOME way) while disembodied commentators (always the same voices) make the same disembodied comments just before the commercial break. But, pass the bar? Dump the TV? Change the station? That’s not the type of complaining they’re made for. Too much risk, not enough guarantee of return. Hey: in the end, even Cage liked his apartment in New York City and his cottage in the country too much to complain too loudly.
So, to all of those REAL artists who still hold their hand to the flame: keep complaining. Complain stridently or complain softly, but keep registering those complaints.
Lou Santacroce is a singer-songwriter, music program host, novelist, and arts writer from Utica, New York. For more of his writing about the arts, visit the "Nonfiction Books About the Arts" section of this site. His music and novels are also available here at Artist Cafe Utica. Lou's current music program is "Masters of Jazz," heard exclusively on Phoenix Radio, 95.5 FM or streaming at www.955theheat.com every Sunday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.