The Artist and the Art

How much of the artist is in the art?  Earlier this month, Thomas Kinkade, renowned painter of picturesque thatched cottages cozily nestled in gauzy landscapes, died at the age of 54, likely from alcoholic poisoning.  It is a sad ending, a kind of ending that would never be found in his work, for in Kinkade’s idealized paintings there is no conflict, no tragedy, no sorrow.  His paintings represent a world in which human suffering is banished, an Eden empty of drama.

But when Adam and Eve are forced to abandon the Garden of Eden, the story goes with them.  No one cares about Eden after they leave.

I am sorry for Kinkade’s death, and sorry too that the man evidently experienced so much suffering.  I’m especially sorry that he was not able to use his share of artistic talent to produce genuine art.  The paintings that he (and his employees) offered to the public may, in their material nature and their marketability, resemble what we call art, but in my opinion such art is fraudulent, because it reveals nothing of its creator.  Kinkade created images completely detached from the darker realities of his life experience.  His paintings were his mask.

These thoughts were given special focus recently at a concert in Carmel featuring the Daedalus String Quartet.  The concert, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, was the occasion of a premiere of a new work, “White Water,” by Joan Tower.  “White Water” was commissioned by CMMB as the first work in a multi-year cycle of four commissions called “Arc of Life.”  The idea of “Arc of Life” was inspired by “Going Forth by Day,” a video installation by Bill Viola that treats the cycle of living and dying through a series of compelling film portraits.  CMMB Board President Amy Anderson was inspired by Viola’s work when she saw it in New York in 2003, and when the opportunity arose in 2008 for CMMB to commission new work, she asked four composers to look at “Going Forth by Day” as part of their compositional process.

“White Water,” the first “Arc of Life” installment, was given a sensational world premiere performance by the Daedalus Quartet.  The piece opens with a single rising line in the viola, a haunting, exploratory melody that returns throughout the piece in several forms.  The other instruments gradually enter, creating a texture of rising and falling that includes generous use of glissandi, a kind of liquid sliding up and down a single string.  Later in the piece, a more intense rushing sound, evocative of the work’s title, is produced through furious crescendi and quick, agitated bowing.  Out of this mass of sound, the lonely, even small voice of a single instrument (the first violin) emerges, as if to wander through the desolate wreckage left in the wake of a deluge.

The work is brilliant, and I can’t wait to hear it again (KUSP will broadcast this concert on Friday, June 22, at 8 p.m.).  But what struck me most about this music was how much I felt to be experiencing the very nature of the woman who had written it.  At a Q&A session before the concert and at an event the previous evening, Tower showed herself to be a powerhouse individual, driven and ambitious in her art, relentless in her pursuit of musical excellence, but not without an inner quality of vulnerability that was revealed when she discussed how difficult composing music really is.  Yet this driven quality, so evident in the incredible rhythmic vitality of the piece, does not so much contrast with the inner sensitivity as it arises from it.  During the performance of “White Water,” I found myself feeling almost uncomfortable during the quiet solo violin passage.  I wondered if it was going on too long, if it sounded too separate from what came before and after, if the voicing was too thin, almost fragile.

Later (and only working from memory, since I don’t have a recording of the piece) it occurred to me that perhaps that extended moment of quiet vulnerability was not so much outside the piece’s bigger moments as it was its truest heart, the kind of still, inner place that can be our most reliable source for bravery and action.

Art may have as many different meanings as there are people who experience it.  For me, art worth caring about is art that tells us something deeply true about the artist, something honest and human that reaches across the artist’s medium, be it pigment or sound or words or stone or the body of a dancer, and touches us, one beating heart to another.  This is the art that lasts, beyond the life of its creator, because once it enters our own tender hearts it never leaves.