Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mr. Rogers Week Day #3: Art's Highest Purpose

Are you an artist?

If you say "yes," to that question, you might mean that you're a professional artist, or are trying to be, working to be able to make your living at your craft. You might say, "yes," but be perfectly comfortable with the idea that that "yes," means, "I am an amateur. I feel that I'm good enough at this to perform, but not good enough to expect to make money at it."

Are you one of the people who'll say, "No, I'm not creative or talented at all"?
People who say that make me sad. While you can find plenty of adults who go through their day-to-day lives without creative outlet, one is hard-pressed to find a child who doesn't draw, sing, dance and make up stories on a daily basis. I think it is a universal human impulse to do these things.

However, once we reach adulthood, it's expected that only an elite few of us should be allowed to continue with these paths, those of us who have been able to, taught to, and encouraged to develop these abilities to an unusually high level of refinement. The rest of us aren't "good enough" to continue with it, or if we do, we're expected not to do it unless we can do so under the tutelage of a master, privately, and with no intention to display these abilities until such time as they are at an acceptable level of quality.

I think this makes the disenfranchised artists among us feel quite cheated and jealous, and understandably so. This feeling, I believe, is what gives rise to anti-artist sentiments, to the labeling of artists as "elitists." Those "elite" artists often respond in an expectedly defensive matter, taking great pride in their separateness from the "common" non-artists. Worse is when we "professional quality" artists allow that defensiveness to catalyze into a worship of form over function, an obsession with the skills of ourselves and our fellow artists over the important matter of what we are expressing with those skills. After all, every common person has emotion and story within them, but the skills are what set us artists apart.

Fred Rogers had a very different view of art.

Mr. Rogers got his first college degree in music composition, though his ultimate intention at the time was to attend seminary and become a minister. He wrote all the music for Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and though he described himself as, "not a perfect singer," he sang multiple songs to his audience in every episode. He was not a perfect singer. He sang only about as well as your average minister...but how many children would rather hear him sing than anyone else?

He respected refined abilities, though. Whenever a professional musician was a guest in the Neighborhood, Mr. Rogers would comment on the person's skills, saying, "You must have practiced for a very long time." This simple statement both honors the efforts of the performer and humanizes their ability, putting it back within the reach of the regular person.

Next, he would ask the guest questions like, "How would your music sound if you were feeling disappointed? How would it sound if you were happy?" The musicians would then demonstrate, with, it must be noted, sometimes limited degrees of success.

Many professional musicians, in my experience (I've spent a great deal of time in that world), are rather out of touch with their own emotions. The world of classical music, in particular, has moved farther and farther away in recent decades from the idea of music as a form of self-expression. Instead, mechanistic perfection is the highest ideal. This, to my mind, is just one more reflection of a world that's terrified of its own emotions.

Music and other forms of art didn't start out as a way to impress people and set yourself above others, not in the start of human history and not in the start of any of our lives. They started as a way to say who we are, what we're feeling and what we're experiencing in a way that has the power to put us deeply and truly in touch with each other. In many cases, as Mr. Rogers was fond of teaching, it gives us a way to live out potentially dangerous emotions without hurting anyone.

How much healthier would our society be if we viewed artistic expression as something everyone's entitled to? If friendships, romantic relationships and other adult interactions included the sharing of ourselves this way? There's great beauty to be found in refinement, in the development of a skill over years of practice and disciplined study, but in the end, even skill itself is only a medium.

No comments:

Post a Comment