What is art for?

Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn't matter. I'm not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn't make us better, then what on earth is it for? - Alice Walker

My parents are one of a hundred thousand, thousand other parents who have ever lived to see their child turn from a perfectly good life as a socially acceptable citizen into **shudder** an artist. Or worse, an apparently struggling artist. For my folks, coming to America was a way they could ensure that their children wouldn't suffer the hardships of war, poverty, and limited education. My brother and I were to be shining examples of success in America. Only trouble was we both believed in freedom so much, neither of us chose to become one of, as one FilAm put it, the Holy Trinity of Occupations: Engineer, Lawyer, Physician.

We've both struggled with the question of "what is art" and "how do we make a living in art." Sometimes we've gotten lucky and found venues for our work. Most of the time, we keep doing our best to give expression to what's inside aching to be something. Anything - a story, a song, a sketch, a performance. And along the way, it's easy to look back and wonder - did I make a bad decision to not try for that Ace-in-the-Hole job? Does this choice make me a bad person?

I guess that's why I keep looking for people who are creatives, ones who take what's inside themselves and make something truly unique, artful, heart-filled.

Steve Martin was one of those guys I wanted to be like as a kid. Funny, irreverent, fantastic juggler, comic with perfect timing, and oh yah, he was killer on the banjo. I'd never heard a banjo before hearing him on the record my cousin brought over to play on my folks console player. The banjo didn't sound like a guitar, didn't sound like much of anything I'd heard before, except maybe the bailalaika from the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack. Part strum, part twang, I was mesmerized by the intricate sound. You just don't get that from playing scales on a piano, let me tell you.

So somewhere after the release of King Tut, Martin turned from stage sensation to actor and along with leaving the stage, I thought the banjo music had ended. I was delighted to read recently that in fact, Martin had kept up his banjo playing and recently released his first CD of original songs.

He's been called a renaissance man for doing so many varied things with his career. He notes "Well, in a strange way, I don't have a job, so I have a lot of time on my hands. When I do work, it might be very concentrated, and it might be months where you're not really doing anything except maybe playing the banjo or writing something. You know, there's a lot of time in the day if you're not working 9 to 5."

The life of the artist isn't plotted out carefully, predictably, at least at the pace we associate with other occupations. It wends and winds and wanders, and as along as we keep letting the art teach us what to do, then we'll keep on making art and connections with people who feel the same way.


Rick said...

Loved it!

In case you didn't know, I play the banjo a little. Not anywhere near that good, but enough I can do some strumming and chords.

Good banjo playing is great to listen to. Bela Fleck is one of the best too. Great to watch and listen. Thanks!

Lori Gayle said...

It is good to hear that you like the banjo. I am a closet banjo player and 5 years ago I went to banjo camp! Yes, I said it...Banjo Camp! It was the time of my life and I met some of the greatest banjo players in the world. I had the priviledge of meeting and learning from Tony Trishka and many many others. It was banjo picking from 7am until the wee hours of the night. It is a true art form and I am a big fan of Steve Martin as a musician.
Thanks for giving a shout out to the great sound of the banjo!

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

Yay Rick and Lori! That's really cool that you play the banjo. :)

It's an amazing instrument. Now to just get to hear /you/ play.

Please? :)

Gura said...

I first heard him play on American Idol finale, which seemed a really random place to 1) see Steve Martin and 2) hear banjo playing.

Steve Martin is truly one of those celebrities that truly is an artist.

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

Wow, Gura, that /is/ a random place to find Steve Martin playing the banjo. I'm kinda sorry I missed that. I wonder if it's on YouTube...

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

Not a great vid, but here it is, Steve Martin on American Idol playing background on Pretty Flowers

(it's too big to imbed as a comment)

Lissa said...

i belong to a family that thinks being an artist is a form of laziness, unless you are a commercial artist (earning loads by serving the mainstream). it's so hard to explain why "learning how to write well" is more important than earning in order to acquire the latest gadgets or clothes or whatever. it's taken me decades to just accept that this is who i am. it feels good to finally find that psychic family who understands and accepts who you are. in the end, "it takes all sorts to make a world," and i know that in some way we contribute.

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

Hi Lissa! Thanks for dropping by and sharing your story here. We're all on a journey and it's good to find companions who understand the joys and struggles. I think that's why my current mantra is Follow Your Art - it allows me to accept what I do and who I am.