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What Makes an Artist?

David Berger

Some years ago the great jazz alto saxophonist Phil Woods wrote an article advising young musicians to go beyond practicing their instrument and experience life—to read, watch plays and movies, look at paintings, and, most of all, live a full life.  His point is that art reflects life, and if you haven’t lived, what can you be talking about? 


This morning Steve Almond, in his advice column, responded to a letter from an accountant who was asking advice about whether to quit his job to become a writer, which has always been his dream.  Almond said, “What matters to artists, and writers in particular, isn’t the quality of a particular life, but the quality of the attention paid to that life.  And that includes your own life.” 


When I used to teach college students, I often made this analogy: an artist is the person who walks down the street and sees a beautiful flower.  He/she stops to examine it and then needs to tell everyone he/she can how beautiful this flower is.  All this goes on while everyone else just walks by and doesn’t even notice the flower.  Who can blame them—they need to get to work, so they can make money.


I’m not saying that making money isn’t important.  After all, as Mel Brooks so beautifully said about accountants in his classic film, The Producers, “It’s a noble profession.  It has the word “count” in it.”  All kidding aside, we need to make money to lead an orderly life—to pay for food, clothing, lodging, and other necessities and luxuries that we convince ourselves are necessities.  But without the arts (the beauty of flowers), what a cold existence this world would be.


An artist sees beauty in the world and has a need to show it to everyone else.  I think that pretty much sums it up.  That beauty is the confluence of chaos and order, of feelings and logic, and always of truth and the courage to speak the truth. 


When my son was about 3 years old, he and I boarded the M104 bus and proceeded to ride down Broadway.  We were seated near the front of the bus, just behind the driver.  A stop or two after we boarded, an agitated man got on and proceeded to get into a verbal argument with the bus driver.  He was standing about a foot from the driver and was shouting directly into the driver’s face.  The entire busload of passengers was shocked.  They all stopped talking and stared at this out-of-control man, at which point, my little son, Caleb, asked, “Daddy, why is that man yelling at the bus driver?”  Immediately everyone on the bus smiled and broke into laughter, including the bus driver and the man who had been yelling at him.  And a child shall lead them.


That little incident shows how powerful the truth can be.  Caleb in his innocence saw what no one else on that bus could see.  We adults had lived lives filled with lies and cover-ups.  What does a little child know about that?  He only saw the interchange between two men locked into the defense of their egos.  Caleb saw the bus driver as the friendly authority figure on the bus.  It was as simple as that.  Anything else was a disruption of the peaceful order of the universe.  If only there could be such an easy solution to our national and world problems. 


It is with this eye for truth that an artist must teach the rest of us.  For art to be truly great, it must make us uncomfortable—at least a little bit, and sometimes more than that.  It should open our eyes to our own failings and shortcomings.  It’s not just about the characters on the stage or the notes coming from the orchestra—it’s personal, and it should be taken personally.  If you want to be an artist—a true artist, you can’t aspire just to make your audience feel good.  That is the big problem with pop culture.  It has little depth and seeks only for approval on its face value. 


Fine Art weds technique and substance in the pursuit of expressing deep feelings and communicating them to an audience who can then experience those same feelings.  Granted that this is no easy feat, but try we must.  Those that succeed on the highest level are granted immortality.  Everyone else disappears in a century or so at best.  I doubt that any great artists cared much about immortality.  A true artist does what he/she does because he/she must do it.  It’s an itch that must be scratched.  Fame and fortune may follow, or not?  Is Vincent van Gogh any less of an artist because he only sold one painting in his lifetime?  Would his work still be great if it lay undiscovered in his brother’s attic and the art world didn’t know it?  Or is he great only after his death because his paintings sell in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars?   


Sometimes the public needs time to catch up to the artist.  Obviously this is the case with van Gogh, but not so with Shakespeare, Picasso and Ellington.  They were much celebrated in their lifetimes.  Does that make them any less worthy of our respect?  I think not.  As Ellington said, success is about being at the right place at the right time.  But we must be careful not to honor those who achieve fame and fortune for their ability to achieve fame and fortune.  Living in our materialistic, fame-oriented society, we are confronted with these criteria of greatness on a daily basis. 


Sorting this out is difficult enough for artists, but, what about our audiences?  Not everyone wants to be enlightened; to have to work at understanding art, or even to pay attention.  When I was 9 years old, my aunt took my brother Bobby and me to see our first Broadway show, The Music Man, starring Robert Preston and Barbara Cook.  Nothing like starting at the top, right?  I’ve been thinking about Ms. Cook the last few days since she died.  Her obituary in the New York Times talked about how she was all about singers telling the story of the lyrics—being the person in the song.  In The Music Man she played Marian the Librarian.  She’s unmarried, and her Irish mother is deeply worried that Marian will never marry because she is waiting for a knight in shining armor to come and sweep her off her feet.  Unbeknownst to her and her mother, that is figuratively about to happen.  And so, she sings this profound song to explain herself to her mother, HEAR IT ON YOUTUBE


words and music by Meredith Wilson


My white knight, not a Lancelot, nor an angel with wings
Just someone to love me, who is not ashamed of a few nice things. 
My white knight who knew what my heart would say if it only knew how. 
Please, dear Venus, show me now. 


All I want is a plain man 
All I want is a modest man 
A quiet man, a gentle man 
A straightforward and honest man 
To sit with me in a cottage somewhere in the state of Iowa. 


And I would like him to be more interested in me than he is in himself. 
And more interested in us than in me. 


And if occasionally he'd ponder
what make Shakespeare and Beethoven great, 
Him I could love till I die. Him I could love till I die. 


My white knight, not a Lancelot, nor an angel with wings. 
Just someone to love me, who is not ashamed of a few nice things. 
My white knight, let me walk with him where others ride by 
Walk and love him till I die, till I die.

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  • David Berger on

    Thanks, Brent. West Side Story and My Fair Lady are 2 of my favorite musicals as well. As much as I loved Bernstein’s music for Candide, as far as an integrated musical goes, I’d have to go with My Fair Lady. Although Barbara Cook was fantastic in Music Man, Robert Preston stole the show. It was his from his first line until the curtain closed. He was riveting. The only other performance I’ve ever seen that could compare in any way was Zero Mostel in Fiddler. Both men were completely believable as their characters and in every movement and gesture made us root for them and ultimately identify with them and love them. Both actors were not afraid to be larger than life and express all their doubts and fears. Humanity at its best.
    As far as Kenny’s post, as always, I am in complete agreement with my old friend. Whenever a young person asks me if he or she should become a musician, or any kind of artist, I tell them no. When they ask me how I can say that when I don’t hardly know them, I tell them that if they have to ask, then they are not cut out to be an artist. The arts are for those who can’t live without devoting their whole life. I didn’t choose music. It chose me. I know that I am not alone. Being a musician is what justifies my existence. Yes, I have other loves and interests, but if I had to give up music, I wouldn’t be any good at any of them.

  • Kenny Berger on

    Great message Dave. The difference between an artist and a hack is that a true artist is internally motivated. This is why I find it so confusing and disheartening to encounter so many externally motivated young jazz musicians, a phenomenon that didn’t exist until fairly recently. Another thing Phil used to tell students is that the artist’s life is only for those who feel they don’t have a choice so if you’re trying to decide between becoming a jazz musician and becoming a doctor, lawyer,truck driver or whatever, you’d best choose the other path. I’m also reminded of a quote from actor-writer Carrie Fischer who said “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments”

  • Brent Runnels on

    David- another beautifully written article, I have been enjoying your writing lately very much. Thank you for all your heartfelt insights.
    Thanks for including this awesome lyric in your latest. This is surely the most underrated and overlooked song from this great work. Could this powerful piece be one of the reasons why “The Music Man” beat out Lenny’s amazing “West Side Story” when they were up for the Tony for best musical in 1958? I still have a hard time fathoming that collision of masterpieces and how that decision was made! Lenny had a tough 2-year stretch: his “Candide” lost the year before to “My Fair Lady!”

  • Dan on

    Thanks so much for posting that link to Barbara Cook singing “My White Knight”. Wow! That’s the real deal!

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