Tag Archives: dimitri drobatschewsky

I woke up this February morning to a gray, cloudy, cold day, with reaches of fog climbing up the sides of the mountains, giving them all the look of a Chinese painting. Brouillard in French. Nebel in German. 

And that set me to thinking about Long John Nebel, a radio personality from WOR-AM in New York, who had an all-night talk show when I was a kid, interviewing people who claimed they had been in flying saucers, or explained there was a civilization that lived in the center of the earth, or that could bend spoons with their minds. It is where I first heard of Charles Fort, Edgar Cayce and astral projection. 

Long John’s theme song was originally written for the movie The Forbidden Planet by David Rose, but was never used there. It was distinct and spooky, just like most of Long John’s guests.

Remembering Long John reminded me also of Jean Shepherd, whose program ran on the station just before Long John. For 45 minutes each night, Shep told stories of his childhood or army life, ranted about modern culture, played the Jew’s harp or kazoo along with The Sheik of Araby, and drove his engineers and management nuts. His theme music was Eduard Strauss’s polka Bahn Frei, in a Boston Pops arrangement by Peter Bodge. Eduard was the lesser known younger brother of  Johann Strauss II and you could call him the Eric of the Strauss family. I listened to Shepherd night after night and heard the polka so many times — thousands — that as soon as I think of it, it becomes an ear worm and for the next couple of days, it plays in my head endlessly. 

And so, I’m sitting there this morning, enjoying the nasty weather outside and my mind wanders to TV show theme music. There’s the William Tell Overture and The Lone Ranger; Love in Bloom for Jack Benny; Love Nest for Burns and Allen.

Burns and Allen was a show we watched regularly in the 1950s, and in retrospect, I can see it as the first Postmodern series, as George would retreat to his study above the garage and watch the same show we were watching, on his TV and commenting on the plot as it played out. This level of knowingness became common later with such shows as It’s Like, You Know… Everyone’s doing it now. 

These connections, from fog on the mountain to Postmodernism, are the way the human mind works. One damn thing leads to another. We might all like to think we are rational beings and think logically, but no, it’s a slow bumping from one thing to another, and sometimes we make them fit together like the Tab A and Slot B of a puzzle. 

It’s a version of the Kevin Bacon game. How many steps to get from this to that. For instance, I can get to Vladimir Putin in only three steps. When I was music critic in Phoenix, I was friends with the director of the Arizona Opera, the late Joel Revzen (an unfortunate  Covid victim late last year; I will miss him). After he left Arizona, Revzen worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and became the designated repetiteur for Valery Gergiev (Revzen would rehearse the orchestra and singers for weeks to get them ready for the jet-set conductor who would swoop in the last week and put the finishing touches on the performance). Gergiev also invited Revzen to conduct his orchestra in Moscow, the Mariinsky Orchestra. Gergiev, in turn, is pals with Putin. Three jumps and bingo. 

I can connect with Albert Einstein in two steps: My friend and predecessor as music critic in Arizona was Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who was born in Berlin. Dimitri’s father was a noted violinist, and when Dimitri was a young boy, the family played string quartets at home, and occasionally, Einstein — an amateur fiddler — would sit in. A quick two-step. 

Dimitri knew many of the most famous musicians of the 20th century, and through them, I could trace connections to Rachmaninoff, Heifetz, Rubinstein, even George Gershwin. And through Gershwin to Arnold Schoenberg, and through him to Gustav Mahler. Short trips and many connections. 

Let’s see how many connections I need to make it to Johann Sebastian Bach.

—I knew Dimitri; who knew cellist Gregor Piatagorsky; who recorded Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with Artur Schnabel; who studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky; who learned piano from Carl Czerny; who was a pupil of Ludwig von Beethoven; who met Wolfgang Mozart; who knew Johann Christian Bach; whose father was Johann Sebastian. Nine steps over 271 years, an average of 30 years per step.

That’s a bit over the standard Kevin Bacon line, but I can still claim only six degrees from Beethoven. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, etc., who knew Beethoven. Finding connections, whether of acquaintance or through association of ideas, everything is connected to everything else. When we isolate anything, we rip it from its context, and its context extends, however tenuously, to the edges of the universe. 

And I cannot think of 271 years as being all that long ago. I have lived for nearly three-quarters of a century; my father was born 102 years ago. That’s the year of the Versailles Treaty and the year Pierre-Auguste Renoir died. So, that’s a century, a father-son century. Only 10 of those father-son centuries and we are in the reign of King Canute of England. The Middle Ages. A millennium. And only 10 of those brings us to the very beginnings of agriculture and civilization itself, growing along the Fertile Crescent, the Indus River Valley and in China. That’s just the father-son century times 10 times 10. All of civilization, there between your thumb and forefinger. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that everyone with even a drop of European in their DNA can count Charlemagne in their family tree. We are all related. Further back, we seem all to have the bones of Lucy as our great-great-great, etc. grandma. 

And anyone who saw the 1978 James Burke television series, Connections, knows that the world doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, but by accretion. It takes a handful of previous inventions to permit the breakthrough we all know. It’s a web, not a line. 

Even today’s weather in Asheville is dependent on yesterday’s rain in Tennessee and last month’s disturbance over the Pacific Ocean. 

In my own life, I realize I could have had a Ph.D. in some specialty, maybe a sinecure in a college or university. It was actually what my life-arc seemed to predict. But I could never narrow down my interests. I wanted to learn everything. An impossibility, of course. But I have spent my seven decades looking for the way all things are related, for the bigger picture. The beaker into which it all mixes. The mind casts a wide net, wide enough to move from a gray day through a radio talk show to Charlemagne and even to Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. 

apple cut

Have you ever been in love? Do you love chocolate?

Do you love your mother? Do you love heavy metal music? The smell of dew in newly cut grass? Perhaps you love irony.dinner knife

We toss the word ”love” around as if it meant only one thing, but love of Monday Night Football is significantly different from Tristan’s love for Isolde. We use the same word, but we mean different things.

It’s the same way with ”art.” The tiny trigram covers an enormous range, from late Beethoven quartets to the design on your dinner knife. And then we have trouble defining it, because we are looking for one single definition that will fit all cases. It should be no surprise that we can’t find it.

The problem with discussing art is that one person’s Rembrandt is the next person’s Hershey bar.elvis 2

So when I write that black-velvet Elvis paintings simply aren’t art, I’m guilty of hyperbole. Of course that is art. It just isn’t good art.

(There are some people who believe that ”bad art” is an oxymoron. Or as my late friend, the great Dimitri Drobatschewsky, used to say, “There’s no such thing as bad art; if it is bad, it isn’t art.”)

Working on the assumption that art requires ability, they make the analogy that bad art isn’t art the same way ”bad ability” isn’t ability.

Yet, there is a very wide range of abilities. Can we discount Henri Rousseau because he didn’t have the technique of Raphael? Surely it still deserves the name of art. And how about Jeff Koons’ basketballs floating in a fish tank? mbulu nguluHow much craftsmanship did that require? And yet, if it isn’t art, what the hell is it? Surely the definition of art is broad and deep.

If we attempt to be inclusive, if we attempt to find a definition that covers Rembrandt, Shakespeare, the prints that hang on a motel-room wall, the designs cut into a Western belt, the mbulu-ngulu figure of Africa and shakuhachi music from Japan, things get murky.

But that is only because we have set an impossible task: finding that illusive single definition for art.


Yet, if we step back and attempt to see art as a whole rather than attempt to make a polemical case for our favorite corner of the art universe, we can begin to see at least the general outline of the subject. It also becomes clear that art must have a four-sided definition: The whole can be divided in half from side to side, or from front to back.

Sliced from side to side, there are two apple-halves of art.

First, there is the decorative side of art. Whether it is racing stripes on a car or a landscape over the sofa, art of this order attempts to make our lives more graceful. We use it to decorate our lives and the things of our lives.

On a more serious note, it is art that is a palliative against the abrasiveness of living. If we must suffer in love and business, we should be able to escape that in art. Hence, Broadway musicals.bass buckle

On the simplest level, it is the shape of your belt buckle, the color you choose for your Toyota, the typeface of your letterhead.

On a more refined level, it is Monet painting mural-size pictures of waterlilies for the Orangerie.

Overall, it is the sense that beauty is somehow the opposite of life and that art should embrace beauty and turn its back on pain and suffering, or at least idealize them and therefore freeze them into powerlessness.disasters of war


But the other apple-half wants us to engage with life, complete with all its sufferings, frustrations and complexities. This view recognizes that art is a means we use to come to terms with life. All of life.

It says that art is the test we give to truth. As science confronts fact, art confronts truth. In this sense, art distinguishes between the genuine and counterfeit, the possible from the impossible, the passion from the sentimentality, the moral from the moralistic.

Art is in some sense a virtual reality, a model of the world that we can use, as an airplane designer uses his computer model or a climatologist uses his, to test our version of reality.

In another way of putting it, art isn’t the opposite of reality, but in fact, art creates reality.

It is one of the often overlooked verities that without art to picture what the world looks and feels like, we would not be able to see or feel the world at all.

The worlds of sensation and emotion are so infinitely complex, such a swirling mass of input, that we are forced to filter the information and organize it to make sense of it. Art is the means by which we do this.


Egyptian figuresIt is the cumulative power of all our arts that defines our culture and its view of reality. The arts create civilization and not the other way around.

The style differences between cultures are not questions of fashion and taste but of how those cultures decide to see the world.

An ancient Egyptian wall painting, with its stylized poses and almond eyes, probably looked as real to the ancient Egyptians as a Renaissance painting looks to us.

Because we are not part of that culture, we can spot the artifice on the pharaoh’s tomb, but are harder pressed to see the distortion and artificiality of Renaissance perspective. But it is just as schematic, just as false as the Egyptian. Always, the image that falls on your retina is different from the image that forms in your mind. Art is how we learn to transform the one into the other.Waiting-for-Godot

From this view, art is the discovery or creation of meaning and order from the chaos of perception and experience.

And that is why some people prefer Waiting for Godot over The Odd Couple. Godot feels more true.

With the apple sliced this way, the argument is Vladimir and Estragon vs. Felix and Oscar.


Ah, but if we slice the apple from front to back, we have a completely different argument on our hands.

This one asks, ”Is art a noun or a verb?”

If art is a noun, then it is an artifact. Seen this way, the art is the painting on the wall, the poem on the page. Art is what the artist creates, what is left when the artist walks away.

But if art is instead a verb, it is seen as the process that creates the painting. In this view, the finished canvas is only a byproduct of the art.

In this view, what counts is what the artist learns in the process of making the art. A residue of what he learns is evident in the resultant poem, painting or symphony, and an attentive audience, as they experience the art, must in essence re-create the journey the artist took.

This view requires rather more effort on the part of the audience. When the process becomes the point, the viewer cannot remain a couch potato.

It is what we mean when we say a certain play or piece of music is ”difficult.” It is art as hard work.

Art as noun leads to a scholar’s view of art, or a connoisseur’s. All one needs to possess it is a large enough bank account.

But with art as a verb, you cannot have it unless you earn it through your own emotional and intellectual barn paint by number


So let us reassemble the apple and see if all art can be encompassed in its sphere. Here is a provisional definition of art:

Art is something made by human hand or mind, or the making of something by hand or mind, that graces our lives or the things of our lives with beauty; or the same thing that explores experience and attempts to discover or create meaning. That meaning can be personal or communal, spiritual or perceptual, emotional or intellectual.

I have no doubt that there is a worm in this apple, and I encourage readers to search for it. If this definition is where I light for the moment, I am not unaware that the problem of coming to terms with art has remained difficult through the eons. But maybe this short explication sets the mark as high as I can stretch for the time.

It is as Sappho once wrote: ”Like an apple ripening on an upper branch, passed over by apple pickers — no, not passed over, but too high to reach.”

Memo:031a venus di milos


— Art can teach us to see

— Art can grace the ugliness

— Art can be used to express the mythology we believe in

— Art can be the note pad of the unconscious

— Art can be propaganda

— Art can be merchandise

— Art can be a value judgment

— Art can investigate the nature of reality

— Art can unify the senses and the intellect

— Art can be a means of causing meditation or contemplation

— Art can give names to things that have no names

— Art can illustrate a text, adding emotional resonance or clarity

— Art can give us roots

— Art can give us a past

— Art can be used to enforce a political agenda

— Art can be a means of recapturing what we think we have lost

— Art can establish class distinctions

— Art can be the satisfaction of form

— Art can be misunderstood and still be effective

— Art can be subversive, but not on a political level

— Art can be evidence of maturing taste

— Art may raise your IQ

— Art can be wealth

— Art can be instruction

— Art can be substitute language (including international symbols)

— Art can be fashion

— Art can be design

— Art can be secret communication

— Art can be an exploration of the non-verbal

— Art can be anything beyond the primary body needs

— Art can make a fetish from simple body needs: a certain way of eating

— Art can encompass everything mental, as opposed to physical

— Art can be packaging

— Art can be comic, lyric, epic or dramatic

— Art can lie to us profoundly

— Art can yank our chains

— Art can provide models for behavior

— Art can clarify something insufficiently clear in words

— Art can be the codification of values

— Art can unseat old values

— Art can be creation of order in a chaotic universe

— Art can be creation of chaos in an orderly society

— Art can unify a culture

— Art can separate elements of the culture

— Art can be as rigorous as physics

— Art can be as sloppy as mud wrestling

— Art can heal a wounded psyche

— Art can open wounds

— Art can be the object hanging on the wall

— Art can be the process that makes the object

— Art can be the means of defining the ego

— Art can be the means of defining the culture

— Art can be the communal experience of audience

— Art can be singular experience

— Art can provide an entree into the past

— Art can provide the key to understanding an alien culture

— Art can amuse us

— Art can bore us

— Art can be craftsmanship

— Art can make magicrousseau