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worth livingWhat is politics and why do so many people think that it matters?

After all, if I make a list of things that make life worth living, politics is not on it.

It can be a very long list, with love, marriage, music, literature on it. It could include winter, red maples, crisp apples and oak floors. Neon signs. Travel. Work, and the sense that you are creating something worthwhile.

Louis Armstrong playing “Potato Head Blues.”

Even beer, Letterman and The New York Times crossword puzzle. I could make a list of a hundred items, even 200, but politics doesn’t even make the cut.

That is because politics is a means to an end and not an end itself.

But tell that to Ted Cruz on one hand, or on the other, any committed member of the Communist Workers Party.

These are people who do to politics what the miser does to money.

After all, money has no value whatsoever. It is paper, metal and plastic. You can’t eat money, you can’t wear it, you can’t sleep in it. I suppose if you taped enough bills together, you could wrap fish.

Money is only worthwhile because it can be traded to gullible people for some things that are worth having, like food, clothing, shelter or cable TV.

But all around the world, there are people who would rather have money. And there are people who are committed to politics as if it mattered.

But really, politics answers no question worth asking.

‘Platypus’ law

By “politics” I mean two different things. On one hand, there is the practical side, which is the interrelationship of people and the friction of their conflicting desires. It is a constantly shifting game board of power, image, manipulation, blackmail and compromise.

Politics on this level is the jostle of competing self-interests. It is why legislation that enters committee looking like a lion always leaves looking like a platypus.

Politicians would have us believe that they work for the public good, but the reality is much messier, the results of their professed altruism much more equivocal.

For the politicians themselves, it is power, money, the fun of trading favors, gaining approval, trouncing opponents that may make life worth living. The politics involved is again only a means to that end.

The other version of politics is much more scary. Practical politics may be sloppy as mud-wrestling, but it is frequently benign. Fanatically held ideas, on the other hand, can be positively malignant.

These are the people who ruined Russia in 1917 and are ruining the Republican Party now. Idealogues are what fueled the Chinese cultural revolution under Mao, what ignited the McCarthy era, what reduced Pol Pot’s Cambodia to human cinders and what threw gasoline on the book piles in Hitler’s Germany.

Ideology always has a human cost. In my 67 years on this planet, the one thing I have come to be certain of: Certainty is the very devil.

Answers aren’t solution

What unites both camps is their interest in answers rather than questions. Questions muddy the waters and make action more difficult. It is much easier to do something when you are convinced you are right.

The irony is that answers always create more problems than they solve.

The interstate highway system was a wonderful transportation solution that contributed to the dissolution of small-town America and the attendant family structure. Civil-rights laws addressed a very real evil — discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin — and have left us with regulations that require us to discriminate on the basis of race, gender and national origin.

So we enter the fray once more and come up with new legislation to fix the mess we made last time. It’s like cutting the grass: There is no end to it.

Meanwhile, we live our lives despite politics. It is true some political systems allow us more freedom to do as we wish, some are more just and equitable, some are more benign. But, in the end, it is how we comport ourselves as individuals that counts, not how we vote en masse.

And it is the things of the inner life that make the top of our list and provide a satisfying reason to live and grow. You must look deeper than the politics to find the humanity.

I hate style. When I hear an artist say she has finally found her ”style,” I get nauseous. Style is not what art is about.

Style should be the way something needs to be said. I see too much art wherein the artist has chosen a clever style, as if it were a shirt from a J.C. Penney catalog, and then tries to stuff it with something.

Artists who read art history and try to figure out where it is going next will always be shortsighted. Art is going where it will next because of some great imagination whose vision of reality cannot be expressed in the old vocabulary.

Younger artists tend to need style tricks more, just as older artists seem to strip down their style, like the final Kurasawa films or late Tolstoy.ran

As an example: The greatest writing survives translation well. Lesser, more refined artists often are untranslatable because their substance is the fugitive stuff of style. Tolstoy, Homer, Dostoevski and Dante are all powerful despite language problems. They each concerned themselves with powerful searching problems and explored the mazes of those problems with shocking honesty (in the terms of their times).

The search within

Artists and writers now need to search their innards for analogous problems. Our answers won’t be Dante’s answers, but art on the level of importance as the Paradiso is needed.terpning

Rembrandt; Picasso; Beethoven; Dostoevski; Dante; Michelangelo; Raphael; Hokusai; Bach; Homer; Shakespeare; Cervantes; Chaucer; Neruda; Matisse; Durer; Sophocles. . . . Does LeRoy Neiman, after all, belong on that list? Or Howard Terpning, or Frank Frazetta?

Four modes

There are four modes of producing art. I don’t mean discrete modes, but that they are four points on a spectrum. They are:guernica

–› The artist connects with something real in the world or the medium and, because his discovery cannot fit the molds cast by previous artists, he forges a new style. Picasso and Beethoven are representatives of this mode. Inner drive and a sense of the insufficiency of the old styles cause the creation of a new style.wyeth winter 1946

–› With some other artists, the interaction with authentic experience causes no feeling of the inadequacy of the existing styles. The connection with something real is still there, but accepted style merely becomes the mother tongue to discuss or develop the connections. Brahms, Andrew Wyeth and Rachmaninoff are possible examples.

The next two modes differ from the first in that the prime aim of the artist is not to express some genuine engagement with the world, but rather to manipulate style.

–› One is an imitation of the first mode, wherein the style is foremost and the artist attempts to create novelty rather than express something larger. Many students, too young to have anything real to say, are guilty of this mode.

–› The last is an imitation of the second, in that the conventional style is used with limited substance. Montovani, Cowboy artists or the truckloads of ”starving artist” oil paintings are prime examples. Neither message nor style is genuine, but only imitates the ”look” of art.

Like all those people who think they can paint like Jackson Pollock.amateur pollock

Style is seductive

louis armstrongStyle is a demon that seduces us. Audiences often choose by style and not by intrinsic worth: Jazz listeners listen to Kenny G pop jazz before listening to Mozart; Classical fans will listen to Zelenka or Ditters von Dittersdorf before listening to Louis Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.

If we consider the actual function of art, the problems become clear. Art organizes, on a primary level, the undifferentiated chaos we find around ourselves. If the world does not seem chaotic to you now, thank the artists who have gone before you and struggled with the problems of perception.

To an artist, who is a person not entirely enculturated, the things we take for granted — the things that seem self-evident — are not to be trusted. Is perspective a realistic portrayal of how we see? That is suspect. Is nuclear war an entirely bad thing? Maybe, on a deeper level, it would be good for an overpopulated planet drowning in its own sewage. Maybe. Is the world of dreams all in the mind? Or is it as valid a reality as the one with digital watches and brothers-in-law? Maybe more valid. What are the true relationships between men and women? Why do otherwise reasonable people commit horrors and atrocities? Maybe it is a normal function of being a human. Maybe.

The artist won’t necessarily answer these questions, but he will consider them, or questions like them, and will engage with his explorations and exit the labyrinth with a canvas gripped tightly in his mitts, and with a wild look in his eye.

Style is a means of avoiding these tough issues, substituting a disengaged, shallow cleverness.autumn rhythm

To make new art, the artist should not attempt to find novel juxtapositions, but should go back to that primary undifferentiated chaos and attempt to find an order directly from it. Too much mediocre art comes from people trying to be new rather than trying to be real.

huck finn modern book cover

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. mark twain

In that book, nearly every theme that identifies our art as American is established and explored: migration, race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social climbing, moneygrubbing and the comfortable informality that marks us as a people.

It’s as if Huck Finn were the instruction manual for how to be American. In that, Twain is just as clearly American as Debussy is French or Basho is Japanese. john smith We often look to our art for clues to national identity. But although Twain gives us Americanness in concentrated form, most of the arts made on this continent, from Capt. John Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624) and Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, all the way up to this week’s latest rap song, partake in certain common traits.

What are they? First, we need to eliminate some of the things we like to think are particularly American, such as patriotism or respect for family. Every culture feels these qualities are particularly their own, but in fact, they are universal.

Even such negatives as bigotry and racism have their American coloration, but they are evils found in every culture.

It needs to be noted, too, that what we admire in ourselves is not necessarily admired elsewhere. Americans are direct, which others often see as rude. We are informal, which others translate as slobbishness. We are optimistic, which can be taken as arrogance. We believe in individualism, which others see as selfishness. But there are six things that we can see as particularly American: migration, individualism, optimism, religiosity, informality and expansiveness. source_28

Migration

The one thing all Americans share is that we are immigrants.

Even Native Americans, although they hate to think so, came here from somewhere else, whether it is across an Arctic land bridge or up through a sipapu.

It is the parent fact that gives birth to all our other traits. jumping a freight Even after our ancestors came here from far shores, we have never ceased from peregrinating. First we moved West, populating the great wilderness.

Now, we move away from home to college or career, and find our parents retired to Florida and our siblings spread across four time zones.

To Europeans or Asians whose families have lived in the same villages for centuries, we must seem utterly rootless.

So it can hardly be surprising that the central metaphor of Huck Finn is a journey: The book is many things, from its hero’s double negatives and “ain’ts” to his climactic choice to follow his instinct instead of his schooling about runaway slave Jim, but first and foremost, it’s a “road book,” marking the peripatetic nature of American life.

Much of our art reflects this continuous travel. From the moment we arrived on the Atlantic Coast we began moving west. As art, The Godfather speaks of the immigrant experience, but so does every B Western ever filmed.

All the other traits we think of as American ultimately owe their birth to this constant moving: It gives birth to our self-reliance, our willingness to risk tomorrow on faith, and our freedom from many of the cultural straitjackets found back in the Old Country. It’s all there in the art. All either necessary for immigration or fostered by it. high noon

Individualism

Make that “rugged individualism.”

We trust our own instincts, like Huck Finn, rather then the wisdom of the group. We are Mr. Smith in Washington, Gary Cooper at high noon, Ellen Ripley blasting aliens.

The single most potent distillation of this individualism can be found in John Wayne, love him or despise him. But Wayne didn’t spring up ex nihilo; rather, he grew from the soil: He was originally Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye, from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: self-reliant, unschooled but wise and practical, with an unshaken faith in his own code of behavior. He’s Walt Disney’s Davey Crockett saying, “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead,” which is just a pop culture simplification of Henry Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Sometimes it’s shocking to realize how of a piece our cultural heritage is. davy crockett march

The flip side of individualism is our tendency to isolationism: “Good fences make good neighbors,” as Robert Frost ironically wrote. Going it alone is usually seen as a virtue.

The downside of this self-reliance is our anti-intellectualism. We trust our own ignorance more than someone else’s knowledge. This is nothing new: It’s why Andrew Jackson was elected president. It’s Huck Finn fearing to be “sivilized” by his Aunt Sally. It’s why one of the most powerful political factions of the 19th century was called the “Know-Nothings.”

It’s a trait of national identity that we should never misunderestimate. oklahoma!

Optimism

Against all reason and the evidence of history, Americans believe they can do anything. It is our “can-do” attitude, and you find it in the barking joy of Walt Whitman’s poetry and the songs of Oklahoma!Doris Day

To others in the world, this makes us look naive and foolish; fatalism is not part of our makeup.

Which is why America is home to pop psychology and Doris Day. As a corollary, for Americans, the future only holds a better world. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” Annie sings. “Make it new,” said poet Ezra Pound, and although he was speaking of literature, he could just as well have been speaking of Thomas Edison, the Chrysler Building or Elvis Presley.

Take what you’re given and do something new with it. Never accept the past as the final word. billy sunday preaching

Religion

Many peoples are religious, but in America, religion is something else.

From the utopian religious communities of the 19th century to today’s fundamentalism, there is a glint of zealotry in American spirituality. Elmer Gantry would not be thinkable in France.

We have gone through at least four “Great Awakenings,” in which we rediscover the old-time religion and the narrow virtues of belief. rev whitefield

It was, after all, religion that founded this country, whether it is Congregationalists in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics in Maryland. Each of them came here for religious freedom, although they were perfectly willing to oppress any religion not their own.

The separation of church and state in our Constitution is there not because we were an agnostic nation, but because everyone was so nuts on the subject and we wanted to keep from each others’ throats.

You hear the religion in the symphonic music of Charles Ives and in Negro spirituals. It echoes in Moby-Dick, and even the window behind the dour couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. leaves of grass frontispiece

Informality

“I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass,” Whitman writes in a poem of expansive informality, turning his back on the formal expression of European art: No villanelles for Americans, no Rime Royal.

In Europe, you have Oedipus, in America, Stanley Kowalski.stanley kowalski Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in colloquial American English and even put a note about it at the beginning of the book. Take that, Henry James!

“Whatever is not of the street,” wrote novelist Henry Miller, “is false, derived, that is to say, literature.” And he wasn’t using the word as a compliment.

You can see it in the portrait of Whitman at the front of his book, Leaves of Grass: There he is, sleeves rolled back, collar unbuttoned, hips shifted comfortably, hat at a rakish angle. You could never imagine Tennyson like that. manifest destiny gast

Expansiveness

Everything in America is supersized, whether it’s fast food or our landscape.

In America, bigger is better: We drive SUVs and watch blockbuster movies. It’s a Texas mentality. Star Wars isn’t big enough; we need a director’s cut, added scenes, a DVD packed with extras. A movie isn’t a success unless it makes $200 million. And the TVs on which we watch those DVDs continue to grow; soon they’ll cover our living room walls. larry hagman with cash

One Marilyn Monroe isn’t enough; Warhol must print her by the dozens, just as Babe Ruth must eat hot dogs by the score.

The tall tale is our national mythology, from Paul Bunyan to Jim Carrey’s face.

Of course, how could it be otherwise with the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains? Our very landscape calls out for grandiosity and grandiloquence. Over the top is America’s starting line, and the next frontier is our constant goal.

OH, AND AMERICANS LOVE LISTS:

Most-American Americans

John_Wayne - overland stage raidersJohn Wayne: Love him or hate him, we can’t think of him as merely an actor. He has become an icon, the movie roles and the man bound into one, indivisible: the lone, laconic hero, man of action rather than words, graceful and bullying in turns.

4 more:

Louis Armstrong: American as soul.

Eleanor Roosevelt: American as do-gooder.

Babe Ruth: American as appetite.

Thomas Edison: American as inventor.

Most American Movies godfather

The Godfather Saga, Francis Ford Coppola, 1977: The conflated version of the first two Godfather films tells the immigrant experience writ large: family, business, love, loyalty, betrayal and the move west, told with the force and mythology of opera.

4 more:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Star Wars, George Lucas, 1977: Good vs. evil supersized.

Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick, 1939: History whitewashed.

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 1989: Race will not go away.

American Contributions to global culture constitution go

The Constitution: Our “governmental instruction manual” has become a model for the world, and its first 10 amendments have become the guiding principles of many an emerging nation. It’s more than merely political, it’s at the center of our culture, and the one thing the world really does want from us.

4 more:

Jazz: From which all popular music ultimately derives.

Hollywood: America’s secret plan for world domination.

Technology: The physical evidence of the can-do spirit.

Coca-Cola: Las aguas negras del imperialismo.

Most American Novels

huck finn book coverHuckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: The Great American Novel, filled with everything, good and bad, about ourselves: race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social climbing, moneygrubbing and our comfortable informality.

4 more:

On the Road, Jack Kerouac: An essential national theme takes center stage.

Beloved, Toni Morrison: The evils of slavery haunt even the freed.

The Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper: The invention of John Wayne.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Money, glamour, celebrity and loss.

Most American Plays angels in america

Angels in America, Tony Kushner: The hugely ambitious “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” takes on more American themes than anything since Huck Finn: politics, sex, generations, religious revelation, Reaganism, bigotry and forgiveness; so expansive a single night can’t hold it.

4 more:

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller: The underside of the American dream.

Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein: Gushy, American cornpone classic.

Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams: Torn T-shirts and sweaty thighs.

Fences, August Wilson: Black view from Pisgah.

American Classical-music compositions

ives album coverThree Places in New England, Charles Ives: The crusty New England composer reinvents classical music to make it more American: loud, brash, nostalgic and patriotic at turns, and finds its subject in landscape and history.

4 more:

Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin: Jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Chopin and Carnegie Hall.

Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland: Shaker hymn goes mainstream.

Symphony No. 3, Roy Harris: The type of the American symphony.

New World Symphony, Antonin Dvorak: Is the Most American Symphony written by a Czech?

American Architecture

monticello stampMonticello, Thomas Jefferson: Just as equivocal as its owner and designer, this icon from the back of the common nickel is both paean to Europe’s classical past and the American’s love of invention, gimmickry and nature: Palladian windows and a moose head.

4 more:

Chrysler Building: American industrial dynamism with grace.

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland: Architecture as play-pretend.

Fenway Park: So cranky we actually love it.

Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright: Built over a waterfall like a diving board.

American Poems

Whitman at 50Song of Myself, Walt Whitman: The “good gray poet” could not have arisen anywhere else; he is completely American, from his deification of democracy to his catalogs of diversity to his “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

4 more:

Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Closest thing we have to a national epic poem.

Poems, Emily Dickenson: Nothing more American than her quirky New England eccentricity.

Howl, Allen Ginsberg: “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!”

Mending Wall, Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

American Visual arts

American gothicAmerican Gothic, Grant Wood: This iconic painting is more enigmatic than the Mona Lisa: encomium of hardcore American values or satire of Midwestern provincialism? Conservative or avant-garde? He’s not telling.

4 more:

Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley: Art ripped from the headlines, circa 1777.

Marilyn Monroe multiple, Andy Warhol: If one is good, a dozen must be better.

Dogs Playing Poker series, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge: Now, that’s OTT!

Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell: Turkey, potatoes and lots of corn.

American Popular music

shenandoahShenandoah: A folk song of undetermined origin, this is the quintessential song about migration and loss; with its odd strophic form and 19th-century sentiment, it borrows elements from Irish shanties and African-American blues.

4 more:

One O’Clock Jump: Count Basie and swing.

Born to Run: Rebels on wheels, a la the Boss.

Hound Dog: Elvis frees America all over again.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The suffering of a people, caught in the throat.