It’s chicken scratch, but it’s my chicken scratch!
It’s chicken scratch, but it’s my chicken scratch!
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what makes a work of art “good,” what makes one piece, or one performance better than another. And in general, it’s hard to generalize. But— maybe it’s not impossible. Because while it’s difficult to say what exactly makes one drawing better than another, it must be acknowledged that some drawings are, in fact, better than others. So that’s where we start.
What does the work of Rembrandt have in common with folk art paintings, and the drawings of young children?
And does “bad art” have a thru-thread, or are all unhappy drawings unhappy in their own way?
I vividly remember a Rembrandt exhibit at the Clark Museum from a few years ago, in which the master’s originals were displayed alongside what the curators had deemed exemplary works of forgery.
What was remarkable to me was how easy it was to spot the fakes. From a distance, they all looked more or less the same, the copies seeming to be of the same quality as the originals. But up close, the difference was clear. Because although both the forgeries and Rembrandt’s original drawings were all made of countless tiny marks, delicate cross hatching and detail… that was where the similarities ended. The mark making in the forged drawings was missing an essential element: speed. Their lines were all even, the work of deliberate and steady hands, while the master’s marks are slightly irregular, sometimes connecting to each other with wisps of ink where he hadn’t lifted his pen all the way off the paper, fervent cursive to the block script of the forgeries. In other words, the copies had been made carefully, while the originals had been made with an entirely different kind of attention.
Making a drawing, Rembrandt would have been intent on his subject, taking in the forms, the light and dark, the gesture, and all the other information in the scene that colored his perception. His main challenges would have been sustained observation, and to have his hand in synch with his eyes. The forgers, on the other hand, would have had all of the same challenges as the master before them, with an additional, specific burden: a knowledge of what they wanted their drawing to look like; they worked cautiously because they didn’t want to screw it up. The same phenomenon occurs when people try to copy photographs. It almost never turns out well.
It’s impossible for an artist to make a good drawing, or a good anything, if they’re aware not only of what they want, but of what they don’t want. It’s the difference between going to an open mic and watching a nervous performer, who’s all too aware of how they don’t want to sound, and listening to Nina Simone, or David Bowie, or any true performer.
There will always be a push and pull, whether you’re making a drawing or playing a song, between sincerity and style, between the artist’s experience and their performance of that experience. And for true works of art, on stage or on paper, self-doubt doesn’t figure into the equation.
But one need not be a Rembrandt to make a great drawing, or Nina Simone, to give a compelling performance. My prescription for those who wish to make art, wherever your skills lie, in whatever medium, is this: Work on your craft in as much as it gives you confidence and strength in your vision. And then— don’t think about it!
Note: There happens to be a show up at the Getty Museum right now called Drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils: Telling the difference. They also have an interactive feature on their website, where you can try your hand at spotting an original: http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/rembrandt_drawings/
Self Portrait, Frowning, 1630
Phoebe Helander is a visual artist/ cartoonist/ teacher at the Florence School of the Arts in Florence, MA. Her work can be found here: www.phoebeberkel.com
Reading the article on Gregory Crewdson made me feel very old
because I remember when photographers were out and about with cameras
like Cartier Bresson talking about the pulse being closer to the surface in some places
like in India at partition, or Robert Frank getting into his old Ford crisscrossing America to take the pulse of this nation.
Now a photographer like Crewdson (I hope he won’t be offended being called a photographer) needs only a crew of 40, a bankroll, a setting and an idea.
Maybe something borrowed from Maxfield Parrish.
In the future Crewdson could dispense with everything, including his movie making ambitions, and present his idea through some medium, something big like mesmerism.
How he and Mr. Gagosian could make money out of this ether might be a problem, but maybe they’ve already solved that.
This week: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Song for the Asking” written by Paul Simon
It took a lot of shedding to even begin to approach the effortlessness with which Simon performs this intricate song, which concludes their final studio album “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. Here’s my cover: https://soundcloud.com/karls-weekly-cover/song-for-the-asking
This song is particularly special in how its vulnerability plays on its romantic conviction.
Lyrically, “Song for the Asking” is basically a love letter to the listener. With the lyric “ask me and I will play / so sweetly I’ll / make you smile,” the singer is less boasting than making a humble request for a simple exchange: the asking—the playing—the smile. Is this not the essence of every performer’s wish?
All of this lyricism is deeply entwined with the music. As with nearly every great (pop) song, the form and the music play on the lyrics in some special way, and vice versa. This song does it in spades. (As it is about Song itself, it’s only fitting.)
After a brief introduction, we hear for the first time this borderline-flashy guitar-lick. This motif both bookends the tune and provides a breath between each section, and in a way, it is as funny as it is lovely. It serves not only to grab our attention, but to immediately validate the song and its performer. But on a deeper level, its crooked-ness, and its reappearance throughout the song betrays the singer’s vulnerability. It’s this tension between uniquely elegant and nearly clumsy that makes this song so compellingly human.
Then, the singing. It’s a melody both soothing and dramatic: those elongated phrases—full of such well-timed extension and contraction, accompanied by sweeping, ascending bass lines and intertwining strings—evoke all of the longing, the sweetness, and the interior complexity of the lyrics.
By the time we reach the bridge, a lyrical reflectiveness develops (“thinking it over”…), paired with those tenderly sinking diminished chords, melting into that strong motion back to and then quickly away from the root chord, and down to a dominant VI chord, which seems to deliver this glimmer of hopeful stardust, as if we might be led somewhere brand new. And then, just as quickly, with another near-clumsy, overlapping maneuver on the final “for the asking”, we realize that we’ve been suddenly dropped into the final verse. It feels like that moment of self-interruption in a conversation, when the inward-looking speaker becomes self-conscious and abruptly transitions into some outward assertion.
But much as he might like to, the singer can’t turn away. So, the song’s core confession and promise pours out: “ask me and I will play / all the love that I / hold inside.”
And why not finish with humming? The love letter is sealed in its envelope. All that’s left to do is send it home.
Each week, Karl’s Weekly Cover features one treasured tune in the form of a cover performed by him, accompanied by some thoughts on the song. The central goal is not to reinvent, but to embody the song in its definitive form within the limitations of a live, solo performance.
Karl’s Weekly Cover is a creation of Karl Helander, a musician/music appreciator, who, in addition to teaching at the Florence School of the Arts and the Academy of Charlemont, plays drums for the band The Sun Parade (www.thesunparade.com), and plays and writes for the band Pale Cowboy (www.palecowboy.com).
Special thanks to Andy Cass for helping with the audio rendering, and in general for just being a great guy.
Lately, I’ve been listening to Sarah Vaughan’s 1950 recording of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and each time I look forward to the phrase beginning at the 1:35 mark, “I’m as busy as a spider spinning daydreams…” As the third repetition of the formal A-section, the melody forgoes its regular opening figure in favor of the “spinning” upper and lower chromatic neighbors that are heard instead — a wonderful little bit of text painting. Those familiar might even find it humorous: during his long and successful initial partnership with the lyricist Lorenz Hart, the composer Rodgers demonstrated an uncanny ability for melodically transfiguring the most clever lyric, and even when confronted with the more-than-occasional vacuous lyrical sentiment from his second partner Hammerstein, he still manages to do so. Right? Well, upon listening to several offerings of the same title from other vocalists last night (Vaughan’s was the only one with which I was familiar up until this point), I quickly realized that the melodic phrase in question belonged to Ms. Vaughan, and not the composer! (I’ve included for comparison the song as first introduced by Jeanne Crain in the musical film State Fair – chorus begins at 2:05) Herein lies the essence of jazz – an improviser’s art – that a melody belonging to a craftsman and master such as Richard Rodgers might be not only extemporized upon, but altered, and is elevated when in the hands of another melodic master such as Sarah Vaughan.
And – quickly – I can’t not mention the coda! The minor turn of phrase, “…It’s not spring today…” accompanied with equal pathos in the harmony (IVmaj7 – bVII7, the latter containing both the lowered 6th and 7th scale degrees [or solfege Le and Te] “borrowed” from the parallel natural minor mode*). Sighs.
– Steven Carey, music educator (1/8/16)
*Music theory nerds, see also: “There Will Never Be Another You,” measure 9.
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