Moonwalk

     The premature death of Michael Jackson – a man as odd and apparently as unhappy as he was talented – raises an old question: Are great artists condemned forever to be odd, self-tortured and unhappy?
     Or in the alternative: Are normal, well-adjusted and happy people excluded, as a rule, from the possibility of becoming great artists?
     The answer to both questions is yes, and the reasons are obvious.
     (We are not concerned here with whether Michael Jackson was a great artist. He was a world-class entertainer and an enormously talented man. He was odd and unhappy. That’s sufficient for now. Let us turn to the more interesting questions, and to their obvious answers.)
     First off, if a man is content, well-adjusted and in synch with the norms of his society, why would he be driven to the long and intense work necessary to create great art?
     And if a woman is wholly in tune with the way her contemporaries think, with the way they view the world, why would the art she produces be of any interest?
     Such a man would be a dabbler, and such a woman would write, if she wrote at all, for television or for Cosmo.
     It goes without saying that this was not always the case.
     From the cave painters at Lascaux through the artists of the Renaissance and J.S. Bach, humanity’s great artists’ visions of the cosmos did express the highest insights and yearnings of their societies. The universe was full of mysteries; the mysteries were attributed to God; great art expressed a yearning for God, and praise of his creations – or praise of the patron who paid for the art.
     Then artists became specialists. The musicologist H.R. Robbins-Landon wrote that Franz Josef Haydn’s London symphonies of 1791 were probably the last moment in Western civilization at which the most advanced music of the day responded perfectly to the taste of its audience.
     Mozart, dying or dead, was already out of fashion in Vienna. In the next generation, by the time that Beethoven was creating the music that today we consider the pinnacle of the art, his music often was considered difficult and ugly, and Beethoven himself as insane.
     Look at today’s most “advanced” visual arts, poetry, and even architecture. They all scream, “Me, me, me!” But what, if anything, do they express about the common yearnings of mankind?
     If you pay any attention at all to Washington and New York, you must be aware that today’s “leaders” insist we do not have common yearnings, that we are a society at war with itself, not to mention with the rest of the world.
     The unity of the pre-Haydn West was wrought in great part by ignorance and tyranny, but it was a sort of unity of thought and spirit which is unlikely to ever come again. There is no reason to expect that art of any kind – or anything else – will be able to recapture a unity that no longer exists.
     Humans need art – all of us except the most profoundly disabled create art at some time in our life – but it’s difficult to make the case that we need great art.
     “Art demands of us that we not stand still,” Beethoven wrote, and because a great artist must constantly invent new things, there is no reason to expect that there will be a demand for them. In fact, there is not. The world cannot demand what it never has seen, or heard, or thought.
     It is no disrespect to writers such as Stephen King, Nora Roberts or John Grisham, or to any rock band, to say that we know their next creation will be similar to the ones before it. That’s what their fans want; that’s what they expect, and none of us has the right to demand that a creator ply his trade by taking the bread out of his own mouth.
     But a great artist does not do one thing over and over for his entire life. Not even Haydn did that.
     Anyone who constantly tests the bounds of his trade, or art – or even of his business – is bound to upset people, to alienate some, and if he stubbornly refuses to repeat himself, he is bound eventually to inhabit a land where few people, if any, will accompany him.
     (Beethoven presents a vision of such a “moonwalk” – the strange beauty of an ultimate alienation – in the Andante from his String Quartet Opus 59, No. 3.)
     A creative artist is bound to end up at odds with his society, and the only reason he will drive himself to that point is that he is frustrated and unhappy with what he already has created.
     Only a few years after he had written his first big “hit” – the Septet – Beethoven said he could not bear to hear it anymore, that hearing it made him almost physically ill, and Beethoven is not the only artist who expressed such feelings about his own work.
     Great artists are unusual by definition. The best analysis I have seen of this entire phenomenon is Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1993 book, “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” In noting the extraordinary occurrence of depression and near-manic periods endured by great artists – the unbearable confrontations with death-in-life and the godlike exaltation of creation – Jamison concluded that the necessity to reconcile these extremes – a savage roller-coaster to which an artist’s brain is unwillingly subjected – may be a significant, though not sufficient, spur toward creation of great art.
     Who knows?
     What’s certain is that great achievement in art – any art – is no guarantee of personal happiness. And it may be the case – it probably is the case – that a well-adjusted, satisfied happiness, a contentment with one’s life – a state of being to which all of us are entitled to aspire – may make creation of great art impossible.

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