Sunday, October 22, 2006

How Alfred Brendel Changed my Life

When I was younger and abroad for a year of studies in Rome, Italy, the arts--opera, dark churches with Michelangelo's statues lit up with a handful of lira coins, Italian fashion, the Renaissance streets of Florence, the endless hallways of the Louvre in Paris--overwhelmed me.

I worshiped at the feet of the David, succumbed to Verdi's Macbeth, and penned dribble in my journal surrounded by Monet's Water Lilies.

For Christmas, my traveling companion and I had purchased "limited view" tickets to see the Nutcracker in Paris. We stayed up for midnight mass at Notre Dame on Christmas Eve. It was cold, Paris quiet beneath snow, on Christmas morning. We bundled up, groggy and without a cafe in sight open, and headed into the postcard-perfect streets toward the theater.

"Limited view," we found out, translates to entirely-blocked view except for the thrilling bit of tulle gone airborne in the far, far, far left corner of the stage. (Needless to say, I have never been lured into "limited view" tickets again.)

Despite not being able to see the Nutcracker, a highly visual show, my friend and I were ecstatic with joy. We could hear every luscious note. We basked in the joy of the warm theater. (As student travelers in Europe during the winter, cold weather was a constant drag. Yet, of course, blustry winds gave the perfect incentive to stay in cafes or museums, feeding our caffeine and art addictions, respectively).

My year abroad in college was filled with art and conversation. We could pursue our passions with abandon and be rewarded with even more existential questions, a deeper thrill for life with a capital L.

Then life (with a very lower case l) intervened. Years pass. I was still in love with art, still in love with conversation. But life has a way of taking you along, taking you out of yourself. Perhaps this is called adulthood. The escape from constant (sometimes debilitating) self-awareness and longing for meaning with a M.

At any rate, my worship of art and artists remained, unexamined. I play chess like a fourth-grader, because that is when I learned to play. I played intensely and then moved on to other things, like four-square and dodge ball. In much the same way as I am still a fourth-grade chess player, my notion of the arts and artists got frozen in my college era.

Until. No single ah-ha moment to report here. Actually, still in college, I forced myself to read a biography of Rothko because I wanted to "get" modern (i.e. beyond the Renaissance) art. I fell in love with his work, much as I fell in love with just about everything I studied in college. I was an easy girl back then. Give me a book, an idea and I will love it. Period.

Since college I have met modern art fans. I started to go to modern art museums. (Gasp.) I saw a lot of stuff that irked me. I am tired of art that requires me to read the paragraph of drivel (sorry!) that explains it to me, the viewer. I grew tired of video installations that demanded my attention for (long) minutes of time with zero payoff. But.

But, some stuff has blown my mind. Hermann Nitsch, recently, for example. Or made me see the world and its truths more clearly, even when they are uncomfortable truths.

Somewhere along the way, I died my hair deep blue. (It only lasted a few months, but still.)

Then I read the biography of Marcel Duchamp. If you don't know his work, you can not understand modern art--both the Good and shockingly mediocre varieties.

I met some living, working artists. Saw their stuff. Visited studios. I debated with them about "art" and the role of the artists. We drank beer and doodled on napkins.

And finally I got a really whacked idea: write my own novel. And perhaps it is this last endeavor that really changed my relationship with art.

And I suppose I did have one ah-ah moment. It was last weekend in Vienna, over soft-boiled eggs, ruminating on the symphony's performance we had seen the day before. As I worked my way through a monologue about the experience of watching Alfred Brendel work the piano keys for Mozart (no problems with limited view tickets this time!), I put it all together for my patient brunch buddy between bites of yolk smeared on bread, for the first time:

When I was younger and being overwhelmed by art, I thought that superhuman geniuses had created art. (Of course, in some cases, this may be true. I believe in genius.) But now I see that art--painting, sculpture, collage, writing, poetry--is made by humans. Humans in touch with being alive in a fundamental, radical way. And so, I write. I write (create art) and teach because I am compelled by human nature to make art. To consume art. Or at least, the very least, die trying.

(Whew. That was long. I feel better now.)

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