Monday, April 16, 2007

On Envy

One of the things I've been thinking about lately, almost incessantly, is art. I've been considering the concept of craft, what I do, what others do, why some other artists (specifically other writers) make me want to punch them in the face while others are complete kindred spirits.

Recently I've had two very different experiences with the arts that nicely illustrate the difference between the two groups of fellow creators. About two weeks ago, my friend Shelley drug me to a poetry reading at the Bottleworks. Let me qualify before you rip me apart, I have nothing specifically against poetry. I used to write a little poetry, you know, back when the angst levels were far higher than they are today. And there was something about Europe that made me want to wax poetic like few other experiences ever have. The truth is, I'm just a prose person (ie, I'm wordy). What I had a problem with, what drove me to drink several glasses of wine to salvage the experience was the attitude, the atmosphere. The poets, the crowd even, they took themselves SO incredibly seriously.

The first reader, a wannabe hippie from New York, spent more than an hour, reading in a contrived lilting voice, poems about her linen closet (with a "high aroused door", no I'm not kidding) and railing on the word "small" and its over-use in poetry. The latter inspired a fellow audience member to begin a list of creative synonyms for small. My contribution to the list included "my attention span" and "my enjoyment of this event." Fun times. But right around the time the linen closet door became "aroused," I began looking around to see if anyone else's face mirrored my own are-you-fucking-kidding-me expression. No one's was. People were nodding in deep, meaningful agreement. I ordered another drink.

My most recent brush with the arts couldn't have been more different. This past weekend I attended Venus Envy, a showcase to support women in the arts. The festival offered up everything from music and art installations to dancers and roller derby girls and just about everything in between. What struck me most was the difference in atmosphere. The experience felt communal instead of self-promoting. It felt sincere and raw rather than postured. I left feeling euphoric to be part of that community of artists. I wanted to get involved. I wanted to help spread the word.

More than anything, Venus Envy fueled my need to analyze my distaste for the poetry reading. For me it all came down to pretension. I love the arts: theater, music, dance, words, photography, painting. And all of these activities, I suppose, have the potential to be pretentious. Or to be meaningful, mind-altering moments. Blame my feelings about this to all the years spent in academia. Nothing ruins creative fire faster than a bad writing workshop or open-mike night at the local coffeehouse. It's not the work itself. It's not even always the artist. There's nothing wrong with being passionate about your craft. When I write (something other than blogs that is), I pour everything ounce of skill I have onto that page. I want it to be perfect because it's an extension of myself.

The "myself" is where the problem arises. In some atmospheres, the self-righteousness, if you will, of the artist and the audience takes over the beauty of the art itself. When we take ourselves (and the way others perceive us) more seriously than we take the piece of art, pretension gets in the way. My deep concern over whether you think I look and sound the part of writer in my carefully constructed writerly outfit and tone of voice will come across far louder than my (perhaps equally sincere) desire to honestly share what I've written. That pretension also translates to the audience, who starts to feel like it must enjoy the art in the same high-minded way others are or risk being thought shallow.

I mean, god forbid anyone think I didn't fully appreciate what I saw or heard. It's wonderful to analyze art, to wonder what exactly the artist was trying to convey or to consider the implications of the message. But there's equal often dismissed benefit in enjoying the inherent beauty in the voice, the movement, the words, the canvas and leaving it at that. I don't pretend to be super educated in all the art forms I enjoy. Sometimes I don't have the words to describe why I like a particular piece; I like it just because to me it was beautiful.

At Venus Envy, I felt spontaneously moved by the creativity I saw, but if I wasn't, I didn't get the feeling the artist cared much. It wasn't about me or them. It wasn't about fame or praise. It was about the creation. It was about finding joy in the act of creation. If only more experiences in life were like that one.


  1. When vagina comes together like that... it leaves me in awe as well.

    But seriously... I think I've always enjoyed my craft more when I just let it flow and not think too much about it. When a little of the "this represents me" or "will people like this" gets in all turns to crap.

  2. dang i wish i could've went with you :( the venus thing not the poetry reading. blech. haha