A long time ago, when I was a young artist-organizer obsessed with questions of artists’ rights and livelihood, I used to give talks to groups of artists. I often began with the archetypal tale of Sleeping Beauty, in which Beauty must slumber hopefully, entirely passive until kissed into life by the prince. That was the conventional expectation of artists: that they would study, practice, dream, and hold themselves in a state of readiness for the moment when they would be recognized by a critic, agent, or some other prince whose attention could grant them a future.
I spoke in aid of self-awakening: forget the prince and just get on with it.
Even then, there were many ways to set out on the self-directed path of art. I’ve written about artists who place their gifts at the service of a community or a cause, about public service jobs for artists and all they can accomplish. The internet has opened up vast new vistas of creative work, from new forms of publishing and distribution to the new crowd-sourced philanthropy that entirely avoids the art market and its gatekeepers. Even some of the educators whose institutions continue to amass tuition revenues by enticing young artists with the fantasy of Madison Avenue, Broadway, or Hollywood have begun to doubt the sustainability of graduating thousands who serve out their apprenticeships (many of which never end) by tending bar and waiting on tables, and have begun to offer preparation for alternate routes to artistic livelihood.
And then there is the path of self-actualization, which the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado describe perfectly: “Traveler, there is no road. We make the road by walking.”
The profoundly wonderful jazz singer/songwriter Abbey Lincoln is dead at 80, and the world has lost a great artist who walked that path.
That phrase—”great artist”—gets bandied about. Read on for my responses to a recent TV series that makes use of it. But first, I will stipulate what it means to me. A great artist is one who has achieved alignment with his or her expressive powers, such that the experience of that person’s art cracks the shell hiding our essence from the world, and our minds, senses, and spirits are flooded with beauty or meaning, usually both.
Abbey Lincoln was also a great artist because her art was a way of being as well as doing: her life-experience nourished and sustained a creative light that burned fiercely until the end of her days. Along the way, she was drawn toward a lodestone of integrity, choosing creative depth and freedom over enticements and distractions that would have diverted her from her true path.
I love so many of her interpretations of other’s songs—”You Must Believe in Spring and Love,” “Nature Boy,” “Come Sunday”…. But today deserves “Down Here Below,” one of her own deeply spiritual compositions:
Down here below,
It’s not so easy,
Just to be.
When I heard about Abbey Lincoln’s passing, I had just finished watching my first-ever reality show, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” Fourteen visual artists were chosen to compete for a large cash prize and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. Sarah Jessica Parker is a coproducer, showing her face at the vernissage preceding the final judgment section of every episode, and art-world glitter is generously strewn about.
I tuned in initially because I had some slight acquaintance with a couple of the competitors—no more than appearing at the same artists’ meeting or having a shared friend, but enough to pique my curiosity. I kept watching out of appalled fascination with the art world the series depicted, albeit far more powerfully through what was not said than through what was made explicit.
The series confirms that the Sleeping Beauty story has continued to unfold. It is no longer the dominant archetype of the artist, perhaps, but holds a powerful attraction for many young artists, rather as the path to basketball stardom continues to beckon like a yellow brick road to so many young men who choose to ignore the odds against attaining their destination. This TV series should have been entitled “Fourteen Sleeping Beauties: Whose Prince Will Come?”
In each segment, the artists are given some type of challenge—to team up and create a public art installation, to use children’s art materials to create a work evoking their own earliest involvement in art-making, to make a piece incorporating elements of nature gleaned from a park, and so on.
A ticking clock and other devices add to the tension. Competitors are eliminated in each episode. There are private-seeming talking head segments in which individual competitors recount their own hopes and anxieties, and also air their complaints about each other. There are glimpses of the contestants in their arty shared housing in New York City. Every conflict, no matter how minuscule, is magnified for full video value.
The part I couldn’t resist was the last few minutes of each episode, the judging. A visiting artist joined the judges most weeks, but the permanent team included Jeanne Greenberg Rohaytn and China Chow, who appeared in every episode in full evening regalia, the advanced couture for which they are best-known and most-photographed. It made an interesting statement. These high-gloss women, both of whom seemed to relish the power to pronounce and dismiss the way a gourmand rolls a particularly delicious morsel around on the tongue, were always decked out in something in which it would have been impossible to sit.
Even before they opened their mouths, they made a sharp statement, the flesh-and-blood equivalent of neon signs proclaiming “Even A Cat Can Look at A Queen.” They were the human signifiers of the art world’s association with privilege, of the unquestioned entitlement of gatekeepers. The only thing in the entire ten hours of broadcast that questioned that balance of power was the unhappiness of some of the contestants who were eliminated, and that could be easily dismissed.
The glamorous female judges were joined by art critic Jerry Saltz, gallery owner and art writer Bill Powers, and—although he did not take part in pronouncing judgment, he offered much advice and criticism foreshadowing verdicts along the way—art auction-house star Simon de Pury.
A set-piece in each episode was a conversation among the judges, critiquing the works in competition as preparation for the decrees they would deliver, telling one artist, “Your work of art didn’t work for us,” and offering a carefully calibrated balance of chastisement and praise to the others. The banality of these conversations was fascinating. Novelty was assumed to be art’s chief virtue, and most of the judges’ comments could have been replaced by “I like it” or “I don’t like it” without loss of meaning. I kept wondering if they would later be embarrassed to hear themselves, but it seems the romance of their own casting insulated them from self-consciousness: the art world, c’est moi.
At the outset, the artists ranged in age from their early 60s (Judith Braun, a New York-based feminist artist) to 22 year-old Abdi Farah, the winner of the competition. Every contestant had ability and drive, but not every one displayed a winning attitude. The older artists were eliminated early: although it was never expressed outright, it was instantly clear that a non-negotiable requirement for staying in the game was an attitude of stunned deference toward the judges. The strongest shared characteristic of the three finalists was a tendency to drop their chins and gaze with big, wet eyes while inhaling every syllable the judges uttered, exhibiting canine gratitude even for the most vacuous comments about their work.
Reality shows succeed by getting you caught up in the contest, engaging your hope that the right prince bestows the right kiss on the right hopeful lips. The young artists who remained in competition the longest were extremely sweet and earnest, each in different ways. Like other viewers, I wanted someone to win. Their desire was intense, expressed repeatedly in the grateful embrace of all criticism, their tearful self-punishing expressions as they took it into themselves and pushed themselves to be better next time. The contestants who had the best chance of winning were skilled artists, to be sure, but their chances were immeasurably enhanced by a shared will to submit that permeated every moment on camera.
It took me back to my old rap about Sleeping Beauty. I thought of myself as an organizer in those days. My passionate interest was in self-determination in all forms. The most exciting thing for me was to stand before a group of people, speaking the words that could ignite change. In any roomful of artists, there would be dozens who responded to my portrayal of the passivity they were expected to adopt, their stereotyping as overgrown children who play instead of work, the prospect of choosing their own liberation from a powerlessness that had been accepted as much as imposed. But there would also be one or two who rose to defend the princes, expressing hope and faith that the art-world system always allowed those with special merit to rise. They would often be angry with me for expressing a contrary view. Their eyes would search the room for the critics, gallery owners, and agents certain to be present, hoping to be rewarded for their faithfulness.
They wanted to be chosen, but the life and work of a great artist like Abbey Lincoln express the will to choose for oneself. This is from Abbey Lincoln’s song, “Throw It Away,” a simple sentiment, perhaps, but fitting:
Throw it away
Throw it away
Give your love, live our life
Each and every day
And keep your hand wide open
Let the sun shine through
‘Cause you can never lose a thing
If it belongs to you