Tuesday, August 14, 2007

E=MC D’Avignon?

Marian Anderson performing "Casta Diva"

I’ve been listening to a lot of opera lately. It started out with a few re-listens to Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and since then has blossomed into an all out *iTunes hunt for the best recordings. It has been exhilarating and rewarding; and in my arrogance I imagine that I’m resurrecting these works for a younger ear.

It has also kept me thinking about Jame’s Green’s recent post over at JaxCAL, as well as his recent post on his own site, both of which deal with the role of the artist in society, as well as the intellectual (or lack thereof) ramifications of making art.

Ostensibly, opera is an outmoded art form, one where vocal acrobatics result in a series of unintelligible shrieks and growls aurally accessible to a comparatively elitist few. Yet it persists. Why? One might argue because of because of Western traditions that delight in the rarified atmosphere of the opera, or simply because it is beautiful.

Beauty as it’s own reward isn’t an original idea, but one that has gained recent purchase (with this writer anyway) as a result of the Charles Landry lecture I attended several months ago. Landry is often called upon by cities to help them re-imagine themselves. To capitalize on those assets that they have in an effort to make the city a more habitable place—often beauty plays a large role in his reconfigurations (for a more complete discussion of his ideas, check out my article in the September issue of Arbus). Of course for artists, the lure of aesthetization is one that must be balanced against the intent of the work.

Sharla Valeski’s recent post about artists as tastemakers also struck a chord, recalling “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a play written in 1993 by Steve Martin. The premise of the play is simple, but with a sort of resounding elegance that enjoys an endlessly faceted imagining within the mind’s eye.

It features Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, who meet at a bar called the Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit) in Montmartre Paris. Set on October 8, 1904 when both men are on the verge of a transformational idea (Einstein will publish his special theory of relativity in 1905 and Picasso will paint “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907) they find themselves at the Lapin Agile, where a lengthy debate about the value of genius and talent ensues--while interacting with a host of other characters (who represent various things i.e. commercialism, savant-ism etc…).

It’s a piece that hints at Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious--when ideas are salient and ripe, they are shared by prescient few. It also addresses the idea of artist as tastemaker (scientist as ideamaker), while obliquely suggesting that the theory of relativity and “Les Demoiselles,” address the same thing: relative realities, and multiple points of view from the same perspective (this idea is more fully explored in a collection of short stories by Alan Lightman, entitled “Enstein’s Dreams”).

The prevailing idea though, is that the entire 20th century was shaped by these two geniuses who looked not to the fashionable ideas of the times, but to their own sense of curiosity and revolution. That is what makes art and ideas great, what helps them to transcend their own times and create a lasting dialogue, because in the long run, ideas seem to trump aesthetics.

*iTunes’ inherent insidiousness notwithstanding, there are few things more satisfying than finding an incredible piece of music and being able to listen to it in, say, 30 seconds at 3:00 a.m. Hoo-ray for immediate gratification.


James Green: http://jaxcal.blogspot.com/2007/08/back-to-school-for-jaxcal.html and


Sharla Valeski: http://jaxcal.blogspot.com


Byron said...

I love your writing. tears in my eyes. you really have such a great grasp of the alphabet.

please keep writing.



Anonymous said...

I love Einstein's Dreams. And opera. I would have loved to listen to Picasso and Einstein chat about ANYTHING, much less their amazing ideas and theories.

I love how you tied so many different books, musics, pieces of art, and theories into this -- great work!!
steph d

madeleine said...

Thank you. I was afraid I might come off a bit show-offy...when I reality I'm a book dork with too much time alone on her hands.

steve williams said...


you are brilliant!
looking forward to seeing you sometime.
you are no dork......
(enjoying your blog)