October 6, 2008

Letters to a Young Artist

These essays pose as a series of letters of advice from the accomplished actress/playwright to an imagined high school student who has “won” Ms. Smith as a mentor in a charity auction. “This is new for me,” she explains in the introduction, “ I’ve never been auctioned before. (My ancestors were.)”

It is interesting to see how this one-sided correspondence sketches the character of the invisible and silent recipient. Smith — who has crafted a series of highly-regarded one-woman shows in which she portrays a series of people she has interviewed while only their own words — perversely chooses a rather dull and dense young person as her notional correspondent. This lets spares her any inconvenient detours, but it also reduces the book to a series of sermons couched in a falsely informal voice.

Because the “young artist” is very young indeed, Smith indulges in generalities about topics that are not, I think, best considered generally. It’s interesting to talk about whether artists really must suffer for their art, I suppose, but the real question is always concrete. Will you sleep with someone for your art, if that’s what it takes? Will you abandon your beloved for your art, if your art demands it? What will you compromise? Suffering is abstract, and easy; staying or leaving is hard.

The underlying premise is that painters, actors, writers, and dancers all share something that biologists, doctors, and bankers do not. I understand why some people want to believe this, I understand why Smith sees evidence of this in her audiences, but I think the premise is wrong. Plenty of biologists and doctors are artists — literally, not metaphorically — and plenty of artists can be found on any given Sunday in a relaxed, inattentive, and banker-like mood. Smith sees the biologists in her audience, sitting complacently behind the actors and writers,. But in the theater, the biologists are not at work. The actors and writers are. Smith doesn’t see the difference.

Is there, today, much advice that applies equally to an aspiring painter, an actress-playwright, a mezzo-soprano, and a dancer? Conflating all these pursuits as “art” obscures a host of distinctions. Even in youth, the dancer’s candle is burning fast; the painter and the playwright have plenty of time, though never enough. Time’s winged fucking chariot is hardly mentioned, but what subject is more apt for advice to the young artist? Nor is there much space here to address the realization that, sooner or later, comes to so many young artists: we have limits, and the art we want to make sometimes lies beyond what our bodies or the laws of nature permit. Smith talks intelligently about The Man, about learning to deal with an appease the powers that be, and this is all very well. But sometimes the limits are not the man: you grew up and you’re 5'2, or you tore your Achilles tendon, or you caught leukemia, or you’d be the finest mind of most generation but this year there’s this kid from New York. Henry Adams calls stoicism “a stupid resource, though the only one”; I'd have like to have heard how Smith might have fortified her high-school artist against that day.