The first time it happened to me I was sitting (while standing) for a portrait by Charlotte Novitz. Charlotte was from Chicago and had gone to the Art Institute, where the faculty were mostly expressionist European refugees, and she danced as she painted – like a boxer dances, nimbly, on the balls of her feet, jabbing at the canvas with her brush as if she were sparring with it, now and then raising her head and staring at me for a moment, eyes blazing, as if I was some dead, inanimate thing she was trying to memorize.
That afternoon I understood something about the creative process that no one was teaching me at Columbia.
If you’ve ever sat in on the rehearsal of a play, you’ve seen it: the director insisting that a scene be repeated over and over again, both trying to manage her material, the actors, the script, the limitations of the stage, and adjusting it, emphasizing this, de-emphasizing that, until the scene is being played the way she imagines it should be. Watching a music rehearsal can be just as compelling.
Writing is the one art form which does not yield anything of interest to an observer at its creation. There is plenty to take in, for example, watching a composer of music sitting at a piano, or at a desk singing or humming to herself and bobbing her head or drumming out rhythms with her fingers, but nothing can be learned from watching a poem being written except, perhaps, a Zen-like stoicism about being bored. At best you might be privileged to perceive, once or twice, a quiet smile of satisfaction accompanied by an almost undetectable suspiration.
Usually, no matter what the art, the act of creation is notable not for how inspired it seems to be, but for how ordinary it seems, considering how extraordinary its goal is. Sharl’s theatrical painting style was an exception. For an expressionist, the process of painting is, itself, a creative act – a performance for oneself, you might say.
A striking example of how a string of perfectly ordinary moments can produce a masterpiece can be found in one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most pretentious and ungainly films. Originally released as One Plus One, the movie evidently still was not pretentious and ungainly enough for le grande auteur, so he released an even longer, more pretentious, more ungainly version, Sympathy for the Devil.
I saw the original, One Plus One, not too long ago, on a VCR. One Plus One has two story lines. One follows a group of Black Panther-like freedom fighters (we would call them terrorists now) armed with automatic weapons, carrying out an abduction in a parking lot. The first impression you get is that they are surprisingly inept freedom fighters; it’s only after you see that their victims are surprisingly inept victims that you realize that you are in the presence of a cinematic style: wooden, emotionless, unengaged direction, possibly based on Derrida’s notion that something can be understood only by knowing what it is not. The second story line is a documentary, done in finest, lively, hand-held cinéma vériteé, of the Rolling Stones in a sound studio putting together the first recording of the song, “Sympathy for the Devil”.
There can be no doubt that this was the real unique event, not a re-enactment. You are watching a group of people, doing and saying ordinary things, creating one of the masterpieces of rock and roll. Unfortunately, it being the Rolling Stones and all, none of these scenes can be found on You Tube or anywhere else. A couple of web essays on the film had video links, but in each case, according to You Tube, the video had been deleted at the request of the RIAA.
All that is available are a couple of film trailers. One is Godard’s.
Abkco (the Stones’ label) made their own trailer. It’s only 40 seconds long, but has a little more of the flavor of the recording studio scenes.
Watching the Stones build “Sympathy for the Devil,” we see ordinary moments inspire extraordinary moments as, bit by bit, the track is laid down. There is another way that the ordinary becomes the extraordinary – not through an accretion of occasional bursts of brilliance, but as a deliberate linear movement, a step-by-step creative intensification – something which may only be possible in an art which has a long and practiced tradition. A seguiriyas sung by Bernarda de Utrera accompanied by Diego de el Gastor.
(I know that seven minutes seems like a long time when you’re on-line with a blog, but take a breath and watch this through. It’ll knock your socks off.)
A post-prandial lagniappe:
While searching You Tube in vain for a video of a saeta sung by one of the greats (there are none; just audio tracks), I came across this.
(Stay with this one to the end, too. If you’ve already put your socks back on, it will knock them off again.)