Well, yes and no. Some art is best when it’s made to look as though it just happens. A lot of hard work goes into spontaneity and naturalness, highly prized post-Romantic qualities, while genuine spontaneity results in nothing but a lot of hard work for the reader, viewer or listener. Remember the surrealist vogue for “automatic writing?” Or Kerouac’s call for “spontaneous bop prosody?” Or John Cage’s ravings? Unreadable, all of them.
The artist speaking at the top is Fred Astaire, early in his autobiography Steps in Time (1959), a perfectly readable if not terribly revealing “celebrity memoir” – the name of a vast category I noticed recently in a bookstore. Distilled to a pithy apercu, the theme of Astaire’s memoir is: dancing [insert: writing, painting, et. al.] is a lot of work and sometimes you get it right. Here he dances to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” with Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940, and watching it again I realize how witty Astaire could be. There’s great classicism but no earnestness – Mozart, not Wagner. The abrupt tempo changes, the athleticism and the appearance of two artists having fun challenging each other like kids on the street corner are captivating, even to a viewer who can’t dance well enough to stomp a cockroach. In his dancing persona, Astaire never broods. We enjoy his enjoyment.
In Fred Astaire (Yale University Press, 2008), Joseph Epstein meditates on style, which, as he says, “always outlasts fashion.” It is “a way of viewing the world that at the same time exhibits a strong indication of what one thinks about the world.” As to identifying Astaire’s style, Epstein understandably has trouble. Astaire possessed “an astonishing feeling for rhythm.” He was “aiming for pure elegance” and gave his audience “pure joy.” He could “make people feel happy.” Astaire had “superior taste and sublime style.” So, to return to Epstein’s earlier point about style, what was Astaire’s “way of viewing the world” and what did he think of it? Here’s a partial answer, from the final page of Steps in Time, where Astaire writes:
“When you come to the evolution of the dance, its history and philosophy, I know as much about that as I do about how a television tube produces a picture—which is absolutely nothing. I don’t know how it all started and I don’t want to know, I have no desire to prove anything by it. I have never used it as an outlet or as a means of expressing myself.
“I just dance.”
Fred Astaire, né Frederick Austerlitz, was born on this date, May 10, in 1899, in Omaha, Neb., and died June 22, 1987, at the age of eighty-eight. Here is Astaire singing Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" on The Astaire Story, the great 1952 album he recorded with Oscar Peterson, Charlie Shavers, Flip Phillips, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and Alvin Stoller. Epstein says the recordings have "the feeling of something tossed off, but only as true artists can toss something off, which is to say, after years of work."