Sunday, June 17, 2007

`Beware of Culture, Reader'

My father maintained that Father’s Day, like its maternal counterpart, was a conspiracy organized by a cabal of greeting card and chocolate magnates, and like rubes on the midway we predictably fell each June for their sentimental pitch (guilt masquerading as filial piety). Of course, my father also thought the move to adopt the metric system in the United States was a Bolshevik subterfuge. As a son, and as the father of three sons, a la Fred MacMurray, my understanding of Father’s Day is a little more complicated: I detest the familial schmaltz but like the payola.

This year my oldest son, soon to turn 20, obliged admirably, shipping me a Howlin’ Wolf twofer, The Real Folk Blues and More Real Folk Blues on a single disc. Of all voices, Wolf’s is the one I most covet, and his rendering of Chicago blues is the only music I wish played at my funeral. His sound is honest, lusty, celebratory, sometimes scary, a force of nature, the sound of a man happy with his work and happy to be sharing it with us. Take the Willy Dixon gem “Built for Comfort,” recorded on the Chess label Aug. 14, 1963, with J.T. Brown on tenor, Donald Hankins on baritone, the enviably named Lafayette Leake on piano, the incomparable Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Buddy Guy on bass, and Sam Lay on drums. And consider Dixon’s lyrics, written with the outsized Wolf in mind:

“Some folks are built like this,
Some folks are built like that,
But the way I’m built, don’t call me fat.
‘Cause I’m built for comfort, I ain’t for speed,
But I got everything that a good girl need.”

Take that, Ezra Pound. The words, like the performance by Wolf and the other musicians, give us another reason to go on living. There’s no pretension, no straining after profundity, no “statement.” A bluesman of sorts from Ireland lends credence to my love of Wolf and kindred artistic spirits. That would be Myles na gCopaleen, author of the “Cruiskeen Lawn” column in the Irish Times for 25 years. In 2003, the Dalkey Archive Press (a name borrowed from the final novel by Flann O’Brien, one of Myles’ alternate identities), published At War, a selection of columns written between 1940 and 1945. This comes from one published March 21, 1944:

“One should remember that the great artistic feats accomplished in medieval times were carried out by people who conceived themselves to be decent workmen, people who simply did not know how to do a bad job. On Sundays they put on their best clothes and went to Church. Nowadays your `artist’ is a neurotic imbecile; he has the cheek to discern in his own dementia the pattern of a universal chaos and it is no coincidence that most of his books are dirty and have to be banned. Beware of `culture,’ reader; of `art’ and `artists’ be careful and apprehensive. Such things were very fine when they came out first, they were part of the commonplace shape of life and nobody could possibly take exception to them. But when isolated in our own day to become merely a self-conscious social cult, and excuse for all sorts of bad behaviour, a pretext for preciosity and worse – know then that words like `culture’ and `art’ do not mean what they meant.”

Wolf, certainly, was a decent workman unprepared to do a lousy job, though I’m uncertain as to his church attendance. I’m also uncertain whether Wolf could define or even spell “culture,” but I’d put him up against Philip Glass, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Cecil Taylor any day. Wolf was an artist blessedly unburdened with the knowledge that he was an artist. Here’s more of Myles writing about Howlin’ Wolf, about whom I’m certain he never heard:

“It cannot be too strongly stressed that a true aesthetic perception is part of the essential equipment of mankind and when one nowadays meets an oddly-shirted gossoon who blathers self-consciously about `art,’ one sees at once that he is a deficient type, one who has receded from the primitive norm. The instinct for propriety and beauty is highly developed even in animals. Hens, for example, are skilled in the plastic arts and can produce works of art that are not only impeccable in design and delicately coloured, but edible. The bee produces – albeit by a process that seems unnecessarily complex – an exquisite yellow and nourishing mess, faultlessly packed and ready for market. I do not find, however, that either the hen or the bee, by reason of mere mastery of a particular art-form, claims to be entitled to clarify the contemporary situation. The truth is, of course, that no such clarification is possible, nor is the word `contemporary’ of any significance. The essentials of life do not – indeed cannot – vary from one century to another, for life itself means reproduction and repetition; to hold otherwise is to confuse life itself with the temporary vessels which contain it very temporarily.”


elberry said...

Excellent and true. The Wolf is one of my favourites too - i often dance dementedly about to '300 Pounds' - a sight to behold indeed.

Anonymous said...

Good post-but I disagree.
There have been many great self-styled "artists", as well as many mediocre ones. Likewise for "craftsmen". Great artists transcend either catagory. Also, art would be nothing without pretension.