artistic unknowns by Chris Matarazzo

The authenticity myth: Art without boundaries

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I don’t know why I get so annoyed by clichés. Maybe it is my fiction-writing background. Maybe I’m just an early-onset curmudgeon. But one time, at a party, someone referenced the idea that you can’t play the blues well unless you lived the blues — whatever the hell that means.  Does he mean you need to be short of cash for the rent? A heavy drinker? Does he mean you have to be from a certain town? Do you have to be African-American? If that is what he means, I think he is simply buying-in to a tired cliché. Worse, he may be treading on prejudiced racial ground, just when he thinks he is being complimentary.

I do, however, think there is something to “living” a style — not in terms of your hometown demographics or of your skin color or even in terms of your life-experiences, but in terms of your artistic environment. My friend’s concept is an over-simplified version of what it means to “live” an art form — a version that comes from a lack of understanding fed by inundation by common popular thought.

I think that any art can be learned and even perfected, by anyone.

A milk-white kid from suburban Canada can play the blues well if he has talent and if he commits to it, musically. He canbe successful in the medium. It is important to remember, though, that there is no guarantee. (If you watch “American Idol” or “So You Think You Can Dance,” it would seem the losers believe otherwise: “It’s not fair,” they say, sobbing. “I worked so hard . . .” It’s fair, poopsie. It’s fair. That’s the way things work. Take it from me.)

Likewise, a rich kid from a nice town in England can write effectively about the suffering in an impoverished village in South America. When Hemingway said we should write what we know, I don’t think he meant we should write only about things of which we are a part (he says, from pronoun hell). With research and a perceptive heart, a good writer can write an authentic account of the life of a starving South American villager. I’ll take an outsider’s perceptive look at the human animal, in an unfamiliar non-native ethnic setting, over a thousand subtle details about the preparation of an ethnic dish any day. The dish is important for atmosphere, but the soreness in the arthritic knuckles of the woman who mixes it up is more important, by far.

A painter can create horrific paintings that capture the perils of abuse, even if that painter has not been abused. Empathy and artistic instinct can go a long way. In fact, listen to Eddie Vedder’s song “Animal.” (Hard rock alert!) This is a song about an abused woman in horrific circumstances. Vedder’s lyric and performance capture pain and misery that is, in my opinion, completely authentic. (It’s one of the most staggeringly effective vocal performances I’ve ever heard.) He didn’t need to be an abused woman; he needed empathy, anger, perception, theatricality and craft to extrapolate the pain of a fellow human.

The blues don’t come from a socio-economic class or from having lived in a certain neighborhood or from your ethnic background — not exclusively, though these things can help. In other words, it is not the situation that causes the music; it is the music in the situation that causes the music. Playing good blues comes out of immersion in the sounds, not from immersion in poorness and sadness. (In fact, I would argue that the blues is really a happy style. Some of the best humor in artistic history lives in blues lyrics, i.e.: “I’ve been down so long, bein’ down don’t bother me.”) Music that was born in the South can be found in the North — even the north of England.

(That said, music is a huge part of ethnic culture, and vice-versa. Ethnic culture is important in all music —  it is just that it’s not exclusive. You don’t get blocked out of, say, rockabilly the way people get kept out of country clubs.)

Isn’t the authenticity argument a little dangerous, too? Can a poor black kid from the South become a great orchestral composer — or a ballet dancer — if he or she hasn’t lived in the typically affluent world of the classical artist? I say this kid has as much of a chance, with talent, commitment and sincerity as any kid in the world.

I want to be perfectly clear here: I’m not saying that a poor kid doesn’t have impediments as a result of that poverty. I am arguing human potential here, not socio-economic theory.

The big problem with all of this is superficiality: the belief that, say, suffering leads to the blues or to disturbing pictorial art and that no one who is happy and comfortable can create such work. The danger is that this idea can cause people to believe that the world of more “sophisticated” art is a closed door to those less fortunate — or, even those of a particular skin color. That’s wrong. I would hate to see that happen just because people are too lazy to think on their own. 

Well, I’m Italian. Maybe I should just shut up, stop trying to reason things out (because everyone knows Italians are overly-emotional) and have some wine whilst singing Puccini arias. It is, after all, where I come from. Next thing you know, I’ll be claiming to be a decent rock and roll drummer.

How can an Italian kid from the suburbs of New Jersey, who got along with his parents, who has never done drugs, and who had no working-class factory-line future to run away from, play rock well?

I’ll tell you what. Come out to a club to see me play some night. I’ll do some renovations on your eardrums. That’s how.

Chris Matarazzo’s ARTISTIC UNKNOWNS appears every Tuesday.

Chris Matarazzo is a writer, composer, musician and teacher of literature and writing on the college and high school levels. His music can be heard on his recent release, Hats and Rabbits, which is currently available. Chris is also the composer of the score to the off-beat independent film Surrender Dorothy and he performs in the Philadelphia area with the King Richard Band. He's also a relatively prolific novelist, even if no one seems to care yet. His blog, also called Hats and Rabbits, is nice, too, if you get a chance...
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2 Responses to “The authenticity myth: Art without boundaries”

  1. Chris, I would LOVE to come hear you play, should my travels every bring me up-north, back-east!

    Really, good post … thanks for sharing. It reminded me of the skepticism that greeted a group of down-and-out Dubliners forming a soul band in Alan Parker’s film adaptation of “The Commitments”

    It also reminded me of something else – many, MANY years ago – when an elementary school teacher pointed out one didn’t have to be a horse to write “Black Beauty” – though Sewell DID know a great deal about horses.

    Hoisting a glass of Italian wine in your general direction … SALUD!

  2. Haha! Grazi, Jeff. If you ever wander back north-eastward, I’ll save you a table at the front and I will reserve you a fresh pair of earplugs.

    Great insight from your teacher. And besides, horses have the darndest time holding pens and typing.

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