Saturday, August 30, 2008

Invisible Cities, Part 4: Almost Famous


"I'm leaving too, baby," Robot Boy declared in his comment to the post directly below this one. "The fatcats ruined our New York with their condo towers." In a sense, he's right. I don't think anyone can live here anymore in the gentle obscurity of impoverished solitude, the way we did twenty years ago, but I also doubt that anyone comes to New York anymore in search of such things. Times have changed.

On the other hand, there will always be the hordes of artistic strivers of various levels of ambition and ability that descend on our city like locusts each fall, whom John Zmirak mercilessly and hilariously parodies in this essay (I confess that I actually know the models for some of his thumbnail sketches quite well).

In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot's last novel, a beautiful, self-regarding young woman whose family has fallen on hard times consults the musician Herr Klesmer about her prospects of appearing on the stage. She is an accomplished drawing-room singer and pianist, but Klesmer (whom Eliot modeled on the pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein, above) discourages her, telling her that an artist's life is hard and guarantees no rewards.

With a slight turn of her head away from him, and an air of pique, she said: "I thought you, being an artist, would consider the life one of the most honourable and delightful. And if I can do nothing better? I suppose I can put up with the same risks as other people."

"Do nothing better?" said Klesmer, a little fired. "No, my dear Miss Harleth, you could do nothing better -- neither man nor woman could do anything better -- if you could do what was best or good of its kind. I am not decrying the life of the true artist. I am exalting it. I say, it is out of the reach of any but choice organizations—natures framed to love perfection and to labor for it; ready, like all true lovers, to endure, to wait, to say, I am not yet worthy, but she -- Art, my mistress -- is worthy, and I will live to merit her. An honorable life? Yes. But the honor comes from the inward vocation and the hard-won achievement: there is no honor in donning the life as a livery."

4 comments:

Maclin said...

I've been meaning for several days to comment on this. Oddly, considering that I live in a place that is in most ways the antithesis of NYC--a small Southern town--I very much relate to your feeling that your town has been ruined by the fatcats. My town became chic and quaint and charming in the eyes of people with money about twenty years ago, and it's become increasingly difficult for middle-class & blue-collar folks to afford to housing here. I grind my teeth when I see the rich folks tooling around in their Mercedes SUVs, and tearing down decent little houses to put up McMansions.

Pentimento said...

I think the Bohemian life is dead in New York City. I used to pay $300 a month rent here and hence only needed to work a little, which left ample time for honing my craft. A culture that truly values the arts needs to provide some kind of incentive for artists to create art; if artists spend all their time working to pay the bills, it's the end of art; and working for the capitalist machine is not for everyone. But this raises all kinds of other questions: who "deserves" not to have to work for the man? should society frown on such apparent unproductiveness?

I really liked Huckabee for his support of arts funding, but I fear the consensus in his party is that the arts are for people with suspicious morality (and, possibly, sexuality).

But these are other issues. I think the only young people who come to New York now do so in pursuit of the dollar and the Sex and the City lifestyle. (The funny thing aout S and the C is that, the few times I watched it, it was obvious that the vision of NYC it promoted was mildly surrealistic. People don't really live like that. But I fear that the rest of the world took this idea of New York at face value.)

maryemory said...

I think you missed Dr. Zmirak's point entirely. The arts are for people with TALENT, and it doesn't matter how long one lives on $300 or less a month honing one's craft if the end result is mediocre. How long is long enough before one gives up the delusion of artistic grandeur and faces the limitations and inequities of gift and talent that God metes out? I am sympathetic with unrealized goals and dashed dreams (who isn't who has lived at all?), but I feel blogs such as this make the Catholic Church into little more than a compensatory prize for the losers in life, at least the life they felt entitled to.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for your comment. As a working professional classical singer who's performed all over the world, and as a teacher in the music department of a major university, I couldn't agree with you more that the arts are for those who have talent; surely that is Herr Klesmer's (and George Eliot's) point as well. But I fear you have missed MY point entirely and rather stunningly, not to mention the point of this blog, which makes no attempt nor claim to "make the Catholic Church," as you put it, into anything at all, but seeks rather to discuss the intersection of music and memory, and my own experiences of wandering away from and then coming back to my faith. If you'd read a few other posts beside this one, you might have gotten a sense of that.

Incidentally, Dr. Zmirak, as you call him, is a good friend of mine (in fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I should admit here that I am one of the women he mentioned in an earlier post whom he dated just before they met their husbands), and, as I mentioned in my post, I know some of the "losers in life," to use your term, whom he satiricually profiled in his own.