Most of the time I try to live my life in a pretty forthright manner. I have a very strong code of ethics which has evolved throughout my life and is probably a little off center if measured against certain religious and cultural tenets but it works for me. I believe in personal freedom, honesty and transparency but I also believe in privacy, both my own and that of others. I can be prone to exaggeration for dramatic effect but mostly I stick pretty close to the truth, even in my storytelling. In many areas I am an unapologetic purist, especially when it comes to my art making and my environmental beliefs. As you might imagine, all these ideals bring me up against possible hypocrisy all the time. It is a constant battle, however, only in one area and it’s a classic one.
I was educated as an artist in the mid 1970s, a time when art, music, theater and literature were all in a bit, okay a lot, of upheaval. I had been raised with a large dose of the classics, in all the a-fore mentioned disciplines. I even played classical violin. My mother and grandmother believed in the classics as being next to God and I was given classical literature to read almost as soon as I could string enough words together to appear to be reading. Classical music roared through the house and poems were shared over the dinner table. I was taken to museums to see the work of the old masters and to the theater to see classic pieces that would mold and form me. I didn’t give it a second thought. I thought it was part of; forgive me, a classical education. By the time I got to college and went to an art class where my perfect little pencil drawings were openly ridiculed by my professor I was totally confused. I knew my drawing was well done, that all the shadows were correct, that my technique was advanced. After all, I had already won many awards. What did this professor want from me?
It ended up she wanted me to think for myself, to explore the world through my art, not just regurgitate what a bunch of old dead white men thought I should be learning. Bullshit on classical, she said. You’ve already learned about that. Now learn about you. Learn about life. Express the changes you see and feel around you. She gave me a book by Judy Chicago and a catalog of paintings by Mark Rothko. This put me into a total funk because I had no idea what I was seeing or feeling. I was being torn in two. I was being ripped from my safe classical past and jet propelled into a future I had no way to measure or qualify. I was lost.
The next year I studied watercolor with an elderly Chinese professor who was a calligraphy teacher. There was no watercolor major in the art department and no one else could teach it so I learned to watercolor like a calligrapher. This quiet man would send me home each week to paint a hundred paintings and when I brought them back he would look at a few and then put the stack away on his desk and send my off to do more. “But are they any good?” I would ask. “What do you think?” he would answer with no expression. “Go do more. You need to do a thousand paintings before you worry about good or bad. You must learn to paint first.” So off I would go. I commiserated with my friends about this man who refused to teach me anything other than how a calligraphy page was composed. He would show me how the words and brushstrokes flowed across the page or ended abruptly, how each stroke of the brush was like a step in a ballet, a phrase in a song. This was not exactly the classical art education my parents had expected me to be getting but as the weeks wore on I fell in love with the way this little man taught me to teach myself, to trust my own instincts, to make up my own dances with color and water.
I began to read books and poetry by people I had never heard of. I discovered a whole world of black writers, Indian writers, women writers and others that I had never heard of before. I read books written just months before by people in Israel, Africa, Holland and Canada. I went to movies that only had a few other people in the room and listened to musicians who sometimes sounded like they weren’t too sure which note came next. It was all new, raw and exciting. I couldn’t go to New York City often enough to see new art so I moved there and I roamed the streets looking for tiny galleries and guerilla art on the sidewalks and the sides of buildings. I went to theater where people stood on a dark stage and never said a word and I loved every minute of it.
I made paintings about brushstrokes and hung them on my tiny studio wall. My mother and grandmother just shook their heads. Art school has ruined you, said my mother. My grandmother agreed. “Imagine,” they would say, “all that classical education down the drain.”
As time went by and I had my own students I realized that because of my education many people just assumed I loved the opera, classical music, art, literature and theater and over the years I stopped telling them differently. The community I live in has an active arts element and though some of it is innovative, most of it is classical and very safe. It hasn’t been worth it to say, well actually I much prefer Patti Smith and Ani DiFranco to Beethoven and Bach or that I think that street art in Europe is much more appreciated than it is here and isn’t it cool? My real art life is more secret than most of my students know and I have to admit I sort of like it that way.
And that is where my tiny hypocrisy lives, right at the intersection of Classical Violin Avenue and Lady Gaga Street.