Autobiographia Literaria or, My Parents Are So Cool

I had a nice lunch with my father last week at a Polish deli near his house. Over pierogies and salad, we talked a little bit about writing, and it suddenly occurred to me that first exposure to poetry was through my dad’s tattered copy of Ogden Nash. We recapped one of our favorite:

“Men don’t make passes
At girls who wear glasses.”

On the (long) drive back to my house, I remembered all the things my parents did for me growing up that encouraged me to be an artist. I was a child in perpetual danger of falling into boredom, since I was the last child left at home, and often needed something other than He-Man or Transformers on which to put my attention.

When I was in grade school, I used to direct (and write, but not on paper) short plays with neighborhood kids, most of which included a monster of some sort and ended with a climactic chase scene that, unfortunately, had no resolution. People attended and, if I remembered correctly, even subsidized the production by playing a nickel for a seat.

One Christmas, my parents bought for me a half-sized Casio keyboard. I couldn’t play piano then, but they gave me a few remedial instruction books and from that point forward, I spent many hours. I never became “good,” but I always enjoyed it and they always encouraged me. I remember my oldest brother brought home a college girlfriend, and she sat down at the keyboard and just banged out the theme from Terms of Endearment without hesitation, a song I’d been struggling to master since I could only play the right-hand notes.

I asked for lessons. In eighth grade, when I lived on an island in Wisconsin for the year, my parents connected me with the local piano teacher. I blazed through three levels of instruction in that year, learned to read and play bass clef, and even gave a recital. I loved it! I still love piano even now, although I no longer have that old Casio, and someday, when I’m a grown up, I’ll own a real piano I can use to get better.

It was also during that time I started writing little stories. Mostly by hand, and mostly awful, as you can imagine. I wrote science fiction. I wasn’t ready for literary fiction yet. I also toyed with noir writing, too, although I never knew who committed the crime.

At my parents’ encouragement, I took up the trumpet in band. Again, while I never truly mastered it and was, for four years, relegated to second chair, I enjoyed it. I quit once I got to college and had braces put on, and then sold the trumpet for a measley $50 when I was broke in grad school. But I still remember all the fingerings. Still.

In high school, my parents were going to throw away my dad’s typewriter, having upgraded to a Mac computer, and asked me if I wanted it. It found a home in my bedroom, where I’d furiosly type out my stories and poems, which I’d recently begun to write. I loved that old typeweriter, the hum of it that shook the wall of my room, the punch and tap of the keys, the ugly Courier font. I wrote in rhyme and meter. It seemed right.

Not long after, my parents gave me a key to my dad’s office, located in the “downtown” area of my hometown (think Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls), and I was allowed to go there after-hours to write and print out my poems. I’d take these furious little poems to my high school English teacher, who would give me a yea or nay on them. I did this for several years, until I went to college.

In college, I pursued a degree in film studies, which my parents supported, even though it was sure to lead me to the soup kitchen and the unemployment line. Although they probably would have preferred I study something more practical, I’m afriad the bar was lowered after my older brother graduated with a degree in French literature. So, thanks for that, Dennis.

I never once thought about a life in the arts—nor of “being a poet”—because such things were never discussed or considered in my house. But I also never considered that the arts weren’t a worthy pursuit, even if it never led to anything gainful or anything more than personal enjoyment. Still, I have spent the past three years slowly teaching myself to play the acoustic guitar. I play the guitar more than I read or write poetry. But it doesn’t seem to matter and my neighbors haven’t complained yet, even after my 300th run through of “Tainted Love.”

The Other Art

Last night in my Art & Public Policy class, we talked a bit about how “the arts” are trying to cultivate larger audiences, gain more funding, and be more successful in general.

And I started wondering if it’s effective for the arts to lump themselves into that ubuiquitous category THE ARTS.

For example, there are performing arts and studio arts, particpatory arts and spectated arts, commercial arts and fine arts. Those encompass a wide field of play! In Arizona we have the Arizona Commission on the Arts, whose job it is to circulate funding, opportunities, and resources among all the arts. (And they do a great job, too!)

But I was thinking about whether or not it might be better for the arts to splinter off into more discrete subgroups. Say, for example, the opera, the symphony, and theatre shuffle off into a Performing Arts Coalition—are there concerns similar? Do they share a similar audience/need/philosophy? Would it be in their best interest to share audiences and funding rather than competing for spare change with the rest of the arts?

Similarly, I often find that in discussions of THE ARTS, literary arts are often conspicuously absent! People are more inclined to associate the Fine Arts (visual and performing) with THE ARTS, but writing is often viewed separately. This is perhaps because there is such a large commercial publishing industry at work in the world that people have slowly come to separate THE ARTS from what you can buy at your local Barnes & Noble (and perhaps rightly so…). But, too, even at ASU, the Creative Writing master’s program is in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, not in the College of Fine Arts, and I suspect this dichotomy exists at many institutions.

I’m not necessarily advocating for a splintering of arts disciplines; I’m just asking questions. Is it possible that our legislators and voters are rejecting arts funding because there is no line-item veto in funding the arts? Do people want to fund the opera and not literature, the art museum and not the symphony, the ballet but not arts coalitions?

Art in the Abstract: a Concern

This semester I’m taking (and really enjoying) a class for my degree called Art and Public Policy, which focuses on the ways in which the public and private sectors fund, legislate, support, appreciate, and mobilize art in America.

Our articles and discussions are always interesting and complex, but one thing I’m already struggling with is how to approach the idea of “art” as an abstract concept.

This seems easier for non-artists to cope with. “Art” to a non-artist is probably more of a product, an object or thing to contend with, rather than a process, like it is for me. And naturally, my bias when thinking about “art” is to substitute the word with “writing”—by and large the least common genre associated with concepts of “art” by the masses. After all, isn’t literature something different?

There are definitely kinds of art. People think often of the performing arts (music, drama, etc) and the studio arts (painting, sculpture, etc). Film and literature are frequently lost in this dichotomy, a difficult thing for me to contend with since both are so valuable to me as a person and as an artist.

An article I recently read from the Wallace Foundation (“Gifts of the Muse”—it’s available for free download if you’re interested) focused on a study that isolated the “intrinsic” (internal/personal) and “instrumental” (public/social) benefits.

But what concerned me as I read was thinking about the vastly different kinds of art that exist in the world and the kinds of people who experience it. Is it really so easy to determine that “art” in the abstract encourages higher test scores, greater self-confidence, and steady attendance in students K-12? And if so, how do the study of painting or the act of painting differ in their impact on students and on the community?

I probably think of the arts as so discrete because while I think I can probably write well, I can’t paint, sculpt, carve, compose, or act with any competence at all, so those arts are something I appreciate differently than I do literature.

What is the most effective and fair way to think about the impact and value of art? Is it enough to lump the arts together into a group of like-minded endeavors, or do the discrete arts each offer varying benefits?