Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Self-Taught Artist

Jan. 30, 2008--There is a lot to be said for the self-taught artist, the self-invented person - more today than ever. I, myself, am self-taught, self-made; everything I know, I learned on my own - not because I didn't WANT to go to college, but because I found myself left alone on my own as a teenager with no survival skills to speak of. So I had to be bound and determined from Day One in order to learn all that I wanted to. I was hungry for knowledge and spent half my life in libraries in those early days in order to educate myself and for that determination and dedication to re-create myself from a poor uneducated young girl into an intelligent woman, I am proud.

However, I have concluded that the art world of today is dominated and run mostly by scholars with impressive degrees who offer literally no opportunities for the self-made artist. One would have to live in a cardboard box in Thompkins Square Park, like Jean-Michel Basquiat, and camp out in front of Soho galleries to ever be noticed.

Nonetheless, I love reading the life stories of self-made self-taught artists that know who they are and fulfill their life purpose at all cost. The painters, writers and musicians I've learned about, some of whom I've met, along the way have given me little pieces of themselves via their art and energy and I thank them for teaching me.

Charles Bukowski was a self-educated writer/poet who taught me that I could express myself exactly the way I want to and I don't have to be ashamed of myself and who I am. His own writing was so clear and lucid - especially for someone so consistently drunk and sick. He suffered for his art, so to speak, but mostly needlessly. However, Hank remembered the details about his childhood that made his future writings radiate with such realism - pain and humor. I could truly relate to him, being someone who got her education from the library, and what he wrote about reading when in my bleakest most hopeless moments, a book rescued me from the abyss:

"To me, these men who had come into my life from nowhere were my only chance. They were the only voices that spoke to me," he said of the authors he came to know so passionately.

No one else in my world could understand me like Tolstoy, Dylan Thomas or Mahatma Gandhi. And reading the biographies of great artists like Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso helped me to understand not only technique and the history of art, but the humanity of the artist and what it takes to create from the core of one's being.

Bukowski wrote: "Words were things that could make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you." He found a way out of his loneliness and into a world of creative release, which sustained him for life; and he did it all on his own with no support from anyone. I know what that's like.

The most prolific prodigy, Pablo Picasso, was, for all intents and purposes, self-taught, though his father, a mediocre painter, did attempt to school his son and he was admitted to the advanced classes at the Royal Academy of Art in Barcelona at 15. But his schooling didn't last; Picasso was too anxious to learn by doing - to go to Paris and live the Bohemian life and let experience educate him.

Vincent Van Gogh, perhaps the most popular and arguably most beloved painter of all time, began his brief art "career" (though he never sold many paintings) relatively late in life. Though he came from a family of art dealers and artists, he never remained in any art class long enough to get a real education but instead struck out on his own learning to draw and paint by obsessive practice... through trial and error. The most recent exhibit of his
drawings at the Metropolitan in NYC was a sight to behold - one can see firsthand how this self-taught artist labored intensively to become a great master - all on his own armed with nothing but determination and discipline.

Truman Capote knew as a teenager that his formal education was over and that he wanted to go straight to New York City and get to work as the great writer he knew he was capable of being. This self-taught, self-made southern boy who came from worse than a broken home landed his first job at 17 at The New Yorker where he made his mark and wrote for periodicals and women's magazines; and he attended the writers' colony - Yaddo in Syracuse, NY - and learned from the older men in his life who became his lovers. The recent film, "Capote," based in part on
the great biography by Gerald Clarke, is a true American tragedy about a young man searching for the American dream and doing it all himself.

Frida Kahlo was a well-known self-made artist who, because of her illnesses and a terrible trolley accident, which left her severely injured, painted much of the time from her bed. Every artist should read
the illustrated Diary of Frida Kahlo. Frida absorbed all that she knew from her immediate surroundings and all the pain she felt and reflected it back into her brilliant emotional paintings.

More Self-Made Artists

Read the story of this wonderful self-taught artist: who risked everything to break free from an unsatisfying career and, like Paul Gauguin, seek out her dream as an artist.

I met this wonderful R&B subway singer, Alice Tan Ridley, at Penn Station in Manhattan - a self-taught singer, she is one of the best I've ever heard... so I posted her on
MySpace for all the world to enjoy.

Mississippi Delta artist,
Joe Moorman shares some of his thoughts on the term "self-taught artist": I think it's impossible to be described as self-taught if you have access to illustrated media or computers. If you have that, then it's possible to observe and listen to many artists, often without ever meeting or speaking to them. 'Self-directed artist' might be a better term, but that is lacking too because sooner or later you find yourself in a dialogue, often competitive and technical, usually with someone who was dead before you were born." Check out his site and, especially his Fauves.

Carol Es is another self-taught artist who used her art to escape pain and find herself. "She uses past experience as the fuel for subject matter, transforming a broken past into a positive and hopeful present and future."

Search the Internet and you'll find all kinds of wonderful self-taught artists of every discipline on every corner of the Earth. It's so wonderful how the world is burgeoning with creativity in the 21st century!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Film's Lazy Language

Jan. 10, 2008--Over the past 35 years or so, American movies have really taken a turn for the worst in the creative language department. Screenwriters are resorting to the use of foul language, with a Capital "F," like never before as a way of expressing everything from anger to surprise, pain, fear, disgust, disappointment, or a sense of extreme elation. Indeed, the "F" word is quite diverse; it is used not only as a verb, but also as a noun, interjection, and, occasionally, as an expletive infix.

The word has a long history, but is basically a 20th Century phenomenon as far as its widespread usage goes. Its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1972. In popular music, John Lennon's 1971 release, "Working Class Hero," featured the use of the word, which was rare in music at the time and caused it to, at most, be played only in segments on the radio. When TV characters let it slip, as in the early cases on BBC TV and Saturday Night Live, they were usually fired on the spot.

Comedian George Carlin once jokingly commented that the the "F" word ought to be considered more appropriate, because of its implications of love and reproduction, than the violence exhibited in many movies. More popularly published is his famous "Filthy Words" routine, better known as "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television," which, of course, includes the "F" word and its parent.

One of the earliest mainstream Hollywood movies to use the "F" word was director Robert Altman's antiwar film, "M*A*S*H," released in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. Since then, the use of the "F" word in R-rated movies has become so commonplace in American films, no one seems to bat an eye at its excessive usage; and some movies are actually known and raved about because of their overkill of the word.

But I say it's part of a growing trend of film's lazy, rather than creative, language habits. In Martin Scorcese's movie "The Departed," there are more than 195 uses of the "F" word in all its various manifestations from "f---ing firemen" to "Abracaf---indabra!" Yet in the great Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon," where Humphrey Bogart plays tough-guy dick Sam Spade, there is NO use of the "F" word at all - not even once - no matter how tough, angry or pushy the characters got! Same deal with "Casablanca." In fact, in "Falcon," he doesn't even utter the word "damn" but rather requests: "Will you get the bundle and bring it to me P.D.Q...."

On the softer more romantic side of films, when we think of a Woody Allen movie, we don't usually associate him with profanity, but rather skillfully crafted, romantic ways of communicating. I remember loving all the Woody Allen films as they were released over the years - one enchanting moment after another... that is, until "Deconstructing Harry," which is a good film; however, all the sickeningly foul language - especially uttered atypically by Allen's lead character - ruined it for me. Every character in that movie had a severe mental problem and the curse of lazy language.

In the movie, "Fargo," a teenager blurts out the "F" word in front of his parents and the father, who is a criminal, liar and all at once plotting the kidnapping of his wife, actually reprimands him! And Steve Buscemi, as in almost every film in which he appears, says the word so many times in so many situations, who could count?

I'd like to see some fresh ideas presented in film allowing characters to express themselves as intensely as if they were using foul language, but with more creative and subtle phrasing. The great film noir movies of the '40s and '50s come to mind, or some of the TV shows of the '50s and '60s. The late great Rod Serling was famous for his inventive stories; and the characters in "The Twilight Zone" acted out their parts with all the heartfelt intensity and drama of any "Sopranos" character - without the "F" word.

The amount of words and phrases in the English language are limitless, yet most of us are guilty of utilizing but a small percentage and never increasing our vocabulary by learning new words and new ways of expressing ourselves. So let's all get out our thesauruses and blog new and exciting phraseology that will dazzle future generations to come!