Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Importance of Art

Last week, Irvin Mayfield appeared at UL Lafayette as an artist in residence for three days. During that time, he spoke with students in various classes including literature and music classes, he performed with the UL Jazz Combo I and his quintet, and he strengthened my beliefs in the power of the arts and the humanities in society. This post could devolve into a lifelong look at how the arts have affected me throughout my life, but I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to just make a few observations regarding my thoughts about the arts and humanities. He speaks about these ideas in his interview with Judith Meriwether on KRVS

To begin with, I've always felt that music resides at the pinnacle or artistic expression in regards to its ability to communicate emotion and feeling to not just an audience but to the performer as well. Without knowing the words, if there are any, a composition can move you in certain ways whether that's making you fell joy, sadness, anger, or any other emotion. At the concert last Tuesday and at the world premier of James Syler's Congo Square on Friday night, this belief struck home with me again. The Irvin Mayfield Quintet performed a piece from Dirt, Dust, and Trees entitled "Angola." The piece explores themes of struggle and persecution that appear in Gaines's works. Speaking about the song, Mayfield said that he asked Gaines why all of the heroes in his novels die, and Gaines replied by simply telling him that they must because they cannot live in a world that treats them the way that it does. "Anogola," which takes its name from the infamous Louisiana State Prison, reluctantly moves the listener through the pain and struggles of numerous individuals, mostly African American males, who are incarcerated in this country for no other reason than their class status or color.

I had heard this song once before at the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence ceremony; however, last week the piece carried a heavier weight for me, not because of anything different since the first time I heard it performed a month earlier, but because of the sounds that evening. It opens with just the drum for a few measures then the piano and bass enter creating an ominous, almost desperate feel. Sitting in Angelle Hall, the Jamison Ross started the song, and all I could notice was that when he hit the bass drum, the snare drum, and the hi hat the sound left the stage, traveled to the back of the auditorium, then returned, albeit a little quieter. At that moment, my mind shifted to Marcus standing before Bonbon's horse in the fields, to Jefferson, feeling like a hog, in the jail cell in Bayonne, to Charles Blow's son being accosted by police at Yale, to mothers and fathers having to tell their sons to keep their hands on the wheel when being pulled over just because of the color of their skin, to rappers being pulled over by police-again because of their skin. The list could go on, and on, and on, and on. Once Max Moran's walking bass line and Joe Ashlar's piano introduced themselves, I began to drift, and get lost, not even recalling much of the song until Irvin and trombonist Michael Watson blared on their horns and brought me out of my thoughts back to that jail cell in Bayonne, a fictional jail cell, where Jefferson anguishes about what has happened and what will eventually happen to him. Jefferson screams in that cell, wanting to be recognized as a man, a person, a human being with thoughts and ideas. He gets that recognition, from Grant, from Paul, and from others, but not until he sits in Gruesome Gertie and perishes. That is what the sounds coming from the stage that night did for me. That is what they said to me at that moment. 

On Monday, Mayfield spoke with an English class about art and its importance. Constructing the class around a conversation, he asked the students to help him define words such as "idea" and "event." As the class progressed, other words appeared and entered the conversation. At one point, the discussion moved towards what constitutes creativity and art; here, the question of whether or not the building the students were sitting in should be considered a form of creative expression. Some students looked puzzled, and others agreed that it should. As the conversation moved towards the planning of cities and neighborhoods, then to the French Quarter and its history, I thought about what architecture says about the society, and specifically I thought about the Louisiana State Capital. I've written about the capital on this blog before, but what I did not mention is the fact that the capital contains numerous carvings relating to Louisiana history. One aspect of that history that does not appear is slavery. There are images of settlers interactions with Native Americans and of what appear to be slaves, but could be share croppers, in the fields. However, there are no images of slave auctions, scourging, of other aspects. History contains the good and the bad, and shouldn't both be exposed lest we forget where we came from? 

Continuing my thoughts about the capital, I had an opportunity to speak with Mayfield at a reception and he started discussing how corporations and the government use art to control. That's why we don't have those images in the state capital. Think about at MLB, NBA, and NFL games. What does art have to do with these events? At each one, every night, someone performs "The Star Spangled Banner." Why? The singing of our national anthem began in earnest in sports in the seventh inning of the first game of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Why is this important? It's important because America, 17 months earlier, entered World War I. The anthem became a patriotic rallying cry, as we saw after September 11. Once the owners realized that people responded to the song, they began to have it performed again and again. I'm not saying that the anthem is a bad thing; I am only saying that we need to think about how art and artistic expression relate to events that we may not even consider them being a part of and what that incorporation means. The NFL started to get bigger after a couple of specials on NBC that had artistic merit and led to the creation of NFL films. It brought the game closer to the fans by making it personal and artistic.     

With all of that said, I want to leave you with a couple of parting thoughts and questions. What teachers do you remember from your educational career? For me, it's the English teachers. Granted I'm in English, but those are the teachers I remember the most. It can't be a coincidence that others, who do other things, remember them as well. Liberal arts matter. College should, as Frank Bruni says in "College's Priceless Value: Higher Education, liberal Arts and Shakespeare," work to make us better citizens. Literature, and all art, opens our eyes to those around us, that we may see, but more often than not, that we don't see. It relates the human condition to us, and as I have had students tell me, in Bruni's words, "It informed all my reading from then on.

Part of studying literature, art, history, music, etc, is to learn how to see through the noise and make up your own mind about issues and ideas instead of listening to the same old rhetorical bombast and idiocy that spews from the mouths of those that want to either hold on to their power or to grab a piece for themselves. It forces you, sometimes reluctantly, to take the red pill, opening you up to realities that either eluded you or you ignored. Your stomach will wrench, your eyes will cry, your mouth will laugh, and your ears will hear. Most importantly, your heart will expand by studying the liberal arts. 

As I am fond of quoting James Baldwin on this topic, "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."

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