All That Perfection

New Years Night I had just curled up in the comfy chair with one of my Christmas presents, Simon Schama's The Power of Art. There I was delving into that utterly brilliant, hot tempered thug, Carravagio, when my husband said, "Oh, look! All That Jazz." Lost in the drama in my lap, strains of "Le Jazz Hot" started playing through my head, and I mistakenly thought he'd said, Chicago. Suddenly, I was hearing (not in my head) that staccato George Benson guitar lick from my favorite song of 1979, and I looked up at the TV to see the so very familiar cattle call audition on a stage. I think the book stayed in my lap the whole movie. I kept thinking that I'd tear myself away from the relentless drive of an artist, who tortures himself trying to achieve perfection and bring it to the masses and get back to, well, the relentless drive of an artist, who tortures himself trying to achieve perfection and bring it to the masses, but art (and sex and death) are irresistible.

At the risk of ending The Artistic Mystery and giving myself no more reason to blog, maybe I finally answered my eternal question of whether artists have to be crazy to create or whether being stuck in a time and society that don't get what we do makes us nuts. The answer is yes, or 'C' all of the above. Forget The Agony and the Ecstasy. To understand the insane relentlessness of perfectionism, watch the character of Joe Gideon as he faces down (and looses) that fear that most of us have but that artists in particular obsess over like no other animal can: the fear of being ordinary, of putting our very being into work that just isn't special, unique, or revolutionarily amazing enough. The fear literally breaks Joe's heart.

I always thought of artists, who thrive, for a time, on self destructive coping mechanisms like cigarettes, booze, and drugs, as thinly masking their fear of success, and though for some this may be true, for those workaholics, who can't stop creating and can't bear to eek out a career creating work that is derivative of their past successes, the coping mechanisms become the railing on the stairs we climb, helping us pull ourselves up higher and higher until one day, when we're leaning on the it, a banister snaps. The trip down is fast, horrendous, sometimes lethal. Ok, so my own dance with such chemicals is merely caffeine, benedryl, and the odd glass of wine, but put them together with too much stress, too little sleep, and a family medical history that sounds like doomsday, and, yes, I can watch the movie, and admit to the wake up call.

It's not just the hospital scenes or even Joe's repeated coughing fits in All That Jazz that made me pay attention. What got me was how he viewed his successes as nothing to be pleased about. I started wondering what would happen if, instead of the inner berating we use to push ourselves and our work further, we realized that those of us with a slight perfection problem (ahem) simply don't have it in our nature not to strive and that all the negative inner drama just takes up otherwise useful space and time. Must we really suffer all that angst to create, or does it merely get in the way?

A friend of mine recently paid me one of the highest compliments I've ever received. She said that no matter what hit me, what got me down or threw me off track, I'm always right back in the studio and back at it. I had to process that for a minute. From my perspective, it's easy to feel off kilter, but I knew she was right. I realized that when I face obstacles, rejection, and the tedious energy sucking drama of having to explain what I do to people, who continually don't get it, my number one coping mechanism is to go make things. I can only lie on the sofa with the back of my hand on my forehead, staring at the TV, for about 2 hours before I feel a toxicity in my system similar to food poisoning. I quite literally go back to the drawing board every time. Does the angst drive me back, or can I simply not help making things? If I say yes to both does this mean I somehow still need the angst? I can only hope not, or the sofa would be calling more often.

On a side note, or perhaps not, there is a huge problem with my watching dance movies. They make me miss dancing so much I ache. It's not just that I want to dance again, it's that I want to do that Fossey style, technical jazz of the 70's and 80's with a heavy dose of Alvin Ailey lines and extensions that turn fast moves into luscious sculpture, the dance in which I was steeped. Nowadays it's impossible to find, at least in the South, a jazz class that isn't hip hop based instead. It's not that I don't like hip hop, but at my age my joints have way more hip than hop left. I can still lay out but not so fast, and pushing up with one hand from a semi back bend is something that will forever remain a pre-forty endeavor. Assuming I could find the right class, dancing isn't the problem. Carving out time to do it, well, what's one more thing in my packed schedule? Ah, but the bitch of a ballet mistress in my head is all I need to push myself too hard and end up injured again. She's not even a real person but the negative archetypal voice of that fear of being ordinary. Perhaps it's time to tell her there's just not room in here for her and me both.

1 comment:

Nanz said...

Oh - V,
How I read Fossey's message in "All That Jazz" is his seductive dance with the muse. In his case the muse was confused with sex and death. But then again what else is there in life as the Dead Can Dance song states "it is all sex and death as far as I can tell." It is more about identifying your muse. Is your muse angst and self criticism ? I surly hope not.
My muse is eureka.