When it comes to art, being in the room where it happens can be a unique experience.
A couple of years ago, I shocked some people with the way I answered one of those questions designed to reveal how well someone knows you. “If you could do anything else other than what your job is, what would you do?” People who knew me thought I would say I wanted to write all the time instead of teach, while others guess that I’d just want to be a teacher and talk to people about history.
Those are flattering assumptions to have made about you, I think, and they do reveal a good bit of knowledge about what makes me tick. But what I said that apparently surprised people was that I would want to be a full time performing musician. Maybe they thought I had all that out of my system.
Years ago, I played in a group in Austin, and I vividly remember all the work it took to lug equipment in and out of venues, sometimes up and down stairs. I recall one period of a few days during which we played in Lubbock, drove back that night to Austin, set up the next morning in a club on Sixth Street, played there two nights in a row, then packed up and drove to Corpus Christi for another two nights of work. The remuneration, at least in a town like Austin with so many musicians, was hardly commensurate with the labor involved. So why do it?
Art at its root is profoundly communicative, and experiencing it live is a crucial component of that communication. It’s often difficult, however, to explain the superiority of live performance over recordings to those who are skeptical.
It clearly involves more work and expense to attend performances, but the irreplaceable element in live music (and theater) is that both artist and viewer are mutual witnesses to something unique that wasn’t there a moment ago and will no longer exist once the echo dies away.
Going to see a painting is obviously a little different, but the similarity is that you’re standing before a work of art that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and that has come to you from the past, sometimes across centuries. If you’re standing in front of Starry Night at the MOMA in New York, you’re experiencing the actual canvas Van Gogh held, thought about, and painted on. His eyes saw this scene come into existence, and looked at it, and pondered its worth just like you are now. This isn’t a copy or a photograph. This is the one and only real thing.
For the first time in decades I’m again part of a group that’s playing live on Friday and Saturday nights and the same powerful feeling still electrifies the room.
Art’s power is that it draws together creator and witness in something like a momentary communion: you and a painter who’s been dead for over 100 years, or you and a bass player up on a cramped stage in the front of a small bar. Nothing else does this. Nothing else can.