The Difference Between an Artist and a Performer

What makes some art memorable, and other art merely pleasurable? It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot during my career as a writer and reader, teacher and editor, and much more so now this past year, when my wife Alma and I have moved from Illinois to Rhode Island, as part of the reshaping of our lives that is called retirement but that we prefer to redefine as rewirement. As part of the move I had to cull my professional library, contained in both a home and university office. Over the course of nearly a year, I kept chipping away at my book collection, filling bag after bag for donations to our local public library. I must have shed 60% of the books that had found their way to me for over forty years.

And now I sit in my new and cozy home office, surrounded by my favorite books, the ones I loved when reading them and still love when remembering them. And then there are the books I haven’t yet read, but brought along because I can’t wait to delve into them, now that I have the time. These shelves in my new office feel more personal than any others in my life.

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But how did I know which books to bring and which to leave behind? Was it simply personal preference, choice by choice by choice, or was some principle involved, even if only intuited?

One way to answer this question is to take a different, though related tack: my CD collection. I love music, of all kinds, and have always possessed an oversized collection (I have a lot of music downloads too—yay, Bandcamp!—but that’s another issue). Here too, I had to cull, and now in the living room and sun room are shelves filled with my favorite music.

One decision was easy: the music of John Martyn. A British folk/blues/rock/jazz master, Martyn produced consistently excellent records, from 1967 until his death in 2009. He was a brilliant and often tortured soul, capable of expressing deep passion unusual for popular music, yet he was equally adept at writing and performing songs of sweet, even transcendent beauty.

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The essence of why all of Martyn’s albums made the cut, however, boils down to one song: “Lookin’ On.” It’s from Grace and Danger, released in 1980, an album that recounts the breakup of his marriage to the folksinger Beverly Kuttner, arguably the love of his life.

The first stanza of the lyrics of “Lookin’ On” sets the scene: a post-coital moment, two lovers lying on their backs in bed, but all is not right:

What kind of love is this
Concealed behind your kiss
What kind of love would try
Behind a silent cry
To come stealing in, with an innocent grin
To leave you staring
At the empty ceiling, feeling nothing
Lookin’ on
I’m just lookin’ on.

The song develops this portrait of physical intimacy no longer able to sustain emotional intimacy. It’s deeply sad, and the combination of electric piano and acoustic guitar, layering minor chords, perfectly echoes the lyrics.

But it’s a ferocious and disturbing rock ‘n’ roll version of “Lookin’ On,” recorded live in 1983 at The Bottom Line in New York, that turns this artful song into something remarkable. It’s clear from the performance that Martyn still hasn’t moved on from the hurt of the breakup. As he sings the angry fatalistic lyric “I’m just lookin’ on,” he improvises a verbal riff not present in the original version of the song, words that underline his deep ambivalence. “I’m just lookin’ on” becomes “I can’t look at you anymore, I can’t stop looking at you, I don’t want to watch you anymore, don’t make me watch you” and so on in helpless rage, until finally he’s whispering into the microphone his reluctant resignation. Martyn isn’t singing only to the audience at The Bottom Line, he’s singing to his absent ex-wife, revealing his conflicted feelings, how hard it is to let her go. She might as well be in the room and the audience is simply eavesdropping.

And here, I think, is the difference between an artist and a performer. A mere performer sings directly to the audience, the relationship resembles a straight line. The performer is A, the audience is B. Very direct, nothing complicated about it.

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But an artist does something different, creates not a line but a triangle. In Martyn’s case, he is singing to his absent ex-wife. He is A, and she is B, and the audience is C.

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Only the audience can physically hear him, of course. She isn’t there. And yet, in a way she is, she’s the reason for the song being sung, the message of his still conflicted feelings is for her. The fact that she’s not there to receive this message is another part of the drama that the audience overhears.

A triangle is richer than a single line. That’s the art the best writers (and artists and musicians) strive for. Perhaps art needs to speak to someone, to an actual someone whether present or absent, alive or dead, a someone in an artist’s life who has fueled the need for art making. In the case of writers, an abstract readership is a dull target. Readers, I believe, are most drawn to work that wasn’t written for them and yet still speaks to them. We long, whether we know it or not, to be the C in the A, B and C of an invisible triangle, we want a more complex geometry in art than a simple straight line. We want to eavesdrop on a drama, not to be merely told about it. Whomever James Baldwin, Dostoevsky, José Saramago, Flannery O’Connor or Wistawa Szymborska is speaking to, I want to listen.

And that, I think, must have been the guiding principle in my decisions of what to keep, and which of my books to let go of (often reluctantly), in preparing for a cross-country move. And now my shelves are filled with books and CDs that are secret triangles, waiting for me to take my place in their equation.

There is no video of the John Martyn performance I describe above, unfortunately, but this video of a performance of “Lookin’ On” from 1985 comes close.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also include a video of one of Martyn’s most graceful songs, “Small Hours,” from a 1978 performance. A single voice, a single guitar multiplied by an echoplex tape delay that is manipulated by his foot, and a gentle and timeless sonic world is created.

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1 Comment

  1. Sheila says:

    Lovely!

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