July 24, 2007

Stumblin'

I wasn't going to come back to the Jerry Hadley story, but at ArtsJournal, Terry Teachout and CultureGrrl are not letting go of it in interesting fashion. And you'll find, at the end, that a suitable moral lies there.

Rosenbaum was of the opinion that bad reviews played a part in Hadley's suicide (more here, here, and here):
Critics have to call it as they see it. But perhaps this singer's suicide suggests that journalistic discussion of the shortcomings of artists needs to be done in a different spirit, with more sensitivity, than exposés of professional malfeasance. When we criticize how people perform their jobs, we're attacking what they do. If they're unethical, incompetent or merely wrongheaded, that's fair game for a hard-hitting appraisal. But when we disparage an artist, we're attacking who they are. Whenever they perform or create, they're completely exposed and putting their entire beings on the line.
If you're a professional, exposure of your malfeasance is the critic's job. Personal attacks? Right out. But I didn't see any personal attacks in critical reaction to Hadley's 1999 Gatsby performance, however harsh the assessment. I'll say this—I never write a criticism without asking myself if I would consider it unfair if I was the performer. Is that enough? It has to be.

Teachout took the opposite tack, soberly shaking his head at the spectacle of a career gone down in flames. After some angry feedback, he had this follow up:
The world is a hard place, and the opera business is, or can be, one of its toughest neighborhoods. Those who think otherwise know nothing about it. Those who pretend otherwise are kidding themselves.
Now, the opera world as a Chandleresque Darwinian dystopia seems a little overblown for an industry that puts people in funny costumes and sends them out on stage to sing, even if supply does vastly outstrip demand. Still, tough-guy prose can be fun to write. But Teachout also quotes detective novelist Rex Stout saying that refusing to speak ill of the dead reflects a fear of death. Here's the point: I think all that terse this-is-the-way-it-is realism reflects another fear, the fear of failure. And the thing is, Rosenbaum implies it, too. She advocates a kindler, gentler criticism out of hope that, when failure comes, we can all get a soft landing. Teachout disdains failure, keeping fear at bay with the bravado of the survivor. (Have "Spade and Archer" taken off the doors and windows.) We all fall somewhere on this continuum, I guess. But it's the combination of that fear with something Rosenbaum says that's really pernicious: [W]hen we disparage an artist, we're attacking who they are. Whenever they perform or create, they're completely exposed and putting their entire beings on the line.

Coming up is the best lesson I ever learned. I'll even put it in boldface, I think it's so important. There may be a lot of things I miss, a lot of things I don't know—but I do know this:
What you do is not who you are.
This is a hard concept for a lot of people to bend their mind around, particularly in America, with its Protestant work ethic and rampant capitalism. But again: the mere fact of success or failure at a particular activity says nothing—nothing—about one's worth as a human being. If you're pursuing an evil activity, sure, that probably makes you evil. But if you fail to achieve a worthy goal, all that says is that you failed. And failure is probably the most common human condition there is.

Teachout writes, "I wish my last memory of Hadley were a happier one." Memory is a recreative process—if you want your last memory of someone to be happy, just pick a happy memory. The number of operas with dramatically ridiculous final scenes well exhausts my fingers and toes. But good operas aren't invalidated by bad endings.

9 comments:

the improvising guitarist said...

What you do is not who you are.

OTOH, what you do forms, or maybe is, your identity.

S, tig

Matthew said...

I would say forms, but not is. And I think that what guides you to your chosen activity/expression is something that's there whether you do that activity or not.

I do think that you can let it become your identity, and I'll go on record as thinking that's dangerous. It's a tricky thing, because as creative artists, we're encouraged and expected to draw on our own personalities, to shape an experience of the human condition by drawing on our own humanity. But I think there has to be a line between that and your identity. Draw on it, but don't equate it, in other words.

There was a time in my life when a composer was who I was, not what I did. And I was pretty miserable a lot of the time. And, contrary to popular belief, I can say misery does not necessarily produce meaningful art—most of the music I wrote during that period is shapeless note-spinning.

sfmike said...

Thanks for the "What you do is not who you are" koan.

To put it less simply, if your entire self-regard rests on a single set of accomplishments, you're setting yourself up for a world of sadness and disappointment.

Elaine Fine said...

It's different if you are a singer. It is what you are. And the greater the natural vocal instrument, the harder it is to separate from it. I have never met a singer who could do it. Singers can't "buy" new instruments. They can retrain what they have, sometimes. The trained voice is as much a part of a singer as his or her vital organs.

It is very different from composing. A piece of music, after it's written, is no longer a part of the composer. It is free. It's relatively easy (and entirely necessary) for a maker of any kind of stand-alone art--be it a piece of music, a piece of visual art, or a piece of writing--to separate in order to go on and make more. Perhaps composing is the healthiest means of musical expression for this very reason.

Matthew said...

That's an interesting point. My experience with singers is that the difficulty in working with their own body as an instrument (I always explain it to other people by having them imagine they play the clarinet, but every morning the fingering changes) makes them a) tough, and b) more realistic about their chances. After all, a lot of the technique of singing is, in essence, damage control for those days when the cords aren't behaving. So you get a good sense of the relative frequency and importance (or non-importance) of success and failure.

Singers are always very aware of their body as their instrument, but I don't think that necessarily translates into a congruence of singing with self. In fact, my experience is that singers are able to give up singing on much healthier terms than most other musicians. I know many former singers who rationally decided that the career wasn't for them and made an unassumingly clean break—they treasure their singing experience, but they don't hang on to it, regretting what might have been.

OTOH said...

It's fine for your identity not to be formed around what you do, but it's pretty presumptuous to decide that should also be the case for everyone else in the world. Of course that kind of identification is dangerous; that kind of danger may be the very thing that gives an artist the edge needed to produce really exceptional work. And whether or not you think it's a good idea doesn't say anything about whether or not Handley identified with his work that way. I have no idea if he did. Does anyone?

It is interesting that nowhere in all the comments about his death have I seen much mention of the statistical fact that men of his age (at least in the USA) are peculiarly prone to suicide. Given that, it could well be that his death was more the fault of some conditioning prevalent in society (combined with the physical realities of aging) than it was something closely tied to the specifics of his career.

Matthew said...

otoh: the question of suicide rates among 55-year-olds (Hadley's age) is interesting. I poked around the CDC's Injury Mortality Reports, and while rates have been slowly creeping up among the male 40-59 crowd since 1999, it's not really a big difference—we're talking about 2 or 3 more suicides per 100,000 population. To put it in perspective, the non-age-adjusted (that is, not adjusting for differences in age distribution among the population as a whole) 2004 rates among that cohort ranged from about 22 (55-59 year-olds) to 25 (45-49). Rates for 20-39 year-olds ranged from about 20 to 22. The big spike still is among the elderly—rates for 75 year-olds and higher suddenly jump into the 30s. And males are still far more likely than females to die at their own hand.

I have no idea if Hadley's self-worth was equated with his success as a singer, but a lot of the writing about his death seemed to imply it, so it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about it. I wouldn't presume to tell anyone how to live their life, but obviously I feel strongly enough in one direction to write about it in a public forum. Anything I put up here is my opinion, and mine alone. And I will say that my opinion is that the idea that great art can only come from a psychologically risky mindset has probably done more harm than good over the past couple centuries.

Elaine Fine said...

I just can't resist:

"To be is to do"--Socrates
"To do is to be"--Jean-Paul Sartre
"Do be do be do"--Frank Sinatra

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

OTOH said...

My comment about suicide and guys in their 50s was based on remembering (perhaps poorly) some stuff on the subject that would have predated the data on the CDC site. Maybe it was just bad information, or maybe a spike that used to exist in that age group has flattened out. Anyway, the little report generator at the CDC site is interesting; thanks for pointing it out.

Your idea that it is a harmful idea to say that great art requires a psychological risky mental state makes sense to me; I don't think it is required, per se. But I don't think it's particularly useful to deny that many, probably most, of the great composers and performers of the last couple of centuries were frequent visitors to some fairly extreme mental states. Most of them were not regular people. They just weren't, whether they were "suffering artists" or not. Being an artist, at least an exceptional one, really is not just another job.