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Life as Performance Art

     We received a Christmas card and letter from longtime friends, and in it they wrote about returning to Orchestra Hall for the first  performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in nearly two years. At the end of the evening the director, Maestro Ricardo Muti, came on stage to speak briefly with the audience.  It was his observation that the word culture is often misused today.
     I believe he is correct. If I walked through town, stopped random people and asked them what word immediately comes to mind when I say culture, many would answer “war,” as in  culture wars. The word war is so emotionally loaded because it leads to images of one side defeating and triumphing over the other.  Sometimes it appears that is the ultimate goal of one group or another when they want to be certain their beliefs triumph.  They want to cancel those forms of culture with which they do not agree.
     Culture changes with time. It is uneven, ragged, and there is often at least some sort of clash between what is passing away and what is evolving. We have certainly seen that happen many times in the past.     
     Here is one example in music: Some seventy-five years ago the era of the Big Bands was coming to an end.  Glenn Miller had died in 1944, other bands were still in existence, but playing in smaller venues and eventually most of them folded. In its place came the new popular music of rock and roll, and new styles of dancing. There was a culture clash, sometimes based on pure bigotry when people objected to what they called “race music” played by African American musicians but enjoyed by many others.  A few years later our family watched the Beetles on the Ed Sullivan Show, and my father was not impressed. The next afternoon he marched me over to a barbershop and told Slim I needed a haircut. “A short haircut. No son of mine is going to look like one of those long-haired hippie insect freaks from England.  I want to feel it bristle on the back.”  Slim got the message loud and clear.
    We have these skirmishes over literature, art, and more recently over what history should be taught in schools and what should be excluded.  We have had battles over books in public schools and libraries. Just a few years ago JK Rawlings,  the author of the Harry Potter series, was attacked by those opposed to any positive mention witches and magic.  Now she is under siege because some people do not believe she sufficiently supports  transgender rights, and uses the wrong words and phrases when she speaks.  Her life has been repeatedly threatened.  Authors are having their books carefully examined by ‘sensitivity editors,’ and words or phrases which they believe might be troubling or traumatic, are removed. The author, if still alive,  has no voice in the matter.  That is true of movies and other forms of entertainment.
      Culture wars is a misnomer. It isn’t a war; it’s a difference of opinions that has become politicized. If you enjoy Western Swing or heavy metal, that’s your business.  Go for it. Fill your boots.  I don’t care and I am not about to get involved.  In turn, I trust you will be happy that I am enjoying my Paul Whiteman, Ruth Etting,  and Sophia Tucker. Let’s both agree on at least one thing:  Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands [albums].  If you like abstract modern art, or deconstructionist works by Miro, you might have to explain it to me, and I’ll return the favor telling you about the Canadian Impressionists known as the Group of Seven.  Let’s take a sacred vow not to destroy something we don’t like.
      Culture, Maestro Muti explained, especially the performing and visual arts, is meant to bring us together. According to my friends, he concluded by explaining, “When we gather to celebrate the most beautiful of what humans are capable of, we ignite joy,  we steel our need to stay strong, to honor achievement, to ‘come back’ to all we know we can be…”
     We need each other, and the unique perspectives we can share.  Early in his career the painter Picasso met almost every day with Apollinaire the poet. They sat at a small table near the door of the Deux Maggot Café in Paris to talk, debate, discuss, and sometimes argue. They both understood that painters needed poets to give voice to the canvas, and poets needed visual artists to give their ideas a tangible form.
     In our own way, we are all performance artists. Our life is the blank sheet of paper on which we write our story; the blank canvas on which we interpret our life in color, shape, and space. In the end, Gertrude Stein was right when she said it is the artist’s duty to leave the reader with a sense of hope.
    The heading for this column has always been Life as Performance Art.  My wife, Pat, came up with it and I borrowed it. She is right:  all of what we think, say, and do is performance art. It comes from all that is within our mind, body, soul, and spirit. It’s expressed in everything from how we dress to how we spend our leisure time.  Instead of searching out a new battleground in these ceaseless rounds of culture wars, let’s do what Maestro Muti urged the audience that night, “celebrate the most beautiful of what humans are capable of.”
     We need people who, in their own way, are outrageously eccentric. They see the world through a different set of eyes and personal experiences.  They are memorable characters who add a bit of joy to our life.
     One such person was Mrs. Gottschalk, an elderly woman in northern Alberta, Canada, who had an old-fashioned claw foot bathtub in her front yard. People wondered why she did it.  One very hot day she put on her swimsuit and sat in the tub of cold water playing her violin.  People wondered why she did that, too.  She did it because it made her happy.  An 80+ year old swimsuit wearing woman, playing her violin in a front yard bathtub – now that is performance art.
     The interesting thing is that another performer, whose genre of music is eclectic, Garrison Keillor,  always signs off his letters, “Be well, do good work, and stay in touch.”
     Different genres, different styles, different performances, but a common theme.  And frankly, life is too short to be so anxious about what others might think that we don’t cut loose with our own performance.  Just go and do good work.

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