Art, the Individual and the State

Jim Bouton, who 40 years ago won 20 games for the New York Yankees, wrote in the New York Times last weekend about his recent visit to the American Museum of Folk Art where he saw an exhibition called 'The Perfect Game.' Reading his account made me think not only about the effect of mass produced art on the individual and its relationship to binding him to the State but also about how creating your own art can help release him from those bonds.

Bouton points out right away that folk art is 'untutored and not intended for sale.' This, of course, makes a major difference in a world in which almost everything is commercial and for sale ' in which your 'success' is measured by the amount of money you make (An attitude very different from that of Emily Dickinson, for instance, who said that she refused to become involved in what she called 'the auction of the mind.' I think, too, of Mark Twain's 'Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven' in which God considers a poet the Captain never heard of as the best who ever lived ' most people may not have heard his poems, since he published very few in his lifetime, but God read them all and put him at the top of the list.). The ones he liked the best, he said, 'were the ones that looked least like their intended subjects. The more primitive the work, the more loving it seemed; the artist, oblivious to judgment, honoring his favorites.' He gave as an example a finger painting of Jackie Robinson done in 'sweet mud' ' mud mixed with sugar and set with molasses.

Imagine: art done not for selling, not for profit but just for its own sake, for the simple primal joy of creation, of making something where once was nothing ' of, in this case, mixing mud with sugar and then painting with it! He's not necessarily looking for money or for praise, though either or both would no doubt be welcome (to a point) ' it's the creation that matters.

For thousands of years, the only art most people had was that which they themselves created. If they wanted music, they sang themselves. Maybe they played simple tunes on the piano or guitar. If they wanted a painting, they painted one themselves or perhaps bought one from a neighbor. Many people indulged in the art of writing; perhaps they wrote long letters to people far away or they kept a daily journal (I read somewhere a few years ago that the history of regular people and of everyday life in the Twentieth Century will prove quite difficult to write because so few people write their lives down in the way people did in the past). They were not looking to publish or to make money. They were not looking for fame or for Power. Think, again, of Emily Dickinson, who hid her poetry in her house and who was not widely published or known until after her death.

Perhaps the town had a band that performed on the village green on holidays ' all amateurs, playing for the love of the music, like Longfellow Deeds in the great 1936 Capra film 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' who played tuba in just such a band. Or perhaps people would get together for a sing along at Christmastime, much as they did in the film 'Gods and Generals' from earlier this year. Before the coming of Power to music ' before the existence of sufficient electronic technology to record and broadcast and distribute, making music into yet another commodity for sale ' music was local, personal, individual. Interestingly, and ironically, even 50 years ago music still retained enough of the local, the personal, and the individual that an inexperienced 19 year old Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley could make an idiosyncratic recording of 'That's All Right Mama' at Sun Studios with a guitarist, an upright bassist, and no drums and have it played on the air locally just two days later.

Sports were something else that was primarily local. Certainly the major baseball leagues existed, but the minor leagues thrived, as did the local town teams. Bouton quotes at the end of his piece Jacques Barzun, whose famous statement about baseball is often shortened. Bouton offers us the whole thing: 'Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game ' and do it by watching some high school or small-town teams.' It wasn't so long ago that local town teams provided much local entertainment as well as a sense of identity for the participants. My father-in-law, who was born in 1901 and who played in the Reds organization in the Twenties, played for years on his local town team.

Bouton talks about this same kind of identification. Some of the artists whose work appeared in 'The Perfect Game' had spent time in prison. One of them, who Bouton says 'embroidered his way out of prison' by making miniature tapestries of baseball players using whatever materials where at hand, like shoelaces and thread from socks, also played on the prison softball team. 'It was the only moment during the time I resided (there) when we all felt united and, oddly, special . . . somehow.' Bouton also mentions Ken Burns' book Baseball, in which a parolee says, 'I want to go back to Sing Sing. Down here, I'm just a bum, but there I was on the ball team.'

What have we lost in allowing others to play our games for us, in allowing others to sing our songs for us ' in allowing the mass production even of simple entertainment? Is this mass production not just another tentacle of the State reaching into our souls ' just another way to convince us all to think and feel and imagine the same way? Is it not just another way for the State to disarm us, to make us feel weak and inadequate and thus in need of the saving Power of the State?

Bouton writes that 'a recurring theme of 'The Perfect Game' is the therapeutic value of making art.' He mentions one mental patient who began drawing baseball diamonds when he was 60 and 'saw his symptoms recede sufficiently to qualify him for a nursing home.' Another 'recovered from a nervous breakdown by painting highlights of the 1952 World Series.' And the man who Bouton says 'embroidered' his way out of jail said that his involvement in art sobered him up: 'You're not forced in sobriety in prison,' he said, 'but when I started the work I discovered that I couldn't do both ' so I opted for the art as opposed to the high.'

Again, what happens to us when we allow others to create for us, when we give up our imaginations? Lewis Mumford writes in Technics and Civilization that 'One of the blessings of invention, among the na've advocates of the machine, is that it does away with the need for the imagination: instead of holding a conversation with one's distant friend in reverie, one may pick up a telephone and substitute his voice for one's fantasy. If stirred by an emotion, instead of singing a song or writing a poem, one may turn on a phonograph record. It is not disparagement of either the phonograph or the telephone to suggest their special functions do not take the place of a dynamic imaginative life . . . . The brute fact of the matter is that our civilization is now weighted in favor of the use of mechanical instruments, because the opportunities for commercial production and for the exercise of power lie there . . . . The habit of producing goods whether they are needed or not, of utilizing inventions whether they are useful or not, of applying power whether it is effective or not pervades almost every department of our present civilization. The result is that whole areas of the personality have been slighted' (p. 273-4).

We leave music now to the professionals. We leave baseball to the professionals. We leave writing, thinking, and creation in general to the professionals, to the 'big names.' Power convinces us that we're not good enough, not skilled enough, not smart enough to do these things the way they're 'supposed' to be done (wasn't part of the attraction of 'American Idol' the opportunity to laugh at the bad singers who thought they were good?) And if we normal people are that bad, if we're that incompetent, if we have illusions of grandeur even in entertainment, how much more incompetent are we concerning politics and the Great Issues of the day? After all, don't we want it done 'right'?

If we truly want to eliminate the State, we have to examine our lives, our thinking, our beliefs, to try to discover what gives the State life and what gives it the shape and Power it has. The State can not and does not come from anything outside of us ' it is, rather, a collective manifestation of our individual thinking. And how much easier that becomes for the State if what we believe to be our individual thinking is itself collective, mass-produced, reduced to the lowest common denominator to be sold at maximum profit?

In its desperation for Power, the State tries to bind us to it in as many ways as it can and make each of us a fully integrated and 'well-adjusted' member of mass American society. In so doing, it tries to deny the individual every possible way in which he can realize himself as an individual. One of the ways an individual can realize himself, however, one of the best ways in which he can begin to reclaim his individuality, is through art. And you can do that by starting to read on your own, to write on your own, to sing and play and draw totally on your own, for your own ends and your own purposes ' not for money, not for fame or Power, but to create something you think is good, something you can be proud of. Every book you read, every essay you write (published or unpublished), every private song you sing aloud or to yourself, every unsold and unapproved thought you have takes you another step away from the mental and spiritual dependence the State so desperately wants you to have. Every one of these things saps its strength; every one of them sits squarely on the long rocky road to freedom.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.