Amanda Palmer, being an artist, and the question of “What is art?”

On Saturday morning I woke up early. I stared at my phone trying to transcribe digital readout into conscious thought and realized that I really had to get up right then if I was going to make the long drive up to  Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York to see Amanda Palmer’s play.

I had been excited for The Bed Show for months. With the things that had been going on in my life over the past two or three years, my bed was filled with all kinds of tension and joy and stress. The areas underneath it haunted by memories too real to handle, dark corners lurking behind brightly lit childhood photos and the familiar faces of stuffed animals. All I could think of as we drove up through the morning was how our beds are full of things we carry with us, even as we lie on them at night, shoving our bodies into the space between that baggage. I thought about how the things we carry rise up in us as we sleep. How they lift us up or press us down into the sheets, gasping and afraid or even ashamed of what we keep inside.

Sitting in the theater, I waited for some glimpse of Amanda. This woman that I felt that I had come to know all those years ago when she had sat in front of me on a stage at the TLA, legs spread beneath her piano, eyes intense and voice cracking with emotion, beating out a tempo that I have marched in sync with since then, from time to time. When I saw her come in stage right, I felt an unfamiliar stirring of excitement in my gut. The kind of feeling I have not had about an artist since meeting Neil Gaiman in college, and had never really felt before then.

If you can watch a laughing Amanda play ukulele while singing about ice cream without getting a severe case of The Warm Fuzzies, you're basically not human.
If you can watch a laughing Amanda play ukulele while singing about ice cream without getting a severe case of The Warm Fuzzies, you’re basically not human.

There aren’t a lot of artists that I feel a huge bond of kinship with. Oddly, Amanda married one of the other ones a few years ago. A fact that continues to make me smile a wry smile, like a friend who introduced two other friends and watched their romance blossom. I don’t know them, but somehow their connection seems very real to me, having grown up with Neil and having found something very adult and real to connect with in Amanda.

At any rate, I sat and watched her show. I laughed a lot. And I cried a lot. Particularly when an old man wandered onto the stage and sang a song about how he didn’t want people to feel pity for him as he moved through his life after the death of his wife and child. “I actually like it,” he told me, “with a hot cup of chocolate. And a cat in my lap.” He explained how people think your life ends when the people you love die, but it doesn’t. It just changes. And I was in the second row with my shoulders shaking, trying not to sob out loud at how beautiful and touching and soft and gentle this song was as it pried open everything I love and left me feeling exhausted and blessed all at once when it was finished.

Afterward, on the ride home and for two days afterward, I found myself looking around me and feeling genuinely disappointed with myself for not being a “better artist” or doing more artistic things with my life. I looked at Amanda from the audience and thought to myself “I could be doing so much more” and immediately felt a sense of guilt for not really using the talents I have. For not nurturing the artist inside me in the way that I should be.

Talk about a kick in the ass.

I think one of the reasons that I feel such a kinship with Amanda as opposed to other artists is the realization that she’s given me that I’m still sort of teasing out in my brain.

Most artists are so remote. They’re so far away from us that they seem super human. They don’t make their own posts on social media. They don’t really want to talk to you. And that distance leads to the feeling that, not only are these people super human, but there is no way you could ever do what they do. And that’s not a really good feeling and it leads to all sorts of issues with fame in this country that I could write a whole other blog post on.

The difference between Amanda and a lot of other artists is that she stands up and says she’s an artist but doesn’t exclude the rest of us from the conversation about her art. About art in general. In a way, her accessibility to her fans serves as an open invitation to come join the artist party. And, in the aftermath of The Bed Show and looking forward to her book tour here in Philly on Thursday, I feel more motivated than ever to get my art out there. To be heard. To do the things that I know I am capable of doing. And some of the things I’m not so sure about, because being scared of failure is bullshit.

One of the biggest bees in my bonnet when I was going through the ringer in the field of art history was this idea of trying to define what “art” really is. As if anyone has the right to tell anyone else that what they’re doing isn’t art. It was all wrapped up in this notion of the construction of “high art” and “low art.” It bugged me. I remember sitting down with my adviser and talking about my thesis paper and having him say “where’s the high art?” He didn’t like my response. Because there wasn’t any. Because I don’t think that high art is more important than low art.

In fact, I will even go a step further than that. I think that low art is more important than high art. When you define low art as vernacular photos, which is what my thesis was on. Or advertising. Or any of the million other things that we are surrounded by everyday. I mean, if vernacular photos are low art, what about the art of computer programming? What about the art of a love note in a lunch box? Or a home cooked meal? A thoughtful gift?

The point is, there is an art in our everyday lives that I think it is difficult to find when you constantly look at the untouchable artists around you. They distance themselves from us with the amount of money they can throw at a project or the amount of talent they can pay to surround themselves with.

Artists like Amanda invite you to reach out and touch the art around you. They invite you to participate in the artistic process. And that is the kind of art I can get behind. It’s beautiful and big and complicated and it invites you in in a way that is vital and alive. “Real art” (if we can ever define such a thing) inspires and communicates with the viewer. The world needs more real art.

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