What is True by Dan Senn

 

June 11, 1994

On National Public Radio this morning I learned that 250 years ago today J. S. Bach played music never before heard on a magnificent church organ, and that just 50 years ago today allied forces levelled the same church along with the whole of Dresden. All of this was reported in the context of IBM's decision to finance the construction of a virtual rendition of this church and that the only existing color photos had been ordered by Adolph Hitler just prior to the war.

Yesterday, while taking France for a walk, I came across a crew of sweaty young men heaving old roof tiles onto a truck. There was dust and rubble everywhere. As we approached, an older man who was watching the workman told me that he had put on the previous roof by himself over twenty years ago. I said that I had put on a roof of about the same square footage recently and that roofing was definitely young men's work. He agreed and asked me what I thought it was costing him to have this one put on. I guessed it to the dollar. Impressed, he introduced himself and said his name was Jerry Bock. As he spoke the letters B-O-C-K flashed before my eyes which I then verified by spelling the letters back to him. He said I was correct and that most wanted to spell it B-A-C-H. As we strolled on I wondered why I would first think of the B-O-C-K spelling. Perhaps he reminded me of a childhood friend and a time not long after the Dresden rubble.

While leaving a concert in Australia which featured the music of Australia's greatest avant garde composer, I overheard a young couple say that the concert hadn't been so bad after all; that they had been apprehensive about sitting in a room with people and sounds they could not relate to. They had expected to be angry and now were more cheerful than ever.

At a party afterwards I asked the composer what his children did for a living and he said that his daughter was a housewife and that his son was a tattoo artist. I said my daughters were angels and that my son was a cherub. Sensing my play he said that he wasn't a judgmental person. Rising to a position in the clouds, I replied that we are all judgmental, even those of us who say we are not; the difference being that we judge according to different values. That what makes us unique is the way we react to a first impression. Entering a trance-like state, I said that when we meet people, or art, for the first time, the immediate questions are "How free are you? Are your thoughts your own?" Now, I agree that we vary in our abilities to detect freedom in others, but whatever the case, our immediate reaction is the foundation upon which we establish the complex web of our assessment, and this depends on whether we believe freedom is good or bad. Whether this person's clear thinking is advantageous or dangerous. For example, I have known those within the world of contemporary art who do not believe that innovation is possible and that all has been said or done before. That innovators are sham artists or insane people and that this so-called clear thinking is something which is potentially dangerous.

As I worked in my garden pulling weeds, my twelve year old daughter announced from the garden wall that she had a book due at the library and wondered whether I would give her a lift over in the car. I replied that the weather was nice and that she could take her new bike. She said it had a flat tire. I said that she could take her old little bike which was still in good working order. At this suggestion her arms recoiled involuntarily upwards, her head jolted and strained to one side and a look of terror filled her eyes. While I was surprised at this, I soon realized what had happened. She had just been stunned by what happens to kids who break certain unwritten social rules. There was a chance that a classmate might see her and the ridicule was not worth risking. The price was too high to pay. What I had witnessed in my daughter was the palpable energy force of a society that fancies freedom on the one hand but viciously punishes unusual behavior on the other. Over the years, my daughter had gone from a spontaneous and sophisticated artist without boundaries, one who described her drawings in gestures and vague color descriptions, to an obsessed drawer of horses with increasing instances of writers block.

We live in a world where the avant garde music of other times is performed by musicians who do not perform the avant garde music of this time.

I was invited to the home of a New Zealand artist for a meal and to spend the night. In the morning, his daughter was playing the piano for me in the living room as her Mother was doing the washing up 'round the corner. Zoé, who had just turned eight, announced cheerfully that she had composed a song for me and she began playing a tune with a dissonant chord in the left hand accompanied by a melody in the right. Within seconds, her Mother called out for her to move the little finger in the left hand down a semitone to the "C" and the middle finger up a semitone to the "E". Zoé replied, "But it's my song Mumma, I'm making it up!" Ever so patiently, the good Mother called out once again, and then again, until she shifted her little fingers to the more consonant C major chord. After all, there was a chance that someone from her school might hear her playing the diminished chord. The ridicule was not worth risking. In the corner of the room there was a smiley face posted on a door with the inscription "Just say no to drugs." I mentioned to her Mother that the smiley face had been invented by some guy who had run for mayor in Seattle.

We live in a world of music where university jazz departments teach the innovations of African American inventors who, if they could magically apply to these programs would not be allowed entry. They would be considered musically illiterate and lacking in excellence.

As Martha and Jack entered a friend's apartment they were met by shelves and shelves of books. Martha couldn't believe her eyes and cheerfully exclaimed that they needed to get some of these for their dining room. Jack agreed.

As John watched television he saw suffering and cruelty everywhere. It touched him so that, in time, he became increasingly desperate to show others that he cared and, being an artist, he believed he could do this best through his paintings. He thought that if he could display suffering in graphic detail, others would see it and take steps to make things better.

Denise and I were watching television and a news story which showed an old woman rescuing a stranded and terrified child from a drainage ditch after a sudden downpour in California. As the obese woman strained beyond her capacity to save the child while risking her life, I was enveloped by a sudden flush of emotion which I fought desperately to contain. Had I glanced at my wife and saw her in a similar state, I may have lost control.

For a period of time I was obsessed by the writings of Primo Levi, an Italian Chemist who had survived Auschwitz. After the war, he again worked as a chemist while writing splendid accounts of workman as they labored throughout the ages. In one of his later books he wrote that after the war he began judging others according to whether they would have hidden him from Hitler. After reading this, I started to consider relationships along these lines and came to believe that categorical groupings of people seemed to have little impact on the percentage of those I believed willing to put their lives on the line for someone else. Having been raised in a right-win g conservative family, I knew there were nominal racists who, when confronted with the face of their enemy, would switch sides in a moment. Later on, having been liberally educated at the best of American art schools, I knew there were nominal free thinkers who would have likewise switched sides.

In an alienated existence, personal experience is replaced by the remarkable experiences of others.

So John made his paintings and they sold and reviewed well and many patrons made a point of telling him that they were touched by the suffering and he felt better about it all and thought that it had been worth the months of labor and now, at long last, he could take a break and feel at ease with himself and beneath it all he knew he was not moved for what he had painted was not true for him and therefore could not be true for others. Had he engineered a fraud? Had his audience been insincere? No, they had truly wanted to feel the suffering, but the best John could do was to shop around for a sad face and a replacement for experiences he could no longer find within himself.

As I drove from a parking lot in Seattle I happened upon a sight which jolted me into the present. About fifty yards up the street I witnessed a small girl wearing a backpack running and screaming as an Alsatian barked and nipped viciously at her sides. The child was running hysterically into the street and my reaction was drive at the dog and knock it from the child's side. At that moment, however, the dog veered off and, as it sauntered cheerfully back to its hiding place, I spied its owner standing behind a screened door. The little girl continued her frantic escape as she squealed and ran up a drive disappearing behind a gas pump.

Even without a rigorous disassembly of John's paintings and intentions, whether or not we say so, whether or not we have the awareness or language to voice a deeper knowing, or whether or not our social setting will allow us to be truthful, what we sense is the distance, the alienation and the abstractness of the experience for the artist. In this way, we are untouched. We remain the same.

We are moved by what is true.

As a group of us were milling outside a local art center, I saw two youths without shirts sauntering up the street. I noticed their bare, dusty bodies and disheveled hair and that they walked with a menacing swagger. As we chatted about the future of the arts in Tacoma, I watched as a car filled with teenagers crept by the two who responded with name calling and fist-like gestures. As the now animated youths moved in our direction, I mentioned that we should be conscious of a potential situation here. But the discussion continued indifferently and as they drew closer, the car filled with teenagers came screeching around the corner and raced directly at us. In the flurry that followed, one of our group, a muscular former gang member from the Bronx, quickly opened the door of the art center and yelled for us to enter. All but one of the group, a Catholic Sister, if you can believe it, ran inside where I leaped to the side and out of the trajectory of bullets. At this very instant, I remember thinking that I had no concern for the lives of anyone else in the group. I was out to protect my own ass. As I lay flattened against the wall behind a marble support, I watched as our muscleman kept one of the boys from entering the building. He had his arm pinned in the door and I believed he could have sheered it off. After a bit, however, he relented and let the pleading teenager into the building. At this, the rest of us, minus the dazed nun who was turning circles like a wedding cake bride just outside glass doors, started to creep further into the building looking for a place to hide. As we moved we found a gallery where we locked the door and pulled the shades tight. We knew that at least one of the gang members was in the building, and that a horrorific episode was possible. There was a telephone in the area and our weightlifter friend called the police in a whispered voice. After twenty minutes or so, we eased open a window just in time to watch a squad car driving slowly by. All seemed calm, so we decided to take our chances and leave the building. As we came out the front entrance, we found the sun shining and our wedding cake acquaintance as cheerful as ever wondering what had happened to us all.

 

©1994 Dan Senn

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