Friday, May 23, 2008

Do great artists have to pay their 'dues' first?

Here's a goofy chain of thoughts: My wife and I like to record new TV shows but delay watching them until the season is over. This allows us to watch them as fast (or slow) as we want. We learned to appreciate this after the first season of Veronica Mars, which was so great we ended-up watching the last 3 episodes in one giant late-night push -- we just HAD TO KNOW what happened next! Well, the latest series to get this treatment is the short-lived Bionic Woman on NBC. It got canned after just 8 episodes?

Anyways, so we're watching one of the few Bionic Woman episodes and in one scene the hero gets caught pretending to be a Picasso expert. The person they're trying to fool asks them, "What's your favorite piece by Picasso," and the hero's flummoxed, has no answer. At the time, I couldn't think of a favorite either. But now, a day later, I woke-up thinking about it (isn't the mind a strange thing?).

Several years ago I had the good fortune to be in Barcelona, Spain, where Picasso grew-up and where there's a museum dedicated to him. Most of his really famous artwork is elsewhere now, and this hometown museum primarily has his childhood artwork (though I think "Guernica" was also there? Maybe it was just on traveling exhibit). One early painting of his absolutely stood-out for me. He was just 14 and an art student, and he must have been studying the classic Realist painters. He painted a deathbed scene that was just stunning. Besides being absolutely photo-realistic (How??) it also immediately captures the emotion of the room, and all the people in the scene are absolutely alive with tension and grief.

So now -- confident that *I* could have fooled the bad guy (from Bionic Woman) -- I started thinking about what 'Genius' means in the Arts. Up until that point in his life, Picasso was still just an art student. I think he was regarded as a child prodigy (rightly) but no one knew if he would ever blossom into a great artist. By demonstrating such mastery of the existing paradigm, Realism, I think it allowed him carte blanche to experiment, eventually leading him to invent Cubism -- a sort of anti-Realism! I'm sure my analysis is infantile but it's my blog, so there.

I can think of at least one other example of this phenomenon, where a new artist demonstrated a mastery of the prevailing 'form' before branching-off into the creation of the new: The Beatles. My wife was surprised to learn (after college? 'cha! Where have you been???) that the Beatles recorded both the 50's-type "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" fluff AND the elaborate and philosophical later songs. She really didn't know they were the same band, and without knowing their history I could see why.

The Beatles recorded FIVE albums in their first THREE years! They basically paid their dues to their record-industry masters, and demonstrated a clear mastery of the prevailing teeny-bopper Lite Pop style. Then, when they were safely insulated from criticism, they sprang Sgt Pepper's on us. If I'm not mistaken this is widely considered the first Concept Album (or at least the first hugely successful one).

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