October 11, 2006

"Do you know the best service anyone could render to art? Destroy all biographies."

"Only art can explain the life of a man—and not the contrary." Orson Welles, quoted by Simon Callow ("Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu"), quoted by Terry Teachout.

I'm trying to start a serious conversation about art, but I'm guessing there's a hearty subsection of readers whose minds are now going "Xanadu, Xanadu, (now we are here) in Xanadu, Xanadu, Xanadu, (now we are here) in Xanadu, Xanadu, your neon lights will shine for you, Xanadu." But that's art too, isn't it? And that might very well explain the life of a man. But if you see that man coming, run.


Anonymous said...

Telegram for Professor Althouse from Porlock!

Dave said...

"I'm guessing there's a hearty subsection of readers whose minds are now going "Xanadu, Xanadu"

No clue what you're talking about here, so I guess I'm not part of the hearty subsection. I must be an anorexic.

Henry said...

There's a whiff of futurism there:

Away then with hired restorers of antiquated incrustations. Away with affected archaeologists with their chronic necrophilia! Down with the critics, those complacent pimps! Down with gouty academics and drunken, ignorant professors!

Art doesn't explain the life of "a" man any better than biography. It explains the life of "its" man. Welles didn't explain William Randolph Hearst, he explained Charles Foster Kane.

tjl said...

But the same people who think Olivia Newton-John (oh no, not her again) may also remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree,
Where Alph the sacred river ran Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea etc.."

Richard Dolan said...

Aphorisms like this capture a small sliver of truth in an arresting way, but blur or obscure everything else in the process. Since it's not meant to be taken as anything else, certainly not as the touchstone of any grand theory, there's not much point in pretending otherwise. So there's no point in using this to "start a serious conversation about art," but that was hardly what Ann was up to here anyway.

Besides, nothing about Olivia Newton-John qualifies as art. What is it with this 70s nostalgia bit -- that was a decade that wallowed in tacky ripoffs, and all things considered, would be best forgotten for a while longer. (If only Jimbo the Peanut Farmer would quietly fade away as well.)

Henry said...

That brings up a trivia question: What hitherto unknown actress replaced Olivia Newton John in Grease 2?

Answer here.

Al Maviva said...

Perhaps I'm uncharacteristic, but my first thought was,

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

That damn stoned bastard Coleridge... not only did he wreck Olivia Newton John for me, but he pretty much destroyed Fleetwood Mac ("Albatross") too. On the plus side, I've gotten thoroughly inebrieted in several of the pubs he was known to frequent, so I got that going for me...

Al Maviva said...

Dang. Cross posted.

Mark Haag said...

I think some people are more interested in the biography that the art. Biographies usually don't require us to struggle in the way that good art does. So by reading a biography, we can feel like we have "captured" the artist without doing any of the work.

Derve said...

Good biographies to me illuminate the art. If "A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet", then a biography is never really any good unless the biographer is extremely conversant with the work.

HaloJonesFan said...

Derve: I'm exactly the opposite. I make every effort to separate art from artist, because I can't think of any creator whose direct statements I found more engaging than their work.

Derve said...

But a well-researched and -told biography often debunks "direct statements" made by the artist. Artists seem to be tricky like that...

Plus, I'm confident in my own reading independence not to lean too much on the biographer's opinions, if expressed, or the organization/tilting of facts on how the life relates to the art.

Lots of today's biography is superficial crap, I'd agree, of people whose work maybe doesn't hold up. Commercial books of minor celebrity, not really fully researched works of lives well lived. Those I like.

amba said...

Biography is good to read if you're interested in making art, because it reassures you that the artist is not another species, but a quirky, crotchety and often doubt-plagued human being. It doesn't explain the art, or even the drive to make the art, but it reassures you that art can happen in the unlikeliest places.

Anonymous said...

A well-researched biography is a very useful thing....

Samuel “Sam” Coldridge (1906-1934) was born in the remote hamlet of Sarepta, Mississippi, to the unmarried Hattie Coldridge, 15, whose grandparents were slaves. Nothing is known of her life, but it is believed that she was an illiterate field-hand.
Coldridge is not known to have had any formal education, and he began work as soon as he was able to, walking behind his mother, picking up scraps of cotton in the fields.
During his brief and tempestuous life, Coldridge penned several legendary blues songs, the most notable of which is “Then I Do, Then I Do.” (Black Crow Records, HX401).
Some of his other influential songs include: Dejection, What is Life?, Midnight Frost, Phantom, Mad Passion Moon, Ol' Croquer Sack, Vida Sue, and Lime Tree Prison Blues.
Due to the primitive quality of recording equipment that was available to Coldridge, for years casual listeners misunderstood the title to be “Xanadu.” Most blues musicologists believe the lyrics are sexual in nature:

O, deep! Down green hill!
Savage! Be holy!
Ain’t drinkin’ no liquor.
‘Neath cat claw moon,
I gotta be tellin’ you I haunted,
Haunted by woman wail—
Comin’, comin’ demon!
I got demon love—
Fast, thick that demon pants.
A mighty fountain burstin’ huge.
Like massa’s chaffy grain, I threshin’ flail!
Mid dancin’ rock, mid dancin’ rock
At once and ever, ever, Lord,
Up sacred river five mile,
Yea, I say, five mile m’ander
‘Mazin’ Miss’ippi run.
Ain’t no man can measure.
No man can. No man, Lord.

Coldridge lived a dissolute life of petty theft, public alcoholism, and street-corner busking in Clarksdale, Mississippi. In and out of county jails and racially segregated chain gangs for most of his brief adult life, Coldridge died on the dirt floor of a Rena Lara, Mississippi, roadhouse as a result of wounds suffered in a gunfight with James “Big Jim” Flash.
Coldridge had confronted Flash, a childhood friend, who was having an affair with Coldridge’s common-law wife, Doll. (A railway prostitute, Eury “Doll” DeShay (1918-1936) later died under mysterious circumstances while being taken into police custody outside Memphis’ Orpheus Theatre.)
Prior to his 1934 execution by hanging in the Vardaman State Penitentiary, Flash dictated his recollection of the crime to the legendary early civil rights worker Maurice “Eli” Waldenberg (1887-1943). In his account of plantation life in 1930s Mississippi, “The Hand of Fate,” Waldenberg quotes the unrepentant Flash as saying:
“My sweet Doll was once his wife. That Sam was a barroom man, the violent kind. He had no love for that gal of mine. But he had papers the judge had signed. Then one day in a drinking bout, he swore he’s throw me out of town. The wind blew hard. It was a stormy night. Sam shot me once, but I shot him twice. I shot that man. I put him underground. I watched him die.”
Coldridge’s burial site is unknown, but fans honor his memory by gathering in Sarepta every year at midnight on Coldridge’s birthday, March 31.

chinesearithmetic said...

Peter Guralnick's "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke," first and most important, makes you wan to hear the music. Which, along the lines of Xanadu, you can't stop.
The showoff in me wants to cite Rush's "Xanadu," which I think I first heard on WIBA-FM on the 9:30 New Album Spot when I should have been studying at UW, but then it remembers the rhyme with "honeydew," too.

chinesearithmetic said...

Well, it makes me want to hear the music, but Peter doesn't make me wan, and for the record neither does Sam.