Guest Post, John Vanderslice: The Artist in Trump’s Society

John Vanderslice bio photoRecently, in my graduate fiction workshop, we were chewing over that vexing subject of the artist’s role in human society.   Our discussion stemmed from having just read William H. Gass’s provocative essay “The Artist and Society,” which originally appeared in The New Republic in 1968 and then was reprinted in his 1971 collection Fiction and the Figures of Life.  Gass’s theme is a timeless one certainly, dating back far earlier than the 1960’s.  How can one not remember Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous formulation from 1821 that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”?  It’s a line that sounds grand but has never made much sense to me, to be honest.  Unless we take “legislator” to mean something entirely different from what it actually does.  I’m from Washington DC.  I know about all about legislators.

When I was in my wandering twenties and searching for a satisfactory career within which to apply my English degree, I toyed with the idea of finding employment in a congressional office on Capitol Hill.  I did end up trying but was unsuccessful in my attempt, probably because I was completely half-hearted in my approach.  Deep down I knew that working for a congressman wasn’t really what I wanted to do or what I should do.  After all, I had come to the conclusion years earlier, early on in my college days in fact, that while everyday politics seems to get the press’s and the public’s attention, in the long run the arts have a lot more to do with forming human people and human societies; the arts, one could argue, help form the human soul.  And how could there be anything more vital and more lasting than that?  I was sure then that I was right, and I remain sure now.  Indeed, when we look back on past eras it is the political  events that we often have a hard time remembering, while it is the artistic accomplishments that we study and revere.  And it is those societies whose artistic accomplishments seem minimal that we dismiss as less vigorous and less interesting, less demanding of our attention.

But knowing all that doesn’t really help the contemporary workaday artist struggling for purchase in a society that seems indifferent to him or her.  It’s unavoidable that artists–whether literary, musical, theatrical, or visual–all go through periods of profound alienation from the culture in which they exist; and I dare say that most suffer a kind of low-level alienation their whole lives.  Alienation from institutions; alienation from coworkers; alienation from churches; alienation from the world of commerce; alienation (most painfully) from the families in which they were raised; possibly even alienation from their own spouses.  This alienation seems especially acute here in America, where–more than in any other country I can think of–an artist is made to apologize for and explain his or her ambition.  Calvin Coolidge famously noted that “the business of America is business.”  Sad to say that more than ninety years after that appraisal, with all the social upheavals and revolutions that have since occurred, the statement may be more true now than ever.  No one ever asks a businessman to explain his interest in business.  No one makes him explain why.  No one makes him squirm.  Too bad artists are not afforded the same respect.  But they aren’t.  Period.  Hence this blog post and the discussion in my fiction workshop class.

So given the climate in this country–a climate that looks to get only more harshly anti-artistic and nihilistically money-grubbing with the advent of the Trump administration–it is fair to ask what’s an artist to do here.  What can he or she hope to accomplish?  How can he or she ever influence more than a narrow band of people?  How can he or she actually affect a whole culture?  It’s a common adage about writing that writers take up their pens (or their computers) because they have something to communicate, important messages to pronounce, compelling ideas to pass along.  In fact, that perspective seemed to dominate the discussion in my fiction workshop class.  One student stated quite plainly that he knew all of his readers “would not agree with [him]” but that didn’t matter; what mattered to him was getting his ideas down and out.  He was confident that those ideas would certainly affect someone, and possibly in compelling ways.  Another student argued that all the absurd prejudices and false ideas he saw professed by those around him, even those in his own family, maybe especially by those in his own family, would eventually be disproven by science.  Science would eventually provide answers to everything, and the force of its cool logic would prove too powerful to deny.  We all found this student’s faith in science, and, even more, his faith in his countrymen’s ability to listen to reason, conspicuously naive.

As interesting as the discussion was–and it was quite interesting–in the end I felt it missed the boat entirely.  Because the truth is I don’t think writers–that is, creative writers, the kinds of writers and writing about which I specialize–write because they have “something to say,” some specific message with which a reader would instantly agree or disagree.   If that were true, the job of the novelist would be essentially no different from that of the sermonizer or the philosopher or the editorial writer or–more harshly–the propagandist.  In my opinion, those jobs are vastly different from that of the novelist.  I can only speak for myself, of course, but I cannot tell you anything in particular that “I have to say,” any singular message or compulsive idea that drives me to write.  I write because I want to tell stories.  That’s it. That’s what I want to do.  And that’s true whether I’m writing a short story, a one-act play, a poem, or a memoir.  I want to tell stories that engage a reader’s imagination.  After all, this quality is exactly what makes creative writing so different from any other form of written communication.   So when I hear terms like “the fiction of ideas” I tense up; not because I don’t think fiction can transmit ideas, but because I worry that a fiction writer who defines himself or herself as such won’t take care of his first and only mandatory duty–to tell a story; I worry she will use the idea of ideas as an excuse to avoid that duty.

But here’s the rub, and here’s the magic.  If I say that creative writing isn’t primarily about transmitting ideas does that mean that creative writing can’t be deeply affecting, even formative?  Do I mean it’s no more than escapist entertainment?  No, not at all.  I would not assert that the stories I write are “merely” anything at all, and certainly not escapism.  But if you’re not in the game of making messages, I hear you ask, how do you expect that what you write will affect the wider culture? I’m going to answer that question by ending this post the same way I opened it: with William H. Gass.  Gass does not have the exclusive answer to your question, but he does have a great one.  Gass asserts that artists definitely do affect their culture, but not from spinning any coherent “messages.”  Indeed, despite being a philosopher himself, Gass does not look for a sustained, organized philosophy from the fiction writer.  What does Gass think fiction can do?  In a world in which we are too quick to dismiss the humanity of those outside of our immediate tribe, when we are given to characterizing others with prejudiced and belittling slogans, so much so that we dismiss their lives as fundamentally unreal–we “unperson” them, to use Gass’s phrase–it is fiction, Gass argues, that can act as a corrective.  It is fiction (broadly defined) that reminds us how real we all are, and how more real we can be.   “Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once.  They construct, they comprise, our experience; they do not deny or destroy it; and they shame us, they fall so short of the quality of their Being.  We live in Lafayette or Rutland–true.  We take our breaths.  We fornicate and feed.  But Hamlet has his history in the heart, and none of us will ever be as real, as vital, as complex and living as he is–a total creature of the stage.”

How do we affect reality?  By adding to reality.  That’s what a good, well-told story is: a beautiful object added to the sum of what we are as people, what we have done, what we can do.  Gass: “The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love.”  That’s enough–and that’s everything.  A well-crafted human tale matters more than any message.  And maybe it matters more than ever now, following a presidential campaign that from its very first day, its very first speech, attempted to “unperson” an entire population, and then went on to “unperson” several others.  Maybe the way we “defeat Trump” is to portray reality so broadly, so fully, and so compellingly that even he and his lackeys and his henchmen and his sycophants cannot deny it.

And I guess that’s being a legislator for real.

Guest Post, John Vanderslice: Whiplashed

About a month ago, before any of the awards were given out, my wife and I went with our 14 year old son to see Whiplash, one of the Best Picture nominees for 2014.  We went partly because the movie was getting critical praise, but mostly because our son, who is strongly considering a career in music, really wanted to see it.  After watching the movie I found it unusually hard to characterize my feelings about it.  Was it a “great movie,” as some of my writing students were emphatically declaring the other day?  Well, yes, I guess it does rank as that.  Certainly it is well-filmed and well-acted—J. K. Simmons without question deserved the Oscar he won for his performance as Terrence Fletcher, the insanely aggressive teacher—and I know it affected me more than any other movie I’ve seen in recent memory.  In fact, Whiplash absolutely hit me in the gut.  But here’s the thing: The effect it had on my gut is that it made me sick.

WhiplashI found the movie very hard to watch even if it is brilliantly put together, and even if the young protagonist, Andrew Neiman, is a very sympathetic character.  But let me clarify, it wasn’t hard to watch because of the way the Fletcher psychologically and even physically abuses Andrew.  As a teacher of creatively ambitious students, I despise and reject every single teaching “method”–if one can call them that–that Fletcher espouses.   But it’s not his methods that made me sick.  What made me sick is that the movie endorses them.   Early on, sensing where it was going, I turned to my wife and whispered something to the effect of “I hope they’re not saying this is okay.”  I watched on, waiting and hoping for the “not okay” message that never came.  No, what came was the exact opposite, which is why to my students’ announcement that Whiplash is a “great movie” I finally replied: “It may be a great movie, but it’s not a good one.”  Because a good movie does not make you leave the theatre revolted and heartsick, with disgusting and dangerous notions echoing through your brain.

For those who haven’t seen Whiplash and don’t intend to, here’s a quick summary.   Feel free to skip ahead if you already know the movie.  Andrew Neiman, a talented, hard-working, and, most of all, ambitious young jazz drummer enters the prestigious Schaffer Music Academy in New York.  Andrew is soon noticed by Fletcher, who promotes him to the “A team,” so to speak; that is, Fletcher’s orchestra.  Fletcher’s teaching methods amount to psychological torture and physical demands that border on the lunatic.  He literally makes Andrew bleed, but even worse are the constant mind games he plays, as he pits students against each other, lies to them, and consciously undervalues them.  His great mantra is that Charlie Parker only became Bird because somebody threw a cymbal at his head.  It’s a long story, but Andrew is finally cut from Fletcher’s orchestra and expelled from the school—but not because he isn’t a good player.   He reluctantly agrees to participate (on an anonymous basis) in a lawsuit against Fletcher, the result being that Fletcher is fired from Schaffer.

Later, Andrew discovers that Fletcher is playing in a neighborhood jazz bar, and he stops in to listen.  Fletcher sees Andrew afterwards and they have a come-to-Jesus meeting in which Andrew seems to abandon all his former reservations about the teacher.  Fletcher, in turn, asks Andrew to play drums in an orchestra he has put together for a festival gig at Carnegie Hall. It’s Andrew’s big chance to return, and to be noticed—in a big way!  But as it turns out, the request is a set-up.  Fletcher—who, it turns out, knew all along that it was Andrew who brought the lawsuit against him—doesn’t inform Andrew about the new song he intends to open the first set with, and Fletcher doesn’t provide him with the sheet music.  Andrew tries to fake it but fails miserably.   It looks like it’s all over for him.  He walks off stage humiliated.  But then, rather than quit, he walks back on stage and starts drumming out the opening of “Caravan,” forcing the orchestra and Fletcher to follow along, as if this is planned.  Long story short, Andrew gives the drumming performance of his life, including a ridiculously elongated solo.  At the very end of the movie, he and Fletcher smile at each other, as if this level of accomplishment is what the teacher had wanted all along, planned for all along, and finally got.

Some disagree about the meaning of that last crucial scene, but it seems pretty clear to me that no matter what Fletcher really intended to have happened, he comes out smelling like a rose.   Either his former student, the one who brought a lawsuit against him, would leave thoroughly humiliated by the teacher’s crafty if evil power play—proving that you never mess with the man—or the former student would use the humiliation to come back at him and prove to be Fletcher’s greatest accomplishment as a teacher.  Fletcher would have found and formed the next Bird, so to speak.  (I know, I know.  Bird was not a drummer.) Either way, Fletcher wins.  He earns respect.  And that’s what really bothers me about the movie.  Not only does it not do away with Terrence Fletcher, it winds up endorsing his many misguided and clichéd notions about the art of teaching.

As others commenting on this movie have made clear, there’s no way anyone as openly abusive as Fletcher would be allowed to teach in the first place.   You won’t find teachers like him in music schools if only for the fact that the students at those schools are paying ungodly amounts to go there—and not for the sake of being abused.  But that’s really beside the point for me.  Whether a Terrence Fletcher actually exists is immaterial.  What matters is that teachers like him exist in the public’s imagination, and I fear—in fact, I know—that they are romanticized to the point that bad teaching practices become operative cultural myths.

What myths and practices am I talking about?  First, the idea, openly embraced by Fletcher, that everything he does as a teacher is for the sake of that one gifted student.  He breezily dismisses any and all concern for the rest of his charges.  Problem is, all of his students pay tuition.  So a teacher who really is one tries to educate them all.  It’s called teaching.  You try to help all of them, understanding that of course in the end they will each reach different levels of achievement.  Because that’s your job.  Second, how can Terrence Fletcher, before he decides which particular student should be the focus of his psychopathic attentions, be so sure which student is the one and which isn’t?  I had a teacher in grad school who claimed he could tell if you were a poet or not after reading only three lines.  Three lines?  This is so stupid a claim (and I knew it was stupid then) I don’t even know where to begin.   Human beings develop at remarkably different rates. Some shine out loud when they are very young; some shine only a little but shine more and more the older they get.  Some shine brightly, but then are too distracted or too lazy or too unfortunate to ever shine any better.  Some shine bright for a minute and then burn out.  Some shine brightly and only get brighter as they age (e.g., W.B. Yeats).  No one can or should make absolute statements about any person’s talent based on one point in that person’s working career.  And besides, poems are as different as they come.  I don’t mean from poet to poet but within the work of a single poet, even during the same period of her writing life.  Three lines of one poem is so paltry a sample of a person’s work it’s laughable.  To claim you can judge a poet after three lines—or a musician after three seconds (as Fletcher does repeatedly in the movie)—is to prove oneself ignorant of both human nature and the arts.

An even bigger problem with the myth is that even for the gifted student, Fletcher’s methods are not only not productive; they are counterproductive.  No one realizes his inner potential by being ridiculed and humiliated and insulted.  That is one of the most toxic, and most enduring, misconceptions of the teaching profession.  What happens when someone is ridiculed and insulted is that they are driven away.  They are shut down. They become afraid.  No one who is afraid ever makes great art.  No one who is afraid ever actualizes anything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not of the school that says you should only praise students.  I don’t think any student of mine has ever written something that could not be improved and that I haven’t said as much to them.   But at the same time, constructive criticism can and should be delivered without insulting and dismissing the writer of the words.  Without claiming that they shouldn’t even try.  That’s what you should never do.  Because you don’t have the right to.  And because there are simply too many cases where teachers who say such things wind up being wrong and looking foolish.

I’m not sure if it’s widely understood just how much of a myth the myth of the bastard teacher is.  Far from guaranteeing that the great artists come, there’s no telling how many great artists have been stymied and blunted by the arrogant slash-and-burn school of instruction.  Unfortunately, there are people in the world—like the writers of Whiplash—who believe that intimidation, maligning, and mind games really do work as teaching tools.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that in the general population there are a higher percentage who believe that this is how “real” artists are shaped than who know better.  I can swear to you that there are many people in the world who believe that a teacher of writing should just tell some of her students to give up.  (Just ask my wife how many of her Teaching Creative Writing students have asked her exactly when they are supposed to tell a young student this.  The ironic thing is that these people are almost never good writers themselves.)  The charismatic teacher who dominates his room like an old school general may be cinematic, but he’s really of no use to anyone or anything except his own ego.  Actual teachers know that there is no one-note system guaranteed to reach all your students or even all your best students.  Every single student learns a little differently and that makes broadly effective teaching an amazingly complex and multi-dimensional endeavor, one that requires knowledge and smarts and confidence, but even more intuition and mind-reading, acute sensitivity and the ability on rare occasions to turn off that sensitivity; good humor, an infinite amount of patience, as well as the ability to become impatient once in a while.  See, it really is a ridiculously complicated task.  But that’s no fun for screenwriters. You can’t make an unforgettable and cinematic a**hole out of complication, intuition, and patience.

But you can get J.K. Simmons an Oscar.  And you can get a lot of college students talking.

[Note: This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Vanderslice’s own blog Payperazzi.]

Visit John’s website here and his blog here