Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Experiment in Public Art

The following is from my Notebook, dated August 2008. Gosh — I was sure funny back then.

Before he stepped into the shower a moment ago, my youngest son and I briefly continued a discussion that we began last night at the supper table. My idea — inspired by Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, the artwork for that album, and composer Ian Anderson’s stage antics — is to declare myself public art.

In the first phase of the experiment, I would sit on a park bench downtown in the lovely area near the State Capitol, with a little sign that says, simply, “Sitting on a park bench.” That would, in effect, be my title. In the second phase of the experiment, I would play a flute while standing in the gutter — the gutter being symbolic of how low I’ve sunk, as an artist and especially as a human being, the flute being my frantic attempt at appeasing randomly imagined gods (odd, considering I don’t play the flute). My eyes, of course, would be rolled back in my head so that only the whites show, symbolizing the long inward gaze of introspection, Zen, karma, ancient forms of plant life, the birth and death of planets, galaxies, and stars, shame, bad hygiene, etc., etc. The title of this piece would be Thick as a Brick.

Now, it should be mentioned that the police in Salem are a little skeptical of such experiments, as even young people strumming guitars on city sidewalks are viewed with suspicion and often asked to “move along,” as if the tempo of their aspirations were somehow lagging behind that of the rest of the citizenry. My son has experienced this himself, despite the general interest and approval of passersby, mothers and their little children included, some of whom have gone so far as to drop quarters, dollar bills, and baked goods in his open guitar case to show their appreciation.

And therein lies the problem. One of the most sacred, straightforward acts — the earning of honest money by working at something someone loves — is not welcome on city streets. Somehow, it is deemed to interfere with the legalized theft that goes on behind the doors of so many venerable businesses and institutions, which are themselves leech-like and rotten to the core.

For instance, let us say that I, sans flute and with all due gravity, were to recite on a busy street corner two of Walt Whitman’s best known, most loved poems about Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” And let us say I were to do so in such a profoundly moving way that several people gathered and a few even gave me money. How would this be received by business owners in the immediate area and the police?

In this Whitman phase of the experiment, I would, perhaps, need to be handled with slightly more care — told more politely, in other words, to “move along,” or possibly even
asked to do so. And if that happened, it would be a victory for artists everywhere: the day one of our number was asked instead of told, or, as the government really prefers, ignored altogether.

Then again, what if no one realized I was reciting Whitman? A distinct possibility, I’m afraid.

There are, of course, other ways to function as public art. I might slowly walk the streets of the downtown district with a sign that says “Poet,” or “Writer,” or “Human Being.” Or one that bears this thought-provoking message: “Instead of war . . .”

Note: The drawing for a free signed copy of my novel, A Listening Thing, is open through October 31. Don’t be shy — if you’d like to enter, all you have to do is leave a comment on that post or on my Facebook page. Good luck!


Anonymous said...

some of the fondest memories of visiting the city as a child (and even as an adult), were to see all the different performance art that would be going fact those really are the defining characteristics of what made the city so different than those of the burbs....

goodness know we can't have any flaky so-and-so doing something that's not in order with the usual boring grind of the day... : P

I'm sorry to say that I wouldn't know Walt if I tripped over him, but enter me in your drawing anyway my friend...!

and I'll add yet another to my long list of 'things needed to be read'...

: )

William Michaelian said...

It will be well worth your time, Brad. And after you’ve read a bit, I think you’ll find that you’ve tripped over him many times already.

Salem is a peaceful town, a quiet town, a lovely town.

Meanwhile, you are indeed entered in the drawing. Good luck, Brad, and thank you once again.

Old 333 said...

Hah! Well observed, sir. In Toronto there was actually a Board of Review for had to satisfy their tastes before being allowed to fiddle for the Devil.

William Michaelian said...

Gad. Nothing like a committee to arrive at the lowest common abominator.

Anonymous said...

"instead of war" start a peace! How novel that would be!

I laughed, a little and thought a lot about what you've said in your piece...maybe times have changed or Salem is different, the last time I was in San Francisco, New Orleans and New York City...there was music, mime, acting, artists painting and what have you happening on the sidewalks and in parks...grassroots captalism

William Michaelian said...

Hi, Theanne. Thank you. It varies from town to town, of course, but times have also changed. My son and his guitar also spent time in San Francisco, playing street corners, walking what’s left of the Haight-Ashbury district, and generally seeing what was what. What amazed him most was that permits were required to perform on the street, and they were designated for specific locations — permit holders were allowed to play in one spot and one spot only. And of course all the best corners were taken. He didn’t obtain a permit; he merely played and kept his eyes open so as to move on before he was accosted for his law-breaking activities.

Jonathan Chant said...

Hi William

I realise that I have inadvertently acted out an Aqualung related piece of performance theatre: I once stood on Preston platform and brushed away the cigarette ash that fell down my pants (or trousers as we call them in England).

William Michaelian said...

Ah. Rather than inadvertent, I prefer to think of your act as subtly subversive, and etched in the minds of everyone who was there.