What is an Artist?

RichterWhat is an artist?  The question has become blurred in our age of talent competitions and reality TV.  But the true artist is aware of his or her limitations, and the goal is not fame or fortune.  It is, rather, to point beyond the words or pictures or music toward universal human truths that elevate the conversation and invoke the imagination.  As stated previously, the goal, then, should be to enrich the world through interpretation rather than simply to conquer or subdue it following cliché intentions deemed culturally important.  In classical music, for example, one of the most respected pianists and musicians of all time was the late Sviatoslav Richter, a man capable of astonishing technical prowess.  If we are talking sheer ability to perform at the keyboard (or any other instrument), an analogy might be to combine the guitar talents of Andre Segovia, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix in one man.  Yet Richter cared not at all about how his performance was received by the media.  His goal was to serve as conduit for the composer, interpreting the music through his own personal insights into the score.  Witness Glenn Gould’s comments on him in the video below.  In our own time, pianist Yuja Wang is also a consummate artist, but with a humility about her.  She sees the bigger picture.  Also called “astonishing” for her technical prowess, she is a product of our pop era, yet remains grounded (ie. touched) by the heights she has seen in the music she performs.  How can you not be humble, having viewed those vistas?  When I asked her how difficult it was for her to master the piano, she responded, “I don’t think anyone has mastered it.  This is not a sporting event, and there is always room for growth and improvement.  That’s art.”  Indeed.  Only someone with this attitude can become a true artist, as Richter was.  The career for such an artist is longer, too, than most pop artists or rappers.  That’s because it doesn’t depend on fleeting popularity, but rather who they have become.  Talent, hard work, dedication, spirit. . . that all feeds into it.  But so does humility, experience, and perspective, traits which our culture and shows like America’s Got Talent undervalue.  Note that the Richter piece played in the video, Schubert’s third sonata, has very simple chords which build up to resonate with more real feeling than many dazzling displays demanded in piano competitions.  Will Yuja reach this mature stage?  With the attitude she has already, she assuredly will.  And the world will be enriched because of it.  It already is.

Van CliburnNew audiobooks: When a lanky, unpretentious, incredibly gifted, twenty-three-year-old Texan took Moscow by musical storm in 1958, it launched a sensational career that began at the age of thirteen and was to span over four decades. At the height of the Cold War, this friendly, open-hearted pianist enchanted the hearts of Americans and Russians alike with playing that was more about “personal communications than exhibitionistic virtuosity.” Winning the Soviet-sponsored Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition immediately thrust Van Cliburn into political as well as artistic pressures, attention, adulation, and scrutiny that might have sabotaged any young artist who lacked the confidence and conviction of Van Cliburn. After an eleven-year retreat into privacy, the myth that surrounded the name Van Cliburn in the 1950s and ’60s became legend with his triumphant reentry in 1987―an event that was to epitomize the poetic nature of Van’s entire life. Responding to an invitation to perform for Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev at a state dinner, Van once again proved that music is indeed the universal language of understanding and is capable of uniting our diverse cultures. Bounding off the platform after his performance to kiss Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev, Van responded to Raisa’s request for more music by playing the beloved Soviet song “Moscow Nights”―the same nostalgic song he had learned and performed during his first incredible journey to Moscow in 1958. As millions of Americans watched on their television screens, the usual staid state dinner dissolved into a moving memory of Van singing along with the Gorbachevs as the whole room was overcome by tears. Russia and America joined hands and hearts in this one historical moment.

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