Saturday, June 23, 2018
On Artist’s Egos An artist needs ego to succeed. How this ego gets used affects the artist’s ultimate reputation. No matter which discipline the artist follows—painting, music, poetry, sculpture, fiction writing, bronze casting, whatever—at some point in the life of each artist, an important question arises: How much ego should an artist cultivate? Let us hope that every artist considers this question thoughtfully and discerns appropriately to find the point somewhere between the egotistical buffoon and the shrinking violet where ego serves him best. I got to thinking about this ego business following the opening of a new concert hall. No less than a dozen soloists and groups had been invited to perform in various musical disciplines to showcase the versatility of the hall. Each performance required a change in set up--boom boxes (the acoustical system had not yet been installed) and wires, risers, adjustment of the acoustical panels for the best effect for the type and size of the group, and so on. Although the stage crew worked fast, these changes proved cumbersome, and the program grew excessively long. For the opening of this spectacular building, every important politician in the state was in attendance. The entire staff of architects who designed the building came. The governor, who emceed, kibitzed heroically to fill in while set-ups were in progress. And of course, the donors were present. This audience, gathered for the most part for its partiality, demonstrated its appreciation for the beautiful, new hall with lively applause. Unfortunately, almost every artist interpreted this applause as a call for an encore. Good grief! Couldn’t they count the many numbers listed on the program? Couldn’t they see the logistical problems caused by so many different kinds of performances? At the ninety-minute point, when most concerts have ended, intermission finally arrived. I heaved a sigh of relief and informed our guests that the second half always goes faster than the first. My confidence discounted the artistic egos already displayed. Immediately following the half hour intermission, members of a jazz combo that regularly performs at one of the state’s major resorts took their places on stage. I admit that I am not a jazz afficionado. I prefer art songs, easy listening, and classical music. However, on a program like this, I expected two short jazz numbers to be worth a listen. The lights dimmed, and the musicians played—for thirty minutes! How can two jazz numbers possibly take thirty minutes? With continuous, boring vamps, that’s how. Thirty minutes of vamps! Maybe vamps serve those musicians well in a cocktail lounge where everyone moves about and carries on conversations, but on a concert stage? On a program that is already running excessively long? What egos! And did they notice decreased enthusiasm in the applause? Not on your life. At least their encore was a bit shorter than their program numbers, I concede. Our guests, with a baby sitter at home, were obliged to depart during the applause. Others left, as well. They had to miss the most important performers of the evening, two New York City musicians brought in on special arrangements by the benefactor who had put up most of the money for building the hall. The next two performances, local groups, probably the least egotistical of the evening’s list of artists, came and went, even with encores, in the amount of time one might have expected. I heaved a sigh of relief, looked at my watch, and thought we still might be home in bed at a decent hour, for next up, the program showed those New York City guests whose section appeared to be all of one piece with a big choir backing them up in a finale number. Why weren’t the stagehands setting up risers? “And now,” the governor announced, “I have a special treat for you.” Bless his heart, he had invited someone special, someone whom those who arranged the program either did not think of or did not have the pull to book. As the governor made the introduction, we older folks looked at each other and asked, “Who’s she?” while the yuppie crowd went wild. As she began to play, however, we oldsters did recognize music played on our stereos—much too loudly—when we were raising teen-agers. It seems that this notable composer had retired to the backwoods of our little state where the governor got to know her personally! And, yes, after playing her two numbers, she quickly returned to the stage to “honor” us with an encore. I guess it does take ego to succeed. Reflecting on this need, I came to recognize a personal problem: failure to develop my own ego properly. I used to be a singer. I wasn’t bad. I was often chosen as the soprano soloist in the church choir. I sometimes performed as the soloist at concerts or in special programs and was gratified by critics who referred to me as an artist. I sang the lead in several musicals—Musette in Victor Herbert’s Fortuneteller, for instance, no easy role, and I performed those coloratura passages with pizzazz. Leads in musicals require auditioning. Sometimes the competition gets tough. My ego proved sufficient for me to sign up, work hard, and appear at the audition. I could stand in front of the audition judge and perform. If I won the part, I could perform in front of a big audience without panic. If I lost, however, I felt the panic of total humiliation. It took time to work through that humiliation, but I was able to do it and turn the loss into a learning experience. I studied the winner’s techniques, evaluated my own performance in relation to hers, and worked hard to improve before my next try. My ego, coupled with an innate compulsion to be a singer, got me through that kind of obstacle. One might say, however, that my lack of ego created another, very major stumbling block. Something very loud and clear shouted inside my mind that I should never foist my voice uninvited on anyone. I stood back, waiting to be asked, while others pushed themselves forward volunteering to perform. I never sang an encore unless I felt sure the applause indicated genuine desire to hear more. I wanted opportunities so badly I could taste it, but I needed validation even worse. Did I lack moxie, or did I simply have a destructive type of ego, the kind that says, “I’m too good to need to beg?” Singing depends on breath. About the time I should have reached my peak, a nasty virus put an end to my dependable supply of that valuable commodity. I could still produce clear, bell-like tones over a wide range. I could still learn the words to a French or Italian or German aria. I could still work up an emotion charged interpretation of the music. But I could no longer guarantee that breath would support the phrase. My voice might die at the most inopportune moment. Invitations to sing now meant I had to say, “I’m sorry. My voice isn’t dependable anymore.” With the right kind of ego, I might have fulfilled my potential before this unfortunate disability struck, but my time had passed. Don’t get me wrong. I still love music. I still sit at my piano and sing. But the only places I now sing in public are the church congregation and community sings. There I belt it out with joy—except in those spots where my voice eludes me. Then I suck in my best breath and start again. The way I phrase the music has become—well, choppy. Thank goodness for groups. In them no one seems to care how I huff and puff. Music is but one kind of art. A true artist, no matter the discipline, must muster enough ego to get the notice required to sell the product. The little dancer with great talent who doesn’t study with a competent teacher, practice, develop her muscles, and eat right to grow strong bones will never become the prima ballerina of the big city ballet. Nor will she become the star if she hangs back and does nothing to promote herself. Sacrifice goes along with ego. In olden times when books had to be copied by hand, starving artists who earned their living with their quill pens found the ego to decorate those mundane letters with beautiful pictures and create illuminated pages prized down through the ages. Even after developing enough of a reputation to be commissioned to create great frescos, Michealangelo lay on his back on scaffolding for many months, sometimes not coming down for days on end, to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Van Gogh starved and went mad, but his ego kept him painting even though only those who acquired his paintings were to, much later, become rich from them. Louisa May Alcott was turned away by editor after editor who informed her that her books would never interest anyone, but she persisted. No matter what the art, the true artist cannot help but pursue the means of expression that drives him, that holds him captive; but without sufficient ego, the products of the art that captivates him might well languish, never to be noticed by anyone. Deprived of the art I loved, my artistic bent, of necessity, submitted to another captor: writing. A writer is plagued with the inability to not write, and so it has always been with me, scribbling away. During the years when music seemed to me the ultimate art, I didn’t notice my compulsion for writing. Writing is the loneliest of arts. It’s tools, the pen (or computer) and paper, are brandished in privacy. The substance of writing is gathered through quiet observation and solitary study. If it weren’t for writing groups, where could a writer turn to assuage this loneliness? Also alone, the writer seeks for someone to notice his art. Unlike when the choir director, hearing my soprano ringing true and sweet, invited me to be the soloist in the next cantata or during a Sunday service, merely writing something brilliant doesn’t get me noticed by an editor. No editor will accidentally stumble across my latest manuscript and beg me to let him publish it. No producer will hear my latest play and ask me to present it upon his stage unless I buck up my ego and make it happen. And then there’s that Catch 22: a writer needs an agent to get published, and agents don’t deal with writers until they are published. It’s up to me to discipline my reluctant ego and bring my newest art to public notice. It takes ego to search through Writer’s Market and find publishers that fit the writing. It takes ego to write query letters attesting one’s own ability as a writer and the marvels of her manuscripts. It takes ego to repeat that process over and over and over. I would most likely have stopped singing the first time someone so much as hinted that my voice wasn’t up to snuff, but a writer has to learn to subject herself to an ever expanding packet of rejection notices. One might say that writing has forced me to develop the ego an artist needs. If only I had developed that ego when I was a singer! This in no way infers that I don’t suffer with each rejection. I open the letter with expectation, read it, feel my cheeks begin to burn with shame, and slide into a spell of depression. It takes a day or two to get over it. Then I am able to re-read the letter looking for some hint of how I can do better next time. When it’s a manuscript that’s been rejected, I always hope the editor has been kind enough to include some reasons why, some guidance that might help me improve my writing. Even a cutting remark seems less of a blow to the ego than a form letter. Who knows. The barest critique might prove the guidance needed toward eventual success, and as I used to do when I was singing, turn defeat into a learning experience. Now that I write and promote my work, I’m developing a much more useful ego. I only hope that I don’t let it run wild. With use, the ego doesn’t just grow, it matures. It can find its proper place. It can learn to present the artist when presentable, to accept the limitations of the artist’s talent pragmatically, and to motivate continued improvement in plying the art. Yes, an artist needs an ego to succeed—a realistic, well disciplined ego. But please, please, save me from ego that hogs the limelight. My hope is for an ego more like those of the two performers from New York. They graciously allowed those of us who didn’t sneak out early to get home before daylight.