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“By the blue purple yellow red water”

I did my graduate degree in Liberal Studies – which basically means that you design your own course of study around a theme or interest. My theme was how societies encourage or discourage creativity. The various courses included the Arts and Sciences in 1930, Black Intellectual History in the U.S. (I did a paper on Duke Ellington), and Tocqueville (my paper contrasted Tocqueville’s views of the possibility of the arts in a democracy with Aaron Copland’s views of how American democracy encouraged his art). 

One of the things mentioned in my reading about creativity in the U.S. was that, among other things, we gave the world three cultural innovations – baseball, jazz and musicals. Musicals are a significant part of our homeschooling – because of what they show about American society, because of their creativity, because my daughter loves them (the internet movie data base, along with the Tony award website are favorites of hers), and because I love them too.

This evening we watched “Sunday in the Park with George,” which is my favorite Sondheim musical, and one of my favorite musicals altogether (with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, two of my favorite actors). One of the things I like about it is the way that Sondheim’s words, and James Lapine’s book of the play, weave various commentaries about creativity together [Now, if you have not seen this musical, you don’t want to read the rest of this].

George Seurat, in the first half, knows what he wants to paint and capture, but is almost totally inept at relationships –either the one with Dot, his girlfriend, or the relationships with other artists and the public. He never sold a painting in his brief life. The George in the second half, Seurat’s great-grandson, is great at relationships and “working the crowd,” but he’s lost his way with his art, doesn’t know what he wants to create anymore and ends up doing the same thing over and over. Dot, who gradually learns to understand Seurat even though she cannot live with him, inspires their great-grandson at the end (though one essay I read suggested that “Dot” may not even really exist – that she’s just a pointillistic part of his painting). 

Both halves also show the interaction between the artist and society; the modern interaction being very commercial, and the older one being both commercial and envious – as one character says, “Work is what you do for others, leibchin, art is what you do for yourself.” (Star Trek fans see a different side of Brent Spiner) 

Aaack! What I’ve written sounds so dry – and the musical is not.



Seurat in this musical sings of "viewing the world through a window." This struck a strong chord in me the first time I heard it. "Artists are bizarre, fixed, cold..." sings Dot - there is a certain aloofness, a certain viewing everything through the view-finder of your art, that creates distance. The Thomas Mann short story (though it's not so short) "Tonio Kroger" is about this same theme - being outside life to follow art. I'd have to go back and re-read Herman Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund - I suspect the same idea appears there, as well. Or is this not the best way to create art? Does the artist have to hold the world in one hand while making art from it in the other? Or is there a less self-conscious, more playful way to go about it? Did Picasso feel outside, or deliciously and painfully within everything, his creating no more unnatural or cerebral than eating or love making? Do the playful drawings of Paul Klee and paintings of Joan Miro come from distance and separation, or a childlike connection and outpouring? I aim to find out. I hope it's the latter. I have been recently rethinking my time in art school, when I became blocked as an artist - and I recall just before then that I was all on fire one day in my dorm room making a cardboard roll-top box, decorated with lions. It was not exactly what we had been assigned - it was a bizarre twist on the rules - but it was something I was totally engaged in making. I have seldom felt so alive. I get a feeling of obsession from Seurat as depicted in the musical, more than a feeling of headlong enjoyment. Painting because he had to, not becaue he wanted to more than anything in the world. But then again, he does tell Dot (when she is fishing for an affirmation of his love for her), "I love this painting; you will be in this painting." Somehow I think that still falls short of what I mean by joy in the making - as much as it falls short of the declaration Dot needed. So today I made a brilliant yellow kite, and now I want to go draw the large cat that will look down from it.

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I get a feeling of obsession from Seurat as depicted in the musical, more than a feeling of headlong enjoyment.

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