Herman Melville & Laurie Anderson
Finding a seat in a crowded Miller Theater, Columbia University, the artist next to me is whispering about the difference between poetry and utility. This could have been an equally good title for this evening, which instead went under the heading ‘Refiguring the Spiritual.’ Then Anderson takes the stage, with the look of an inquisitive child, in an over-sized wrinkled shirt and red socks and shoes. She is alone; she will later be surrounded by three tall people, the art historian and critic Irving Sandler, the painter Gregory Amenoff—who is chair of the Visual Art department at Columbia University—and the philosopher Mark C. Taylor, who is chair of the Department of Religion. These esteemed interlocutors will spend the evening, like the audience, leaning slightly forward, focusing on her intently.
She starts by stating that art is not about making the world a better place. ‘If it was, for who? For you? For you?” I disagree. Art is for making the world a better place for me (this is less megalomaniacal than it sounds). I think of a quote which I, for decades, misascribed to Nietzsche but which is instead by Goethe:
“If the possible has become impossible I must allow myself to believe that the impossible must become possible.”
Art allows us to think the impossible. Art inelegantly, violently or tepidly, consciously or by haphazard, trips over the space between.
Anderson moves on to Herman Melville. I would have thought her affinities closer to the story-generating talents of Laurence Sterne, but then remember that a comedienne needs a straight man. She references what she sees as the central question in Moby Dick:
“What is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his God?”
He is a man who has picked a strange god, I think, or not watered him or her sufficiently (insert image of a dying Chia pet). My atheist upbringing shows.
She talks of important things. Overconsumption. The deadening influence of the art market. She came of age, oh not so very long ago, when the art world viewed money with suspicion, and financial success was equated with selling out. She talks of small electronic devices that steal people’s concentration. But this kind of direct talk is not what she excels at. She excels at telling small stories about the familiar with a twist—a what if.
A notable story about Jesus. How we are lucky, from an art-historical point of view, that Jesus was in the New Testament, which punished blasphemy through crucifixion, and not in the Old, which decreed death by stoning. She conjures, arms akimbo, the central image of the Passion—Jesus on an upright, centralized cross replaced by a prone figure surrounded by a chaotic array of stones—forever changing the history of art and architecture.
She tells of a formative year in her life where she decided not to get out of bed until she had an idea. I want this year. She addresses the students in the audience (we’re all students) telling us:
“Do not wait for someone to ask you to do something,”
This echoes more direct advice that experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer recently gave to my video students:
“Ask for what you want.”
Editing comedy, I learned that it’s all about timing. Making an edit a little too early or a little too late makes something funny. On the beat, it’s not. Anderson’s work is also about this timing— leaving an off-shaped space for the contingent, the invisible, the poignant—and there is something very poignant about her elf-like presence.
“We’re here to have a really, really, really good time. (Off beat). A good time.”
The audience inhales, Anderson looks up at us, then down at her hands, and we laugh.
What is the difference between poetry (little explosions in the brain) and utility (home improvement)?
*Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed are putting together a not-to-be-missed month of programming at the incredible music venue The Stone