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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

The Allure of Amb... (Part I)

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act. - Orson Welles

There is a difference between enjoyment and engagement in experiencing art: literature, painting, theater, even conversations.

The Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania displays the work of three generations of the  Wyeth family, all notable American artists. The work of grandfather N.C., father Andrew and son Jamie have been prominent in American art and literature for the entire 20th century and into the 21st.

The museum has three floors, each devoted to the work of one member of the family. I visited there several years ago and was impressed but also puzzled in comparing the work of N.C and Andrew.

N.C. made his name as a illustrator with his paintings used in children’s books of the early 20th century. He also produced ‘fine art’ but it never attracted the audience that his illustrations could garner. He would lament that he was ‘just an illustrator’.

The Giant - NC Wyeth

Island Funeral-NC Wyeth

His son, Andrew, however, was a the most successful of the three, although painting in a style considered ‘old fashioned’ at the time, during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Despite what some might see as an anachronistic style, he has been collected by galleries around the world.

In comparing the grandfather and father, there was something unengaging in the otherwise beautiful fine art of N.C.  I spoke with someone who had a deeper background in art history than me, she gave me the ‘duh’ look and explained that an illustrator shows everything, an artist requires something of the viewer.

Christina's World - Andrew Wyeth

Closer scrutiny of Andrew’s most famous painting, Christina’s World rewards those who take time to look . Most have seen this in passing but may not know some of the nuances in the work.  Take a look at Christina’s arms. She was a real person and had a muscular disorder that made if impossible for her to walk. But rather than using a wheelchair , she crawled to move about. Andrew would frequently visit her and her brother Alvaro producing sketches, watercolors and paintings drawn from their property in coastal Maine. Christina’s spirit so impressed Andrew Wyeth that he asked to be buried in the same cemetery as her and her brother. The original title proposed for the piece, “Pink Dress and Slim Limbs” would have robbed the viewer of the chance to discover and wonder about the story behind the painting.

Ambiguity can play an important role in music, as well.

Both Carly Simon’s hit, You’re so Vain and Don Mclean’s American Pie have leveraged the secret of their subject matter so well that they are still discussed today, decades after their release.

This notion of ambiguity has helped me to understand why Country music, for me, is often unsatisfying in that, like illustration, it seems to tell everything there is to tell in three verses.

The lyrics of “The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel contains some of the more memorable poetry in the American songbook. The lyrics evoke angst, alienation and disorientation. Although it never uses those words it seems to always be tangent to them in a way that makes the void in the center unmistakable, yet unspoken.

Below are three links to various versions of Paul Simon’s, The Sound of Silence.

The first is an acoustic version of the song performed by Simon and Garfunkel. Before the piece, Paul Simon explains what the song is about-this insight, in flat prose under bright lights, lets the listener off the hook and makes them an observer rather than a participant; they can enjoy it without necessarily being engaged by it. (Youtube link below)

The second is the same song performed by ‘Disturbed’ as heard on the Conan O’Brien show. The orchestration of the music and emotional delivery, combined with the poetry of the text, makes for a powerful, penetrating performance. The ambiguity of the lyrics allows the song to resonate in thought and emotion after the song is over.

I saved Disturbed official video for the version for last, so as not to dilute the power of the live version. What makes it unsatisfying, for me, is the visual imagery, although artistic, is literal in a way that cuts off avenues of imagination. In the lyric, all the talk of darkness, neon lights, cold and damp, are excised from the visuals by doing most of the filming in full, if stylized, light. The live version leverages the imagination of the listener so that they, in their imagination, provides the video that connects the music to the lived experiences of the listener.

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