Review: Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere SmithActress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote a series of letters, collected as Letter to a Young Artist (2006; Anchor Books) about "the rules of the road in the business of making and selling art." Certainly the book has received high praise from sources including actors, editors, authors, and museum directors. I found my own reactions more ambivalent, partly due to a prejudice I have regarding how people in the arts tend to talk about themselves and their work. Let's get that out first. Mind you, I'm a writer, photographer, and am often involved in various ways in theatre, so I'm not indifferent to the arts. Yet I dislike the term artist, because its context has come to emphasize the individual at the expense of the craft. But to many, the label is important and they tend to focus on the primacy of the "artist," not the art. Sometimes in the book that is the sense I have of Smith. For example, she writes:
Yet then she goes on to nothing less than questioning the nature of art. Although she is trying to pass something on, I had the sense that she really usually doesn't know the answers and often is as puzzled as the fictional BJ, whom she addresses. That, to me, made the book intriguing. At times I found the contradictions gave me material for thought. In one section, she discusses the fictional difficulty that BJ faces when his or her school is about to turn a painting studio into a state-of-the-art biology lab and move the studio into a basement. On one hand she arguing about the uselessness of such a lab "ridiculous." Nevertheless she still goes on to write:
"I think of art as work, so I worry about going off into the stratosphere with theoretical questions like, 'What is art? What is truth?' ... If we get caught up in pondering these questions, we sell ourselves short. How we live, and how we treat one another, is what is at issue."
Now think of the biology students who for some apparently extended period of time had to make due with second-rate facilities. Also, it is easy to take some of her stated reactions, like being spell-bound by a given recorded performance of a song, and as self-indulgences unless you can remember having similar moments. (I can remember once being so floored by hearing a guitar transcription of Bach's Goldberg Variations that I stood still for a while just listening, and then immediately bought a copy.)
The awareness of the importance of the artist's vision always needs to be enhanced in schools. it is shocking to me that the argument continually needs to be made--but it does.
There are times that I got the sense she was missing the very point of an experience that she was trying to communicate, such as her father telling her, "Don't take it too hard," on finding that she didn't win a Tony. "I could feel his resignation about his failures in his own life," Smith wrote. Maybe that's what he felt, or perhaps, in his 70s, he knew that the real failure is to take such ephemera as important when in the most profound sense they mean nothing. After all, when Herman Melville died, the critics had long written him off as an unimportant writer, rather than one of the foundations of American literature. J.S. Bach in his day was considered a second-rate composer. How foolish on reflection is our collective wisdom, and how more foolish to spend precious life paying attention to it.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of good in the book. Smith well understands the practicalities of art - that there are power structures one will deal with and that a Tony might well mean the difference between a show continuing or closing. Those are certainly lessons that those in the arts need to learn, that they will be engaged in commerce, whether they like it or not. Ultimately, I found that reading the book and engaging with the author led to my rethinking things, and whether I agreed with Smith or not, as always it is a useful exercise.