Absent the Messenger

Dear All,*

Last night I volunteered at my improv school, The Staircase, for a performance called The Six-Minute Memoir.  As a fringe benefit of working the show (and I use the term “working” very loosely) I got to see 13 different writers share their experiences in writing and life.  All of them shared something of value which resonated with me to varying degrees, but I want to mention a thought I had when I was listening to the youngest speaker in the ensemble, Eva Kay.  Only 17, she is already an accomplished poet, and from what I could tell in the brief time I spoke with her, a lovely girl.

Yet I have to confess that I had some negative thoughts when she was reciting her poetry; She touched on some heavy themes and I started to think, “What serious shit has this girl ever dealt with that makes her think she knows about life?”  I mulled this thought over for a few seconds as I listened to her recite words that seemed pretentious from my clouded point of view, but then I realized something: It’s not about her experiences. it’s about mine.  Good poetry, good art for that matter, should be appreciated differently by each person because of their own different experiences, and not uniformly as a result of the experiences of the artist.  In fact, the art itself should have a transcendent quality wherein the artist’s disposition, experiences, etc. don’t even factor into your appreciation of their work.

I feel kind of dumb for lapsing into this trap of credentialism.  So often we go on the authority of what recognized masters say rather than seeing how a message resonates with us without prejudice.  And age-ism is just another form of this credentialism.  I assumed in my arrogance that because this girl did not share my struggle that she did not know struggle.  This is obviously malarky, and to that point one of my favourite quotations is,

“Everyone I know is in the fight of their life.” -Ben Harper, Better Way

Whether or not someone has been through what I’ve been through, they’ve been through something, and to them it was hard, like it was for me.  We really have to evaluate every cultural input as if it had no author, lest we allow our ignorance and prejudice to deprive us of some really wonderful things.

To punctuate this point, have you ever gone back and read something of your own volition which you were forced to read in school?  If you felt you got more out of it the second time around it wasn’t because the author’s experiences had changed (they might have been dead for years), it was because you had changed.  And, as well as reading in a more engaged manner, you had a different (not better, different) perspective that allowed you to get something out of the art which wasn’t there for you before.

The grand revelation is that it’s all about you: If you like a piece of art it’s because you see something positive of yourself in that art; if you are averse to a piece of art it’s because you see something of yourself in the art which you don’t like; if you are indifferent its probably because you don’t relate to it on any level.  Either way, the artist as the messenger shouldn’t factor into your judgment.


-Andre Guantanamo

*Since I’ve abandoned the “Most Interesting” theme I used in blogger.com, I am not quite sure what I want to use as my intro and sign-off for my posts.  I may play around with a few things over the next few entries, so expect some inconsistencies.


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35 responses to “Absent the Messenger

  1. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your
    point. You clearly know what youre talking about,
    why waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your site when you could be giving us something
    enlightening to read?

  2. the beauty

    of art

    is the interpretation

    we add

    to the work

  3. Hello.
    Let’s take these 3 sentences.
    1-“What serious shit has this girl ever dealt with that makes her think she knows about life?”
    2-“age-ism is just another form of this credentialism”
    3-“I assumed in my arrogance that because this girl did not share my struggle that she did not know struggle”

    I get what you’re saying but, to add some perspective, I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle.

    It is very arrogant of anyone (I’ve done it too) to think that someone doesn’t know struggle just because we’re having a harder time or because we can’t see their struggle.
    On the other hand, I think it is valid and natural to question if the messenger has had any experience on what they’re talking about. In some cases the messenger can be absent from the message, but sometimes he’s not.

    I’d say that if the message does not involve the messenger, your point is completely valid.
    If the messenger is giving an image of him/herself to an audience that might be influenced by that message, that one question can moderate that influence. I might be going a bit too far, but I’m thinking of political speeches that drag masses into the abyss just because of the art in them.

    Anyway, I’ll stop rambling.

    Good post, excellent analysis.

    • Hey,
      I am fond of saying that when we read something either artistic or academic, we should pretend as if it has no name written at the top and we should just evaluate it for what it is, and see how it resonates with us rather than going on faith because some academic or artistic priest-caste has deemed it worthy.
      I don’t mean to say that there is no purpose for credentials, and certainly they have some use (personally I don’t understand all the minutiae of quantum physics, so I take some on faith when I can’t take it on understanding), but I find that there is a willingness to put blindly believe in something or someone just because of what they’ve done and not because of what they’re doing.
      With regard to the messenger being the message, I kind of addressed this in an earlier response to a comment just below this one from thetantricguidetocarsales (http://thetantricguidetocarsales.com/). Mebbe that’ll clarify my position.
      Not to worry, I appreciate rambling. Hopefully you appreciate mine too. lol

      • Thank you for your time and your response.

        My intention was not to question what you said. I just expressed my thoughts on what it brought to mind.
        You made some very good points both in your main post and your replies to comments, so I’ll take some time later to read a few more posts and, if I have anything good to say, comment.

        I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: Freshly Riffed 30: There’s Blood On The Bed, But Here In My Head, I’m Feeling Fine | A VERY STRANGE PLACE

  5. Andre,

    I enjoyed the piece and I’m glad you could encounter a situation that made you stop and question your “prejudices.” Whether or not your initial assessment of the girl is valid or not isn’t as important, really, as the questioning. Personally, I think we are sometimes too forgiving when we have a sharp judgment, insisting that because it is brutal that it must be “wrong,” confusing the literal meaning with the moral definition. That is how it reads to me, not having been in your head or this girl’s. All struggle is perceived, but it is not all equal, and experiencing one kind does not necessarily mean you can write with truth about another.

    I do, however, have to disagree with you on the sentiment of art being all in your head. Certainly, most of what we call “art” can only be appreciated subjectively, but thrills, beautifully captured emotions, condensed feelings and experiences…those are feelings that, when done right, are sure to inspire the same feeling in (nearly) every member of the audience, making the artist an all important messenger. I think the value of art is disrespected by suggesting it is all about the Viewer.

    • If an piece of art is created and nowhere is there to see it, be called art? lol

      With regard to your first point about not shying away from harsh judgements, I find it a little more fruitful to approach with understanding. Like if someone is speaking about things they have no knowledge of, make the attempt to understand why they are doing so and that can inform your appreciation of their work in a sort of meta way. Its like learning that a poet was going through a divorce when he wrote certain pieces; its going to inform your appreciation of those pieces without dismissing them as brooding, dark, and/or self-indulgent. Ultimately, as I assert in my post, whether you like them or not, is a reflection of you, but knowing the poet/artist can help decipher meaning sometimes.

      While I was reading your second paragraph I kept thinking about performance arts like acting. True, an actor might be reciting a Shakespearean monologue (something which is as close to universally-agreed upon objective beauty in art as we have right now) but there is still a lot of added (or subtracted) value which comes from the performer’s recitation and skill level. And while the objective merits of Shakespeare are not really up for debate, different performances of Shakespeare might strike different chords with different people. (i.e. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo is probably the definitive portrayal of Romeo for a generation of young people, and although we can discuss how well he delivered his lines ultimately it doesn’t changed the fact that he struck the right chords with a lot of young people who might not have had that exposure without him.)

      Broadly speaking, all artists should get better (on a technical level) the more they practice and ply their skill, but how often does and artist dabble in a style that his/her fanbase does not like as much as previous forays? (This happens a lot in music) Certainly, the artist hasn’t gotten any worse from a technical standpoint and there will almost certainly be a fanbase who appreciates the new direction, but the universal acclaim is gone. So while the art is not “worse” its not appreciated, until (perhaps) a later date.

      Lastly, on the point of subjectivity in art, what do you think about the artist as a viewer? There are famous examples like Tchaikovsky hating “The Nutcracker,” but his disdain for that piece doesn’t diminish our enjoyment of it.

      Apologies for rambling :-S

  6. Pingback: Absent the Messenger | jessicahagan

  7. Mad Queen Linda

    An interesting read; congrats on Fresh Press. And so, after all, it is “all about me.” Thanks for loading my thinking oven this morning. Now it’s time to bake.

  8. Pingback: Is Poetry For Old People? | Miriam Joy Writes

    • Hey Miriam,
      I think I see a little bit better what you were talking about in the comment you left on my post. People can say what they will about teenage or youthful angst, but being at a young age does afford certain opportunities if that angst, or pure raw emotion in general, can be channeled and made so its not overwhelming for the reader.
      Since the content is rich with feeling you wouldn’t want to water it down and take out the emotional significance lest you do you or your poem a disservice.
      Rather the form could perhaps be your friend; in my mind’s eye I almost picture the emotional content like a wild and dangerous animal with the lines of the poem as the bars keeping it subdued. Its safe for any passerby wishing to give the poem a cursory reading but should they decide they wanna delve in deep and “go between the bars” as it were, well that’s their own individual experience and you didn’t force it on them.
      Using form to tell the story is something I struggle with but when its done artfully it can add so much by making it more of a riddle and less of a shouted declaration.
      Im interested to read some of your work.
      All the best,

  9. so true… it is all about you and what you see in the art
    and sometimes it’s all about timing in society as well so things come and go!

  10. I like this: “Good poetry, good art for that matter, should be appreciated differently by each person because of their own different experiences, and not uniformly as a result of the experiences of the artist. “

  11. In writing, feeling my own inadequacy in life experience has kept me from sharing my stories and novels. It took me a long time to let the art speak for itself – even though it is still a reflection of myself.

    • I’m glad you realize that you meed not feel inadequate. If someone else has qualms with the directions your art takes then that’s their problem.
      For my own part, I guess I have a fair amount of “life experience” but earning experience is like trying to fill a bucket that is bottomless; I still feel like there’s so much to do. But you can’t wait until you get to an experiential threshold to start producing. Sometimes you gotta say “experience be damned, I got the music in me and I gotta let it out.”
      I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

  12. Farm-Art-Think

    Hey, I like this level of self reflection. So much more acceptable within “the arts” than in authoritative and credentialed “science”. It resonated with me. Please check out this photo/post if you get a chance http://farmartthink.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/shadow-of-the-scientist/
    Regards, Ben

  13. Love the point about reading a book by choice that was once mandatory. I read the Great Gatsby on my own volition a few years ago and it changed my life. It’s funny how important choice can be.

  14. As a 17-year-old writer and poet (I’m working on the poetry, but it’s not my main focus), I liked this post. Sometimes I grow angry at my younger self when I read back my work and think, “I was so young and I didn’t understand anything.” But then I try and be kinder to myself and remember the things I went through at the time, and how they felt.

    • Hey Miriam,
      I’m happy to see that my post resonated with you. I too have gone back and looked at stuff I’d previously written only to “facepalm” myself and be like, “What was I thinking?” Its all part of the process I guess, but you’re right, we should all be kinder to ourselves. 🙂

  15. absolutely – its not the message that has changed – it is you or something in you that has changed. well said.
    congrats and good luck!

  16. jaschmehl

    Really enjoyed this. As John Green says, “Books belong to the reader,” a statement your post expands upon perfectly. And this is why re-reading old books and poems is essential to knowing yourself. The way you change over the years is reflected in the way your reaction to the work changes.

    • Hey Jaschmehl,
      That is an interesting quotation, particularly its use of the word “belong” and the ownership connotation attached to it. It reminds me that knowledge is a serial process, and very much like an organism in how it is constantly changing. Who then really does own it if everyone changes it and makes it their own? Its something I am going to think more about.

  17. MasterMind secret of Law of Attraction

    Nicely written .. you understand things

  18. Your outro should be “So Long, Jackasses,”.

  19. Andre,
    This is so colorful and so wonderful. How did you come up with the title six-minute memoir?

    • Hey Segmation,
      I didn’t come up with the title, it was the name of the show I was at. However, in the beginning of the show they mentioned that it was derived loosely from Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word poem. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  20. TCB

    In classic texts, the blind are called “seers”. You have tapped into the essence of why this is so. Excellent piece.

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