This morning I sat in Orchestra Hall, listening to pianist Emmanuel Ax’s fingers fly over the keys filling the Hall with the joyful, sparkling tones of Mozart. His playing was so effortless, the communication between he and the orchestra so relaxed, it was like having all 50 of them in my living room playing just for me.
Then over lunch I was perusing the news, where I read about a 56- year old student at one of our local universities who may sue the school because he was banned from campus for writing an essay about his sexual fantasies regarding his creative writing teacher.
But it got me thinking about what it takes to be a true artist, the responsibility of the creative person, and the right of free speech. The artist I heard this morning has been performing internationally for over 40 years. His playing reflects not only dedication to his art, but true love and respect for the music. He presents Mozart to the listener with such love and pride, rather like a dear friend would offer a beautiful bouquet or poem as a gift to another.
The student at the university claimed in his “essay” that he wanted his teacher to “kick his ass into being a real writer,” and then proceeded to discuss the ways in which her physical appearance would “distract him from learning anything,” thus demonstrating very little respect for the craft of writing and even less for one he’s asking to teach it to him.
In his remarks about the possibility of legal action against the university, the student writer sites his right to “freedom of speech.” It pains me how often that phrase is used to defend egregious and selfish behavior. As with any “right,” this one also bears a responsibility – to act with the best interests of the common good and to refrain from unnecessary harm to others. I don’t believe this student’s essay qualifies on either count.
In order to be a master at any art, to be a “real” writer or musician or painter or dancer, you must take the work seriously, you must believe in its power and purpose, and you must treat your audience with respect. Above all, you must perform your art with dedication to the highest possible quality you can provide, whether it’s lifting music off the piano keys or putting words on the page. When you can honestly say you’ve done your best at all those things, then you might approach the kind of sublime experience I had listening to Mozart this morning.
And who wouldn’t rather be sublime than ridiculous?