Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (On-‘hree duh Too-‘loose Low-‘twhek–say it fast) mastered the grotesquery I so lovingly associate with Parisian nightlife at the turn of the century (the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth), an era taking center stage right now at the Frist Art Museum in their show, Paris 1900: City of Entertainment. Grotesque–curled and crinkled like gargoyle faces, sneering–not to shame the women involved, but to highlight the excesses of high society men, who could afford to lay out all night, imbibe spumante (while the poor artists imbibed absinthe, and sometimes the not-so-poor, like our dear Henri), and secure the services of singing and dancing courtesans. It really is like in the movie Moulin Rouge–maybe not as polished, or as over-the-top theatrically, as the perfected routines and filmed angles of the movie, but in spirit, a match. I imagine the can-can was quite a spectacle for the booze-buzzing minds of men with no fear of repercussions for lecherous behavior. It is not for me to judge those men, but it is for me to acknowledge that without them, there may not have been a “Belle Epoque,” at least not in the charmed, green-glowing, guiltily pleasurable fashion which art history has handed down to us. And I wouldn’t want a Paris 1900 without Toulouse-Lautrec in it, without the features he painted so fantastically distorted by excess.
I think of the approach of World War I, during which the youth of France would be decimated in a war for which no one was prepared–the first modern war, with long-range artillery and machine guns; trench warfare, with all its dismal living conditions: arms and legs of the dead protruding from the soft mud. I swear I’m not judging those wealthy, lecherous men, on display in so many of the paintings in Paris 1900. What else could well-off men be expected to do? Besides, the war was a good fourteen years away. No one saw it coming–not yet.
Paris 1900 would’ve been a good time to be alive, if you were a man of means in the City of Lights. Maybe, too, if your were a woman of means, though I suspect the same freedoms weren’t afforded you, regardless of social class. Imagine the wives of these men at home. It’s two a.m., the men are out, drifting through Montmartre, brain-blitzed on champagne, and their eyes have begun seeking unfamiliar entertainments. The wives at home are trying to sleep, trying to convince themselves their husbands are only out laughing with friends and have lost track of time, essentially remaining faithful. They suspect otherwise, but they’re not ready to accept it (and they might never be). And they wouldn’t dare threaten their own fragile position by making accusations of infidelity. They’d do it subtly, with guilt and moralistic innuendo. And the men may or may not take the bait, yielding to the hints of their wives, and the damnable situation proves to us, one-hundred-eighteen years later, that the women–even the rich ones–held staggeringly little influence over their well-heeled husbands. I may have this all wrong, but I look at the ghostly profile of a mustachioed man puffing a cigar in Beraud’s painting, and his top hat is more solid than his face, and he’s more-or-less a demon, or if not a demon, then an apparition of debauchery. An apparition in a long coat. And that’s when I feel I’m dead-on about the dynamic at home for these men and their beleaguered wives: lots of things left unsaid. Just as there are lots of things the paintings aren’t saying. But it’s not like we need them to.
Demystify your art making, at least for the sake of getting it done. Whether your art be painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, singing, acting, dress making, crochet, needlepoint, woodwork, bread baking, stenciling, scrapbooking, cello playing, guitar strumming, furniture restoration, hair cutting, stand-up comedy, or collage.
I will create something like a parable, except my protagonist is a true historical figure, and the moral may be murky, if existent at all. But the thing is, the accepted cultural narrative, i.e., art history as we know it, depends on an outcome other than what this “parable” offers. Nonetheless, here’s a brief, alternative, anti-art history:
Suppose the painter Paul Cezanne (pronounced say-‘zon, or says-‘awnh, if you’re being snooty), having returned to the French countryside after a stint in Paris, decided to pursue other things besides painting. In Paris, he’d hung out with important painters and gained valuable artistic insights, but feeling himself more a rustic, he followed his heart back to the provincial environs of his youth. He told himself he’d paint mountains and forests, rock quarries and the Mediterranean Sea. His intentions were good. But when he got there, a procrastination set in–one from which he’d never fully recover.
It started as anxiety: a lurking fear that he’d fail to achieve what those great Parisian painters had achieved. What’s left for me to discover, he often wondered. He knew he should weather this anxiety and get to work anyway, but being of a passive temperament, he often let it get the best of him. And in those days, there were no anti-anxiety meds to ease the mind. A prescription for Lexapro might’ve made all the difference. Instead, he sipped coffee all day, willfully blinding himself to the exacerbatory effects of caffeine on his anxiety. By late afternoon, he’d be a jittery wreck, unable to paint, unable to do anything thing but laze about Pontoise, growing bitterer by the hour, mean-mugging the villagers who hadn’t grasped the great destiny that was meant to be his. How could they? But he afforded them no grace. He’d escape to the woods, taking long walks on old wagon roads, cursing life for not delivering on its promise of artistic renown, carrying his sketchbook but drawing nothing. I’ll figure things out eventually, he’d think.
Soon, however, he afforded himself no grace, either. He became quite the wallower in self-pity. What had gone wrong? He was supposed to be the father of some great art movement, but he was merely the son of a banker, living off a great inheritance, producing no art. His palette grew dusty, his brushes stained and stiff with inactivity. In the village, he wasn’t even known to be an artist anymore. All he was was the son of Monsieur Cezanne, the deceased banker. At one point, local officials wanted him to run for office, thinking he was somehow qualified because his father had been a prominent citizen back in Aix. But Paul knew he wasn’t the public service type, so he graciously denied their request, though they plied him with brandy and rare tobacco. To be honest, he did consider it; it would be a level of prominence, after all. They were standing around him in the courthouse basement, the brandy working its intoxication, the conversation flowing, and he thought maybe, just maybe. But the next morning, in the grip of a pulsing headache, he remembered he was supposed to be an artist, and he was just foolish enough to believe it might still happen. He stood by his original decision not to run for office.
This parable is starting to run thin. Here’s the point: if the real Paul Cezanne had had any kind of sense of the greatness that was to come, he might’ve gotten nothing done. If he’d thought he might one day be referred to as the Father of Modern Art, then there may have never been a series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, or of his influential bather scenes. Card players, Madame Cezanne, still-lifes–so many monumental works we wouldn’t have. He would’ve sabotaged his own greatness. That mantle–Father of Modern Art (who could live under that expectation?!)–would’ve gone to someone else.
The point behind the point: demystify your art making. Demystify your writing. Demystify your singing. Demystify your acting. Demystify your whatever. Do it all for the joy of doing it, or for your obsession with it. Any reason is better than doing it because you think it will one day lead to greatness. If you do it because you think it will one day lead to greatness, then not only will you probably fall short, but you’ll be letting down our species by wielding such a shallow motive.
Maybe greatness is the wrong word, because art deserves the pursuit of greatness. Striving to make great art is worthwhile, but striving to have art be proof of your own greatness–that’s the shallow part, the seedy part. I’m confident in saying that the real Cezanne pursued greatness in art, but not greatness through art. I suspect he didn’t care about personal fame at all.
I knew the carnival was there, but I couldn’t yet see it. Rounding a long curve at twenty miles-per-hour, around the northern perimeter of the CoolSprings Galleria, with the interstate running parallel on my left, I looked up at just the right moment, and through a break in the tall trees, I saw flashing, colored lights. The lights formed a number and a word: “1001 Nachts.” At first, a tiny spark of excitement rushed through me, provoked by the sight of a carnival ride–a vestige of childhood perhaps, one I wouldn’t have expected to feel as an adult. But there it was, the old excitement: even though I wasn’t going to ride anything or play any games, or even treat myself to some wayward, deep-fried confection, the little surge had come. Second, I wondered why the word nights was in German. The original collection of stories known as The Thousand and One Nights, as you probably know, was written in Arabic, so it had to be translated into something, right? But why not English, for an American audience? Here are two theories: either the ride originally operated in Germany, OR . . . somebody thought “1001 Nachts” sounded more exotic. My measly Google research yielded nothing, so I’ll go with the latter of those theories, a choice allowing me to good-naturedly mock the ride maker’s naming decision while still appreciating the imagination that went into creating this magic-carpet simulating ride.
It was 4:45 on a Wednesday afternoon, so I didn’t expect a bustling crowd, but what I found was no crowd at all. In fact, there were no visitors anywhere, except me. There were people milling about, but it soon became clear they were all employed by the amusement company–each one had on some color variant of the same digitally-embroidered polo shirt. Rides spun with no one on them; appeals to play games were directed solely at me. It was a bit surreal. Finally, someone informed me that the carnival didn’t officially open until five, though I was free to stroll through the premises and be harassed by game operators. I was only a few minutes early, but early nonetheless. It was opening night, and no one was there yet . . . but me.
Some of the game operators wore headsets, the purpose of which apparently was to let them speak to customers without yelling. I found this out after I’d only barely entered the loop, before I’d made eye contact with anybody. “You ready to shoot some hoops?” It took a couple seconds to find the source of the question. Then up ahead, some thirty or forty yards, standing in front of a basketball shooting game, a young man was smiling at me. It seemed ridiculous he’d solicit my money from that distance. But it didn’t seem to matter to these hi-tech carnival barkers whether I was near them or far away. Indeed, a few minutes later, a woman spoke to me via headset from a mere four feet, which was kind of weird, like talking on the phone to someone who’s in the same room. She demonstrated how to stand a bottle upright with a ring-on-a-string so I’d know the secret and all I’d have to do was give her a few dollars and then I’d have my pick of any of the stuffed animals hanging from the canopy’s ceiling. Something I found hilarious, though, was her response when I told her no: she said, “I understand.” Why this was so funny, I’m not sure. I guess because it was such a real-world answer to a situation that was inherently absurd. It surprised me she didn’t keep pressing. Maybe she too sensed how uncomfortable this one-on-one interchange with a headset was. I moved on, passing through the shadow of 1001 Nachts, which soared atop its flat post, sometimes lit, sometimes not.
The highlight of my solitary, earlybird, parking-lot carnival stroll would have to be the freak show tent. I never expect to see this in modern times, except for maybe at Coney Island, where a legitimate historical–albeit quirky and gloriously anachronistic–culture surrounds it (though to Coney Island’s credit, I’ve noticed the gentler term “sideshow” often used in place of “freak show” in their promotional literature). The phenomenon of the freak show evades the flailing and grasping tentacles of political correctness, somehow; the whole idea of profiting off labeling people as “freaks” seems like it would be an intolerable subversion in our society. But nevertheless, at the very back of the carnival, a red and yellow striped tent stretched wide across the pavement, its facade covered in various classic freak-show style posters, testifying to an uncharacteristic laxity in the aforementioned political correctness.
The posters on the tent might’ve been as much decorative as they were informative. I couldn’t tell from the posters what was actually inside the tent versus what may have been merely a set of freak show tropes, included on the facade for simple effect. There’s no way all the things advertised were really in there: Chupacabra, Bigfoot, a unicorn, Dolly the Two-faced Cow, and the Eight-Legged Freak–all under one roof?! Come on now! (Save something for the other freak shows.) But I do love the freak show aesthetic–part Victorian, part Vaudeville. It’s a look that stubbornly has never changed with the times. Maybe because, every generation, no one can believe it’s still here.
A dry-erase board near the tent’s entrance provided clarity: there was definitely a fire-eater and a sword-swallower inside (the same person, perhaps?). While I was taking pictures, a slump-shouldered and heavily pierced man in a tank top shuffled by and disappeared into the gloom of the tent. A minute or two later, I could see him sitting in there, on a metal folding chair. I wondered if he was the sword-swallower. He was watching me, which was more awkward than creepy. I had the sense he was no freak at all but a regular guy, just waiting for his shift to begin. In that minute, he was the subject of his own life, but when the show began, that’s when he’d transform from man to freak–from subject to object. Questions like “did he choose this life or did it choose him?” ran through my mind. And I guess I could ask that of any carnival worker. It’s no secret those jobs are few people’s idea of desirable. Yet we’ll always have those jobs, and we’ll always have the people who work them–thoughts which remind me of the importance of kindness. It’s easy to look down on people whose job it is to beg strangers to compete for prizes they don’t really want, prizes that probably aren’t worth the money spent trying to win them–stuffed animals that not even kids really care about. But behind that solicitous carnival worker is a person who probably wonders how they ended up there; a person who feels they have no other option; a person trying to stay sober; a person who’s lost everything; a person who never had anything; a person who’s alone; and yes, probably one or two who actually like what they’re doing–people who find freedom in the transience of it, in the camaraderie of it (I witnessed this in those few minutes before the place opened); people who enjoy helping others have fun, and certainly people who don’t get hung up on whether a sign reads “1001 Nights” or “1001 Nachts.” So in addition to me reminding myself to be kind, here’s another reminder I got from my fourteen-minute-long carnival-wandering experience: people are more than their jobs. I wish there was a Netflix documentary profiling carnival workers. I think it would be fascinating.
As I was returning to my car, other people had begun to arrive. A woman took a picture of her daughter posing with raised arms in front of the Ferris wheel. I can only imagine that photo ended up on social media, complete with witty hashtags and links to various family members’ accounts. 50 Cent’s “In da Club” was playing somewhere; it seemed to be coming from the basketball shooting game. A worker near the front was mouthing every word. I drove out the way I’d come in, and just before the carnival disappeared behind the trees, I looked in my rearview mirror, and you can probably guess what I saw, hovering high above where the carnival used to be: 1001 Nachts.
**For a truly, um, “unique” story involving the ride in the first paragraph, 1001 Nachts, click here.