“Artist” is among the words that have become wobbly to the point of needing legions of clarifying adjectives (incorrectly and overused words similarly being pummeled into uselessness include genius, hero, victim, and survivor). Meanwhile, the completely respectable word “artisan” is more suitably applied to the majority of creative activities.
Between artist and artisan there are similarities in terms of skills, materials and tools. However, it is in the differences that they can be more accurately labeled. The artisan can step into an existing marketplace with greater ease than the artist. An artist must create a reason why anyone should pay attention to their particular take on the world. More potently, art is what emerges in the mind of the partaker (listener, viewer, reader, etc.). Each receiver forms a unique connection with the work. This is where the appellation of artist is most accurate.
Using the example of a guitarist (since this is why I’m writing in the first place), a technically proficient player can dazzle, causing a listener to wonder how they did what they did. This is an artisan, offering an important testament to what accomplishments can be achieved by skill. An artist, on the other hand, creates sounds that cause the listener to enter the mysterious realm where time is distorted, where thoughts turn inward, where ephemeral glimpses of the beautiful fragility of life flash in non-narrative succession. Those are part of the alluring potency of art.
The artist David Lindley played a riveting 90-minute show at the Van Dyck last week. The set was his familiar amalgam of originals, covers by assorted contemporaries, and resonantly vivid traditional numbers. All were performed on his variety of stringed instruments: an oud, an adapted bazouki and several different Weissenborn lap-steel guitars, interspersed with droll anecdotes of musical encounters, travels, and food.
One song in particular became the heart of the night for me: Warren Zevon’s “The Indifference of Heaven.” Over the deep, rich tones of the Weissenborn, Lindley sang a series of potent lines that stood on their own with unshakable emotive force. “Nothing left but the sounds of the front door closing forever,” “We contemplate eternity beneath the vast indifference of heaven,” “All life folds back into the sea.” The secret to the gentle wallop he delivered was in the low notes of that guitar. They breathed, they became the atmosphere in the room. Notes decayed and died, the guitar returned to silence, a mirror of my own mortality. At the song’s conclusion, I was left wondering where I had been.
When you are given the opportunity to go to these places that exist uniquely inside your own mind, you simply thank the artist for having opened the door for you.