Artistless Art

One week ago, on a Queens-bound R train, I uttered a phrase I've never said before in my life: “Thank GOD I was on this train!!!”  

Here’s why.

The R train and it's patrons were rolling along in typical zombie-like fashion Friday night, when a few laughing women boarded at 23rd Street.  They were easily the brightest lights in the car, but I wasn’t paying much attention until one of them jumped up, clutched the gripper pole, and announced, “I. AM. A. POET!”  She had a gray buzz cut and Iris Apfel's glasses.  She proclaimed, “This is a poem I wrote when I was ten. It’s called 50 is the Limit.”  Then she recited, sang, and danced through the dramatic story of a speeding pull-over.  

It was pretty much a song.  The verses looped around the big refrain, “50 is the limit. 50 is the limit. HEY!”  On “hey!” she would throw her head back and hands up.  She shimmied up, down, and around the pole.  It was her freedom song.  

It wasn't Show Time. It was a generous gift.  She shared the poem with us like a child shares a toy with friends. And the selflessness of it drew us all in and had every person in the car hooping and hollering along.  I have ridden the subway approximately nine trillion times, and I have NEVER seen such a smiley train.  Everyone was laughing and talking like old friends.  It wasn’t just tourists who enjoyed this, because, let’s face it, tourists enjoy squirrels.  It was real-life, downtrodden New York commuters who blossomed into giddy children at a party.  

The funny thing is, by any classic standards, this woman was not a good poet.  I can guarantee that not one of those commuters walked away saying, “Wow, wasn’t she great!”  They walked away saying, “Wow, wasn’t that great!”  

Because art is about the audience, not the artist.  I’ve seen some fantastic performances in my life, but I have never seen such artistless art.  It wasn’t about her at all.  And she wanted nothing from us. I’m not going to lie to you, I actually thought to myself afterward, “that was the best performance I’ve ever seen.”  Not subway performance. Best performance. She made us feel joy in that moment deeply and honestly. She was in service.

I was recently speaking with a friend who is transitioning from the bright world of kid’s music to the slightly grayer one of adult’s.  She explained how she is so comfortable in kid’s music because she, the performer, is pretty much irrelevant. Her job is to make the children shine.  And now she is struggling with the move into the spotlight, making the performances more about her.  

But she doesn't need to do that. In fact, she is in the advantageous position of already having mastered that which most performers never get-- that IT'S NOT ABOUT US.  Even when we sing our most somber ballads about the most personal heartbreaks of our lives, it’s still not about us.  To borrow her words, our job is to make them shine.  Whoever they may be. When executed properly, people will come find you after the show and spray you with stories of their own heartbreaks, homesicknesses, and loves.  This is a good thing. Don't be offended when they don't ask you about yours.
Artistless art can be a very tricky thing for professional performers.  Maybe it’s even an impossible thing, because once money is involved, so is promotion.  It has to be.  And that’s okay.  I don’t have a fool-proof how-to here, but I think it's important for us performers to ponder this as we busk on.  And to remember that every performance is a gift to others, not a gift to us.

New goal-- don't leave people thinking, “Wow, she’s great!”  Instead, leave a subway-full of moved strangers in your wake, laughing to themselves thinking, “Those poor suckers in the next car. They missed this.”

Love Love Love,

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