Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Bits of Stuff That Let Art Happen

A while ago, I wanted to write a poem about someone working in a pen factory, putting the tiny little caps onto pens that would be used to sign contracts, endorse checks, and write poems.

Behind any kind of art that now exists—even one as insubstantial as poetry often seems—there is a pile of materials that must exist in order for the art to be made. Someone must mix the colors for paints, creating the precise balance of pigment and chemical that makes a paint burnt umber rather than sienna or rust. Someone must run the machines that press out keys for the keyboards upon which novels and poems are written. Someone must mine the kaolin that's refined into porcelain clay. Yet how many of the people who produce the materials that allow art to exist have the money to possess the final “product”—or the free time to appreciate it?

The gap between those producing the raw materials and those creating the final artworks has long interested me. It’s more elaborate, too, than just producer/artist—for a shade of paint, there’s a mine where the pigment is obtained, then the pigment is refined, then the paint is created and sold. How wide is the economic and cultural gap between the laborer who pulled the ore from the earth and the artist who uses it as one shade on a canvas?

Most people in my zip code can afford to buy a book of poetry, but some the next zip code over would find even that purchase difficult to squeeze into a budget. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy a book now and then, but most visual art is beyond reach. Choosing to buy a painting I love would mean not paying our gas bill, and so I prioritize. But the fact of that choice is a sad one.

Tolstoy said something like, “To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men is the same as saying some kind of food is very good but that most people can’t eat it.” I think about both sides of that idea frequently; my husband works as a food writer, and we sometimes find ourselves noshing delicious things during press events at restaurants we can’t afford or would have to save months to eat at.

I never got around to writing the pen poem, but this weekend my husband mentioned a job he had after high school that captured another iteration of the exact image I’d been considering: he worked in a plant that made pads for saxophones, stamping out tiny bits of felt all day.

What a tedious, mind-numbing, menial job—without which no one would have ever known the names of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Lester Young …

** This draft passed out hearing Kenny G. **


sam of the ten thousand things said...

Enjoyed this piece, MC. Amazing image:
"neck crooked over the table where he stood,
again and again, he’d make the hammer fall,
producing thousands of these precise circles"

That's strong. The "same repeated gesture," but absolutely necessary to the world.

M. C. Allan said...

Thanks, Sam. So many of these small repeated gestures hold up our daily lives and rarely get a moment's notice.

Maggie May said...

'laborers like him who knew /what ache must go into a horn'


M. C. Allan said...

thanks, Maggie! too kind.

TackyParker said...

What a lovely and inspiring poem.

M. C. Allan said...

thanks, tacky parker. appreciate the drop by!

Tim Carman said...

I should probably, as a responsible journalist, set the record straight about my youth. I was never Bukowski cool enough to grab a sixer and drink myself into a stupor while blasting Coltrane's "Om" to ear-splitting levels. I pretty much went home and took a nap. But I absolutely love that Carrie thinks I was that hip as a 17 year old in Omaha!

M. C. Allan said...

I was actually under the impression that you didn't get into jazz until well after high school ... so this is a classic example of poetic license on my part!

Besides, you were definitely that hip -- you were just Jagger hip rather than Coltrane hip at that point.