Thursday, April 7, 2016

Don't Let The Critics Give You The Blues

A taste of artist Mike Arciniega's work that
his inspired the Mistress to write more than once.

Back in 1984, on the day yearbooks were handed out at Ashland High, Michael Arciniega brought me his to sign. Mike was a few years behind me, in my sister's class, and had already decided to be an artist. My sister reminds me that even then, his drawings were magnificent. I've got to admit that in the thirty+ years that have passed since I graduated, I don't specifically remember his artistic aptitude, only his personality and his smile, both of which were stellar. But I really must have thought he was on his way to something great, because (as he reminded me when we bumped into each in the Ashland Community Food Co-Op a few years ago), the inscription I wrote in his yearbook predicted that he would become a famous and successful artist, but die a horribly violent death. I took up an entire page.
The actual sentiment…and yes,
that's me on the right. Wearing a
pink hairnet.
For those of you reading this who remember Mike, don't worry. He's alive and doing well in Ashland, and a lot taller than I remember him. He actually is an artist. As an actual career. And he says he's still working on making at least the first half of my prediction come true (maybe not so much the second half).

A while back, Mike reached out to me through Facebook, to ask for some advice on letting the world know that he was finishing up a new mural of the history of the Blues that would soon be unveiled at a reception at Martolli's Pizzeria South in our mutual home town. It's not the first time he's created a music-themed mural for Martolli's. A huge classic rock themed mural has graced the walls of Martolli's Pizzeria just off the plaza in Ashland for the past couple of years, and features a papier mache hand sticking right out of the wall, holding a piece of pizza. It's cool.

I saw some photos of the new mural, which is so much more than a simple mural. It's a multi-media installation that incorporates found objects like old liquor bottles, antique door keys, vintage barn wood and old window frames to punctuate the paintings of blues artists like Big Mama Thornton, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Cray, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

There's also a figure of Uncle Remus, the story teller of Br'er Rabbit and Song of the South fame. A figure that serves as a reminder, as Arciniega says, of some of the negative stereotypes of a former era. An era that birthed the blues.

Right around the time of the opening, Mike contacted me once again, asking for another bit of advice. But this time it was whether or not he should respond to a critic. Someone had seen his mural, and posted a very unfavorable review of the mural online. A review that inferred ignorance and racism perpetuated by white people. Arciniega (who was one of the more ethnically diverse kids I went to high school with) wondered if he should post something justifying and explaining his artwork to help lessen the chances that other people would misunderstand his art and call for him to be tarred and feathered (ok, just to be clear…he didn't say the part about being tarred and feathered, I did).

What I also said was that being an artist in the digital age meant Mike was going to have to start liberally applying asshole repellent. And then I told him about Rachmaninoff:

"It's super tough to take criticism. Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest composers ever, got into a 3 year creative block, depressed because his music was criticized. Needed hypnotherapy to get over it, and then came out of it with what's widely considered as one of the top 5 piano concertos ever written. So just remember that sometimes people will flock to see something a critic panned….and sometimes people will come out of the woodwork to come to your defense and call the critics for what they are most of the time…total asshats!"

It was the premier of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 that was brutally torn apart by the pen of critic (and composer) Cesar Cui. Cui, who's sarcasm was renowned, had this to say:

"If there were a music conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes."


What Cesar Cui probably didn't say in his review was that Alexander Glazunov, who conducted the premiere, was unprepared, under-rehearsed, and widely rumored to have been drunk. Cui, by the way, always had a bit of trouble himself having any success when his works were premiered. Seems as if people were always lining up to criticize his music. Imagine that. Cui also disliked Mozart, gave blistering reviews to works by Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, and had great disdain for Richard Strauss (the guy who brought us Also Sprach Zarathustra), calling his music "absurd cacophony that won't be music even in the 30th century."

Here it is, by the way. The piece Cui ripped apart, the larghetto from Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1. You be the judge. Hell? Or Heaven?

Like I told Mike, after depression and three solid years of writer's block, Rachmaninoff pursued hypnotherapy with Dr. Nikolas Dahl, then he put his boxing gloves back on, put pencil to paper, and suddenly Rocky was back in the ring like a champ with his 2nd piano concerto, a total knockout, which he dedicated to the doctor who helped cure him. I think you'll recognize the piece, even if you're not a huge classical fan. Because it's one of the most famous romantic works of all time.

Perhaps Rachmaninoff should've taken some solace in the fact that brilliant and successful artists throughout time have been pummeled by naysayers and suffered from a creative block. Some of the worst (and most effective) critics were sometimes their own parents. Barbra Streisand's mother initially told her daughter that her voice wasn't good enough to be a singer, and she wasn't pretty enough to be an actress. Leonard Bernstein's father continually pressured his son to give up music and do something worthwhile, like working in the family's beauty supply business.

Sting says he went through a ten year dry spell after "scraping the barrel of my soul" and had to start creating other characters to write about instead of his own life to get his mojo back. Kid Rock suffered from writer's block for a few years after being snubbed by his record label for not putting out the kinds of songs they were interested in, and Trent Reznor went on a downward spiral after releasing The Downward Spiral, which left him with addiction issues, depression and a creative void for several years. Even Jack Kerouac considered giving up writing and even his own life before he took a spontaneous trip across the country with a friend, and ended up writing his best known novel, On The Road

Artists, according to one university study, experience two to three times the rate of psychosis, suicide attempts, mood disorders and substance abuse than people in other types of careers. Is it any wonder though, considering the soul-slamming they go through?

To all the artists, writers and musicians in the world, let me remind you what Oliver Wendell Holmes said. "Many people die with their music still in them." Don't let that happen to you. Get it out. Don't let anyone stop you. There's always going to be critics. The best advice I can give someone in your position, or my friend Michael's position is to challenge your critics to do better than you. And remember that sometimes your most amazing, brilliant work will come after the harshest criticism has been lobbed at you.

For my friend Mike, here's a streaming Spotify History of the Blues playlist that's not full of doubt, criticism or self-loathing, but it just might give you the blues. But in this case, that's a good thing. And check out his story of the blues mural at Martolli's South at 1469 Siskiyou Blvd in Ashland.

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