Ever since I watched a documentary on Encore about the career of Jerry Lewis -- Method to the Madness -- I haven't been able to get one of the comedian's iconic bits out of my mind.
Lewis pretends to be typing (on an invisible typewriter) to the sounds of classical music. He performs a sort of hand ballet, looking a bit like a conductor at times. As the bit goes on, he gets goofier as he becomes exhausted by his efforts:
One of the things that fascinates me about this gag is how it mixes the codes of high art with everyday life to such a delightful effect; it's part an elegant display of nimble dexterity -- and part slapstick.
In fact, this little concerto brought to mind a comment the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey made in his classic book on aesthetics, Art as Experience. Dewey cautions against drawing too fine a line between the creative arts and everyday life. As he puts it:
"The intelligent mechanic, engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his tools and materials with genuine affection, is artistically engaged."
Is not part of the humor of Lewis' skit found in the degree of "genuine affection" his typist exhibits for what we conventionally think of as a mundane task?
If Life Can Become Art, So Art Can Become Life
Another reason the Lewis routine grabbed hold of my thoughts is that it exhibits an impulse that I've seen mirrored in interesting ways by the world of high art. If Lewis suggests that there's something about everyday life that's artistic, the history of the avant-garde is replete with examples of poets and visual artists who have sought to make artistic culture part of everyday life.
Lautreamont, the prose poet and predecessor of Surrealism, insisted, for example, that "Poetry must be made by all..." Among the ways this idea found expression in the art movements of the 20th century was in the recipes for cooking up poems that Dadaist and Surrealist poets offered to make it theoretically possible for "anyone to be a poet."
Tristan Tzara's famous instruction for making a Dada poem, for example, was to cut out words from a newspaper, shake them up in a paper bag, splash them onto a table, and record the results.
Surrealist seer Andre Breton's "psychic automatism" offered a a formula to get your unconscious to write the poem for you:
"Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else...Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you're writing and be tempted to re-read what you've written."
Following this method religiously, Breton states later, should enable you to write entire books on subjects you know nothing about.
Perhaps you could even say that some aspects of the Slam Poetry movement pursued dissolving art into everyday life -- and vice versa. For in that format, as I remember, not only anyone can get up, "be a poet", and compete -- but all can be judges/critics who canonize the list of winners for the night.
In any case, it's no surprise that I associate Lewis' bit with certain modes of avant-garde art. Both offer examples of how conventional thinking and experience can be transformed in pleasurable and even liberating ways.
Of course, once such techniques have been around in the culture awhile, the more traditional aspects of the social order usually move in to mess with them. In our so-called free market society, such experiments are not so much repressed as standardized for money-making purposes.
Tzara's Dada poem is marketed as "Magnetic Poetry." Surrealism becomes a preferred method for drawing charisma to rock videos and ads, and its techniques featured in self-help books to aid in overcoming "writer's block" (and "unleash the voice within"). Slam morphs into movies, TV and Broadway shows and rap records. And "Jerry Lewis" is now a studio, a brand, a corporation -- an entire industry.
But before this process takes place, when low can still be high and vice versa, the joy that comes with the sense of new possiblities can still be felt.
Perhaps part of the appeal of this strain of culture is that it supports the belief that things can still transform in exciting ways. Maybe even that they can change. Thoughts?
More on art dissolving into life in my review of Nick Piombino and Toni Simon's Contradicta, now up at Evergreen Review Online.