Yesterday morning it was on ABC News, and today it hits the New York Times: mystery "Piano Man" is now a big-time star, complete with an alluring photograph, where he clutches his music and the sun glints through his hair. (Kudos to Dean Olsher for first alerting me to this breaking news; he knows what is and isn't news!) The Times shares my cynicism, opining obliquely: "There is, of course, the delicate question of whether the man is a bona fide patient..." The "of course" says it all; it's a figure of speech intended to bring us all into communal agreement, whether or not that agreement exists; it is the implication of hushed, huddled gossip, of connivance; it says that what it's about to say needn't really be said, since it is obvious, and yet it will say that thing, since something needs to be made manifest, has to be expressed... "There is, of course," [what?]
Let us hypothesize for the moment that we have a delicious sham on our hands, and that Piano Man is a monstrously clever chap who has decided to create a career through this bizarre and instantaneous publicity. What he has done is very simple. He has merely externalized the internal metaphors which we all carry around in our mythology of "the artist." He has made the cliché into reality:
The artist is a loner. Check: he was found wandering alone on the Isle of Sheppey. No kin have come forward.
The artist speaks only through his art. Check: he has not spoken to hospital personnel; he only communicated one thing, his drawing of a grand piano (drawing=art, not speech).
The artist is a foreigner, an exile, "not one of us." Check: he seems to have emerged from the sea itself, soaked in ocean water (though wonderfully, in a Kafkaesque touch, still in his concert attire). From what distant, exotic land could he have emerged? My bets are on Atlantis.
The artist is the survivor of trauma, which he communicates to an audience. He suffers for his art. Check. This trauma is even more powerful because we have no way of knowing what it is. It is, therefore, unimaginable. Did he throw himself overboard because of a lost love? Etcetera, etcetera. Or more appropriately: yadda yadda yadda.
The artist is attractive. Since what he/she communicates is beautiful, he/she must be beautiful too. Check. Without this, the whole scheme would be ruined. One must count one's assets.
The artist is insane. Check, as defined by his current accommodations.
The artist has no identity, outside of his art. Check: No kin have come forward. Labels, even, were cut out of his clothing. Nothing about him is inscribed. On the contrary, the artist inscribes, does all the writing, the telling, the showing. He himself is a blank slate, a pure expressive instrument. No one can truly know the artist, since he has no "self." Artists, therefore, only truly love their art. Etcetera.
Against which, I must counterpose the "reality" of myself as artist, on May 18, 2005, in a Manhattan apartment, clutching coffee in one hand while I stab at my laptop keyboard: the difficult reality that I must once again go to the piano and try to begin again, with that giant pile of wonderful, clamoring music. The labels are still on my clothing. Like my apartment, my playing is full of things I would like to "fix up;" there are some things that could be remodelled in a single go, but most things require constant care, mundane attention, a daily calisthenics of the fingers and the mind and proddings for the imagination... The greatest pianists I know seem to approach even their most familiar pieces like blank crossword puzzles, as something to be filled in fresh; each time just as daunting, the whole piece must be "understood again." This is reality as I know it. The clichés of Piano Man can be understood in a flash, as a totality; that is why they make great news. They have the completeness of image. But the Schubert Trio (the E-flat Major) I am about to practice: I know I will never traverse it completely, ever. Which is a good thing.