Just now finished seeing a documentary, JOAN RIVERS: A Piece Of Work. She had me laughing out loud with her quips about living everyday life. She is 75 and getting old is one of her comic themes in this time of her life. She has some good and valid observations, "Aging is the one mountain you can't overcome. It's a youth society; you're too old, you're too old, you're too old." It's an observation you have to be there to feel its meaning. In her case, a performer, it's a very big deal getting old. For me, it's a new experience, a new way of seeing the world around me, a new way of interacting with others, and quite a few surprises. It's that for Joan Rivers too, and she uses it for comedy, like she uses her facelifts for comedy. Perhaps, most interesting for me was that she had to re-invent her persona so many times to keep a life-long career going. She said she likes living in luxury, doesn't want to retire and start watching a budget. She has to keep her career going to keep the life she wants going.
I've never paid much attention to her. She was part of the television package in my mind. Like I didn't know before I saw an interview with Ingmar Bergman that he was also a director at the Stockholm theater, I didn't know there was a whole lot to Joan Rivers and her comedy. The best of Joan Rivers is in her stage performances more than it is in television. Too many self-editing restrictions in television, the same restrictions as in political correctness, the origin of political correctness, so much that PC means nothing more than I-watch-tv. Joan's career is entertaining people who watch tv. She's good at self-editing and seeming spontaneous. She kept me laughing. I wanted my friend Pat to be watching it with me so we could laugh at the same things, so she could be satisfied I'm seeing it and I could be satisfied she's seeing it, each one of us knowing the other's enjoyment. For us to see this film together would be a shared hour and a half of real communication, in a sense, dreaming the same dream, laughing at the same jokes.
I believe this film was made over a period of one year with flashbacks to the past from time to time. I liked the juxtaposition of seeing her at home, in the limo, in everyday life, then seeing her on stage. All the time she's not on stage, she's talking about it and thinking about it. She said the first time she was on a stage, she thought, "This is where I belong." She said, "The only time I'm truly, truly happy is when I'm on a stage." She talked more than once about being born to the stage, the same as being born into a role. I think it's what we call talent. She tells of it the same as not having a choice. In her own word, she's a performer. It's an art form like painting, writing, directing, acting, singing, making music. And I appreciate Joan Rivers, after seeing this film, an artist. For my aesthetic appreciation, it's the same as a documentary of artist Larry Rivers. In myself, I can see that every time I approach a canvas with brush, anywhere along the progression of a painting, I feel a minor version of stage fright, fear that I'll make something terrible with no life in it. A friend, who is a university professor, goes into every class with stage fright. The classroom is his art form. Not his only art form, but an art form.
I'd say the difference between an artist banjo picker and somebody who just likes to play is the drive to make each time you play a given tune better than any time before, polishing, exploring, seeing what can be done with a given run of notes; how it sounds, how it feels, how it moves, what colors it makes, how it resonates. Art amounts to doing anything you do well, paying attention well, doing it with more skill each time. My friend Jr Maxwell was an artist tractor mechanic. He got all the tractors in NW North Carolina none of the other tractor mechanics could fix. He was intuitional about it. If he couldn't find a part, he could make one. I recall a time after Jr couldn't do the physical work anymore, somebody he knew was trying to figure out why his backhoe motor didn't have any power. He told Jr the problem. Jr said, It's the distributor. No it's not! It's not the distributor! He went on and took various parts of the motor apart and put them back together again, went back to Jr a couple weeks later saying, It was the distributor.
Going by this definition of what constitutes an artist, or art, as somebody who works at improving what he does, tries new approaches, polishes, never gets bored, when somebody asks me to paint the same painting again, I say, I'm not a factory. I could do the same subject again, but not a copy. It wouldn't have the freshness of discovery the original carries. My friend, Willard Gayheart, who makes pencil drawings of mountain people, contemporary mountain people, plays rhythm guitar, sings, writes songs, says he is not an artist. Maybe, looking at it from some high on an ivory tower definition of Art, but I believe definitions of art have changed and he didn't know about it. I've an idea that Willard's definition of art is something out there, beyond, unreachable but by a few, and he's not one of the few. Willard by day works on his drawings and by night plays his Henderson guitar. He's among the most humble people I've ever known. Jr Maxwell had a similar humility. These are two people I take for great artists and they don't know what they do has anything to do with art.
I'm recalling the first time I showed Jr one of my paintings, one of him playing his banjo. He suddenly shrunk from me, intimidated. I didn't want that to happen. He said, "How did you learn to do that?" I said, "Same way you learned how to pick a banjer, figured it out." It was the right thing to say. He got it. He wanted to play a banjer, he figured it out. I wanted to paint pictures, I figured it out. I was happy for that save. I did not want a man I respected as I did Jr intimidated by me. He had no reason to be intimidated. Lord have mercy, I was the one to be intimidated by him. He saw himself a farmer and mechanic who played a banjo on weekends. I saw him an artist, an advanced, mature artist. I couldn't tell him this. It was too abstract for his way of thinking. He thought of an artist making pictures like I do. My definition of artist includes bluegrass banjo picking, tractor mechanicking, welding. I saw Jr an artist who happened to be a farmer and mechanic, and a picker.
Joan Rivers said in summary of herself, "I am a performer. That is what I am. That's it." Well said. That's what she is. She's a comedian and an actress, a performer. I came away from it with respect for Joan Rivers as artist, same as I came away from Madonna's film, Truth Or Dare, with respect for her as an artist. And Gina Gershon's role in Show Girls gave me a similar respect for her as artist. I was glad for the insight into Joan Rivers as artist instead of just tv personality. I had no idea what she was about, pretty much equated her with Phyllis Diller, another one I didn't know much about. I feel like I've watched a documentary of an artist's life, same as if it were Elaine deKooning, Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, somebody who's life has been about making art.