Channeling Affections: Whitney, Modigliani, and Me
02 Mar, 2012 - Cameron Dezen Hammon
I keep thinking of things I’d like to read, eat, or clean today, (Lauren Winner’s new memoir! Roasted Tomato and Eggplant Cous Cous! The guest bathroom!) instead of doing what I know I should be doing– writing.
In the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time and energy talking to artists of faith about their process, about the importance of showing up for their work, even if, especially if– in that day, or that hour, it isn’t any good.
But today I am squirming; I am doing everything I can think of to avoid just that.
Here’s the thing– if I’m honest, I’m terrified of writing something “not very good.” And I’m also afraid of writing something really good. I’m afraid of being corny, or revealing too much. I’m also afraid of revealing too little. I’m afraid my work matters, and I’m afraid it doesn’t. I’m afraid this essay isn’t as good as my last, that you’ll see the truth about me- that on my best day I’m quite mediocre.
Even though we were both Jersey girls, I never met Whitney Houston, though some of my childhood friends did; her spectre loomed large in our small, North Jersey bedroom community. Back then she was one of a kind, the only female artist who could seamlessly blend the vocal gymnastics and conviction of gospel with the catchiness of pop. I sang her songs each night into my bathroom mirror, slicking back my hair in imitation of her first record cover, heart longing and prepubescent voice straining to emulate this beautiful, powerful woman.
As I sit here in my pajamas two decades later, avoiding my work, I cannot imagine the mounting pressure Whitney Houston experienced with each profound achievement. Back then it seemed each song, each album or movie was more wildly successful than the next. And with those successes came our scrutinizing glare. No matter how much we claim to love our artists, our culture doesn’t allow them to fail– not creatively or personally. The one thing we obsess over more than building an artist up is watching them fall apart.
After decades of unfathomable success, in the last handful of years Whitney Houston’s personal demons, her abusive marriage, and struggle with drugs and alcohol, threatened to eclipse her triumphs. It was like watching a train derail, and most of us, no matter how much her music meant to us, preferred to look away.
I recently watched a film called “Modigliani,” about Italian born artist Amadeo Modigliani. It was an interesting time to watch such a movie, all about the struggle of a profoundly gifted artist to survive his addictions, to keep up with his more successful contemporaries (Pablo Picasso) and leave a meaningful legacy. And though he left behind a magnificent body of work, his story, his difficult life and painful death, is one of the most tragic in modern art. Someone once told me I resemble a Modigliani painting– and so when I went to the MOMA in New York to see a collection of his work I was shocked by what I saw. Not by the paintings resemblance to my features, but by their resemblance to something unnameable in me I thought I was doing a good job hiding from the world. Modigliani’s paintings saw me. And obviously, I am not the only one who feels this way.
“I Will Always Love You” came out a few months after a high school friend of mine died in a car accident. I was sixteen, and I remember listening to that song over and over on my headphones, walking each day to the subway that would take me to my classes at the High School for the Performing Arts & Music & Art. With my broken heart lodged firmly in my throat, I found it very hard to sing in those days. But something in me resonated when I heard her sing. Something in her voice elevated my grief above the black and white and grey of everyday. Something in her voice, in that song, heard me. And of course, millions around the world felt exactly the same way.
I’ve been singing since I was a child, and for much of my life music bordered on obsession. So when I first moved to Texas almost ten years ago, I decided to ‘fast’ music, in much the same way one might fast coffee or meat for Lent. The previous year I had performed a lot to support my first CD, one that took me forever to record and absorbed all my meager savings. I hauled my cheap keyboard up and down the east coast on the Chinatown bus, sometimes playing to 100 people, sometimes 10. A song of mine was being played on an influential college radio station in Boston, and its success struck me with terror– how could I ever repeat this? Music was my golden calf, I had no doubt; it was something I worshiped in the place of God, something I loved even though it couldn’t love me back.
When I stepped away from music the ugliest parts of me came out. I was paranoid, I feared I would never make another record, that I’d missed my window of relevance, that I’d ceased to matter as an artist. I scrutinized my songs, convincing myself they were never very good to begin with, but deep down I feared I was worthless without them. It took some time– about six months actually. As I waited for God to give music back to me, I learned a lot about myself. And when He did give it back to me, it wasn’t in the way I’d expected.
I remember standing outside the double glass doors of the church on the rainy, Friday evening, sweating, heart pounding in my throat, trying hard not to run back to my car. I had never sung in church before, and feared I would be struck by lightening. I hardly thought myself pious, and I was a new Christian, but I’d accepted the invitation to sing, and later as I did, I experienced peace for the first time in a long time. The pieces of my musical identity that had been so scattered, so painful, seemed to fall directly into place. A small voice whispered to my heart, “This is what you were made to do.”
As artists, our relationship to our work is complicated. I am still often guilty of foisting unreasonable expectations on my creative work, of expecting it to tell me who I am, to tell me that I matter. It’s only when I step away, when I pause to listen– not just to my own hopes and fears, but to God, that I learn who I truly am; I am more than my work. I can only wonder what would’ve happened, what songs and painting and stories we’d have from the artists we’ve lost too soon, had they stepped away from it all, had we let them, even if for just a season. What would’ve happened if the songbird from Newark, or the Italian-Jewish painter, had stepped away from their work before it consumed them?
A friend once described worship leading as “channeling affections;” of drawing the love of the people for God and reflecting it back to Him. I am convinced this is just what artists must do, no matter what their medium. When an artist channels the affection of her audience back to God, never letting it rest long on her, then and only then can she escape being crushed under its weight, under the pressures of its successes and failures. Perhaps then will she have the courage to see herself as God sees her; not through the lens of her last song, or painting, or essay, but through the lens of the Great Artist, the Creator, the one for whom she is the greatest masterpiece.