Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Terrae Incognitae

A CNN headline yesterday stated: Farewell Starman: World mourns loss of a musical giant. The person mourned was David Bowie, dead at 69, a transformative figure in Rock Music. I did not recognize the name at all—but it brought an echo. I knew at least one famous Bowie, Jim Bowie, the American nineteenth century adventurer, he who’s famous for the Bowie Knife. And I’ve known about him since I was ten. That was in Europe, but I was a great admirer of American heroes and much wishing I had a knife like Bowie’s. The David I’m talking about was born just about then.

I didn’t recognize the name because, like most people, I have terrae incognitae in my life. The great majority of them, in my case, have to do with the arts, particularly the popular arts, and especially pop music—or the institutional aspects of the movie business.

But when the “world mourns” one is inclined to look a little closer. Well, today I learned that David Bowie, who was born in London on January 8, 1947, was born as David Robert Jones. In his early musical career, he went by the name of Davy Jones, a name that no doubt meant to echo Davy Jones’ Locker, thus where drowned sailors gather after death. Our David, however, had a problem. In the highly competitive world of Rock, another Davy Jones, Davy Jones of the Monkees, was also on the musical stage. To differentiate himself from that competitor, our David changed his name to David Bowie and—here’s the rub—he renamed himself deliberately after the famed Jim Bowie of the knife. The link in my mind that sprang up over that last name was not just a coincidence.

Yesterday also threw a brief light on another of my unknown earths. News also came yesterday of the Golden Globes Awards. Bowie perhaps had prepared me for a minor shock. I realized that I knew nothing about that award either. The Oscars were familiar (the Academy Awards), but Golden Globes? Well, the Oscars have been around since 1929, the Golden Globes “only” since 1947—the year of Bowie’s birth. The Movie Industry is better known to me than Rock, but not well enough to arouse a desire to follow its annual rituals of recognition. And that, rituals of recognition, in part illuminate my own ignoring of large segments of art.

The arts were at the very center of my interest in youth. As I studied them intensely, I became aware of something. There came a time—beginning somewhere in the Renaissance but certainly maturing by the time of the early twentieth century. An invisible Curtain descended. On one side of it, the object celebrated by the art was the total focus of the activity; on the other side of that Curtain, it was the technique used (expressionism, pointislism, etc.) and later the artist who became the focus; innovation and transformation became a badge of achievement; the art itself slowly became a mere means by which the artist became visible to the World. Having made that discovery, I grew quite indifferent to those terrae of the arts in which this transformation was reaching its climax and gradually transforming itself into a means for achieving fame and wealth.

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