I feel like I can never say enough about how much exposure to other types of art informs one’s own artistic process. If you cancelled one of your improv team’s rehearsals every month and took them on a field trip to an art museum, a sculpture park, a jazz concert, etc. it would not be time poorly spent. This doesn’t mean that every encounter with art has a direct correlation to one’s work—sometimes it is not only sufficient but just what one needs to simply be genuinely moved by a great artist’s rendering of the human condition in a way that resonates, reveals, surprises. But it is also impossible to encounter art without the potential for it to directly inspire one’s own work, and when this happens, the pleasure of the encounter is heightened.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and I bribed my older daughter into going to the MFA with the promise of a quilt exhibition. She’s into fashion and textiles, and I thought that she’d at least admit that quilts, if not exactly her thing, would be interesting to see for the skill exhibited alone. Also, it was Mother’s Day so suck it kids, we’re doing what mom wants.
The exhibit was very well curated, with paintings from well-known mid-20th century artists hung in each gallery to punctuate the dominant idiom of each part of the collection—“Variations,” “Optical Illusions”, etc. Some of the pieces were lovely and much of what you’d expect of a traditional quilt, if on the far end of the scale in terms of skill and execution. Other pieces seemed much more conscious of being seen as works to be appreciated for their beauty—perhaps on a wall or in some other form of more permanent display. They played with elements like pattern, color, negative space, and shape to varying effects and in ways that required one to see the whole pattern at once to appreciate them. All of them were beautiful and worth looking at with more than a passing glance.
There was one quilt, however, about which, when I turned the corner and saw it hanging, I hear myself remark spontaneously and aloud, “Whoa, what?!” It was complicated, aggressive. It wasn’t exactly even pleasant to look at at first, but it also captivated one’s attention undeniably. In fact, as I circled back to it several times throughout our visit, it was the quilt that consistently had the most viewers, picture takers, lingerers.
I’ll post a link to it, of course, but like many works of art, and particularly textiles, it’s hard to have a full appreciation for its complexity in a photograph. The small squares of flowers that jutted between the light and dark elements seemed to be constantly working to keep the dueling bands of color from flying apart. The diagonally matching rows of brown and dark blue at the four corners seemed at first to be simply time-faded versions of the inner black, then, on second notice, seemed to be almost a dare to the viewer to make sense of the design as a cohesive whole. The whole thing shook with a vibrant intensity.
After staring at the quilt in awe for some time, I did what I always do in such cases, which is read the placard to see if any explanation of the artist’s process or the curator’s interpretation of the work might help me make sense of my experience. Since, however, these quilts were probably not considered much more than lovely handiwork in their day, the names and intentions of the artists are assumed attributions at best. “Mrs. Herrick” seems to have created this one when she was 81, which is badass enough. But here’s what the collector of the piece had to say about it: “When we discovered this quilt, it was a revelation. Both Paul and I turned to one another and said, ‘This has nothing to do with staying warm; this is ART.’ It changed our perceptions and launched our collecting careers.” Dude, I’m with you, lady, and whoever Paul is.
First I thought to myself, “Yeah! Fuck the man! This quilt don’t give a shit if it keeps you warm! It’s fucking ART! Suck it, beds! Suck it, cold late-19th century New Englanders! This is ART.” But after the first wave of iconoclasm, I calmed down and thought, “and yet, in that it is made of the same materials as its less artistically aspirational counterparts, it will, in fact, keep you warm. Just because it is aesthetically shocking doesn’t mean it won’t keep out the chill. It doesn’t, in fact, have nothing to do with staying warm.”
And, of course, in that this was the piece that resonated most deeply for me, it made me think about the role of functionality versus artistry in improv comedy. Specifically, I had the following two thoughts, that matched with my two initial reactions respectively:
Just because you’re making a functional object out of traditional quilt materials doesn’t mean it can’t confuse, shock, and inspire people who are looking at it. In fact, encountering something strange and beautiful where one might otherwise expect to find something pleasant and unchallenging can result in an even more transcendent experience. It can also result in discomfort, and that’s okay, too. I’m positive there were some people who saw Mrs. Herrick’s quilt and were put off by the aggressive color contrast and seeming instability of the pattern. No great art can inspire without risking some alienation in the process. If your goal is to make every single person in the audience laugh at everything you do, first of all I’m worried about your self esteem, and secondly, you’ll be forever stuck pandering to the lowest common denominator. Go ahead and ask a little bit of your audience—ask them to linger because they’re confused, ask them to stay with you and allow the beauty and complexity of your work to hit them in waves. The best long form improvisation (and really the best improvisation in general, albeit the process is sped up in short form) begins with energy, yes, but also with a sense of the building of tension, of the layering of elements of character, relationship, and context that will conflict, contrast and finally resolve as the performance plays out. The satisfaction of that movement can hit a very deep place within us, even deeper than the initially pleasant but simpler patterns that might sell better at the Pottery Barn. And hey, Pottery Barn quilts are fine, they’re great—I bought one for my daughter’s bed when she was a kid because it was so pretty and nice and well-made—but they’re not gonna change your life, not in any fundamental way. We still need Mrs. Herrick’s quilt for that.
On the flip side, just because you’re making art doesn’t mean it shouldn’t function. It might not be “about” its function, but it’s still a fucking quilt, and if you say it’s not, you’re just being pretentious. It doesn’t need to not function in order for it to be art. If you’re doing improv comedy (which 90% of the time in improv you are) the function is comedy. Which means laughs. One every three seconds? Five every scene? No, silly. Laughs come in all shapes and sizes and depths, just like quilts come in all sizes and thicknesses and materials. The only dysfunctional way to approach your improv comedy show is to continually deny the audience laughs by purposely alienating them (the equivalent of making your quilt out of aluminum, which you can do, but now it’s some post-modern art situation and not a quilt in any real sense of the word). Of course if you really believe that improv comedy has the potential to reveal our human foibles in a meaningful and satisfying way, perpetual alienation serves no one, not even the art itself. You have to connect to your audience, and laughter is one of the check-ins that allows you to know they’re sharing this experience with you (incidentally, so is sighing, clapping, or that one person in the audience who instead of laughing repeats their favorite lines to their friend in an audible stage whisper). The point is, you’re keeping them warm, but it’s not about keeping them warm. Instead, keeping them warm is the way you gain their goodwill in order to keep them around and engaged with your art long enough for it to move them.
Del Close once said, “Is what we’re doing comedy? Probably not. Is it funny? Probably yes.” Is what Mrs. Herrick made meant to be a “quilt”? Probably not. Will is keep you warm? Probably yes. Is it art? Absolutely.