Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Emperor is Naked!

My mom told me a story when I was little. Maybe you've heard it before. It goes something like this:

"A vain Emperor hires two tailors who are really swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position. The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they pretend to dress him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense. Suddenly, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession."

I stole the summary from Wikipedia, by the way. I was having trouble telling it myself. The real name of the story is "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen.

So, you are probably wondering. Why am I posting this?

I was recently at a solo charity recital by a pianist named Fuzjko Hemming. She is a very popular pianist in Japan, mainly because of her inspiring success story. She was very poor growing up, but was able to get into prestigious music institutions. At age 16, she went deaf for two years until she regained 40% of her hearing in one ear. She made her biggest comeback in her sixties, and performed at very fancy places like Carnegie Hall! I believe she is almost 80 years old now.

At the charity concert, she played very well known pieces like Chopin's etudes and La Campanella by Liszt. When she started playing, I enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed the whole recital. It's just that she made so many clumsy, obvious mistakes. I'm not saying I personally can play them better (no way!), but the amount of mistakes she made was unheard of for a professional pianist who has performed at Carnegie Hall. And she played everything very slowwwwly, maybe because she was being expressive. Or maybe she just doesn't have the technique that she used to have. You can never tell with these professional pianists and artists. You can never tell if you are making an absolute fool of yourself by criticizing them.

HOWEVER. She got a standing ovation at the end, and she even played an encore. The (mostly Japanese) crowd went WILD. I wondered if this recital was really something special, or if her fame and inspiring life story was what convinced everyone she was so good. I wondered if I was being a total bitch by thinking that this 80 year old lady did not fulfill my expectations.

Even if you don't play piano or even listen to music, you have probably encountered a situation like mine. You go to an art gallery, and the paintings look like a 5 year old could have painted them. However, you obediently nod in admiration as everyone around you gushes about how creative they are. You go to a five star restaurant, and you think the food tastes like crap but you eat it with a smile so that you seem sophisticated.

I feel like art is sometimes like the emperor's "new clothes." We feel obligated to admire fine art that we don't even like, but maybe the art we don't like... for lack of better word choice... actually SUCKS?

Fuzjko Hemming's concert was pleasant, and parts of it were actually moving, but it didn't seem special to me. Maybe she is actually very talented; I'll never know.  Or maybe the enthusiastic people in the crowd were just the naked emperor's subjects...