SO THAT WHAT
by Gabriele Schafer
To fully appreciate the profundity of those words, you must first imagine an uppa claaass, nasal, Queen’s English accent tasting them one savory syllable at a time.
The three of us were sipping Margaritas and sunning ourselves poolside one sweltering afternoon at the Beverly Hills home of a celebrity actor I’ll call Brad. Brad lives alone in a gargantuan “primitivist” house, replete with cathedral ceilings, fireplaces, five bathrooms, sauna, steam room, a room which displays all his awards (Tonys, Emmys, Drama Desks, et al.) and looks out on a Japanese garden with a waterfall as well as an enormous fruit and vegetable garden with an irrigation system and three Mexican gardeners to tend it. He refers to it as his Robinson Crusoe dream house, while, much to his dismay, his friends prefer to call it the Fred Flintstone house, mostly because it’s fun to get him riled.
His work requires him to travel frequently, so Brad is seldom home. Instead, his friends graciously volunteer themselves and their own friends to keep an eye on things — the pool, the jacuzzi, the refrigerator — while he’s gone. During this interval, it was my friend Julie, an actor who lives in Los Angeles and Peter, a whiz kid producer/director who stays at Brad’s on his periodic jaunts in from London to “take meetings” with whatever assorted stars and starlets he’s courting for his next project.
We were just about to take another dip to cool off when three workmen showed up at the garden entrance. Julie came to their assistance and returned after a few minutes, explaining that Brad had hired the workers to fix the irrigation system in his garden. Apparently, all his fruit trees were dehydrating, while puddles formed elsewhere. After a lengthy monologue on how Brad was single-handedly responsible for Mexican emigration to California since word of an easy job spreads fast down there (“Hey, cousin Pedro, cousin Juan, Senor Brad have mucho travajo. Si, Beverly Hill. Si, don’ worry, for your wife and her sisters too.”), Peter calmly took another sip of his drink and wondered bemusedly why, in God’s name, Brad needed a garden with an irrigation system that watered trees whose fruit he was never around to eat anyway…
“So that whaaat?… so that there’ll be one more rotting lemon at the bottom of the refrigerator?”
Every time I, say, pick a play to produce or send out a press release or resume, I try to answer that question honestly, keeping a tight reign on my motives. God knows even one rotten lemon can stink up the joint.
On the other hand…
My friend Don used to be an artist. I mean, he used to make art. One of the many works I admired him for (aside from the two sets he designed and built for our theatre), was his bonsai-inspired work. He grew and sculpted furniture out of pine shrubs, for example. One of my favorite pieces was an apple tree which he was training as it grew to wind around a brass snake. He created these pieces at a friend’s 50some acre property in the Catskills, about a three-hour drive from his apartment in New York City. He also had a studio in Brooklyn where he kept his other work, as well as tools and machinery for his carpentry work, which was his real income producer. I once teased him during a visit at his studio, asking him if he was Handy Andy or Arty Farty that day. I knew that dichotomy plagued him. He was supposed to be a ‘New York artist’ but couldn’t quite stomach the type, as he saw it. He wasn’t particularly attention starved and could definitely do without the eccentric pretensions of ‘the art scene.’ Besides, making art was time consuming, expensive and, well, sometimes frivolous. So I’m afraid he began to ask himself those dreaded little words — those existential bullets that can stop the universe itself dead in its tracks:
Why? So that what?
Today, Don has given up his studio altogether and doesn’t drive to the Catskills anymore. I suspect that the initial giddy, sexy impulse of years back is, if not dead, then buried alive, suffocating beneath a lot of toxic trash which has nothing whatever to do with the joy of making something and sharing it; and the residue of which is stinking pain, disdain and nostalgic longing. So now art is a subject to be avoided. I consider this a personal loss, although sometimes I comprehend the feeling, even as I fend off the thought.
Stockpiling your resume with whatever comes along, just because you can if you want to, is silly. Conversely, self-censorship and keeping your motives relatively pure are important, but what if it cripples you altogether?
I’ve come to believe that the trick, especially for artists, is to keep fighting off the same old seven deadlies that tormented the medievals before us. We’re particularly susceptible to pride, anger and envy. Sometimes greed threatens, and of course sloth is always winking from the corner barstool. ‘So that what,’ born of these iniquities, will keep your universe collapsing if it can. That’s why they’re considered deadly. Because they are said to cause spiritual death. And where there is no spirit, there can be no art.