Monday, 16 November 2009


Is it possible to wow the public without tossing your hair around? Yes and no. Fred Astaire never let you see him sweat, but he sweetened his deceptively casual virtuosity with just enough charm to make it irresistible. Tatum, by contrast, was more like Jascha Heifetz, a titan of the violin who brought off his stupendous feats of technical wizardry without ever cracking a smile or looking anything other than blasé—and though Heifetz was immensely famous, he was always more respected than loved.

The great violin teacher Carl Flesch got to the bottom of this paradox when he observed that "people would forgive Heifetz his technical infallibility only if he made them forget it by putting his entire personality behind it." The operative word here is forgive. To the small-d democrat, virtuosity is an insult, a tactless reminder of human inequality that can only be forgiven when the artist makes clear through visible effort how high a price he has paid for his great gifts. Art Tatum, like Heifetz, was too proud to make that concession. He did all his sweating offstage. That's why his exquisitely refined pianism will never be truly popular: No matter how much beer he drank, you could never mistake him for one of the guys.
Terry Teachout on Arthur Tatum.

Dutton says that we admire displays of skill and virtuosity:
  1. Human interest in high-skill activities -- particularly those with a public face, such as athletic or artistic performances -- derives at least in part from their ancient status as Darwinian fitness signals.

  2. High-skill performances are normally subjects of freely given admiration; in fact, achieving the pleasure of admiration is a reason audiences will pay to see high-skill exhibitions.

  3. As signals, high-skill performances are subject to keen critical assessment and evaluation -- the fastest or highest in athletics, the clearest, most eloquent, deepest, or most moving in the case of the arts.
Teachout gives Diana Moon-Glompers or an Ayn Rand villain as his "small-d democrat". The small-d may be committed to no genetic basis for differences, but I'm not sure that that commits him to resenting all displays of skill; they'd just be more likely to put it up to training-only.

I did take the recommendation to buy some Tatum though ... awesome....

1 comment:

  1. "I did take the recommendation to buy some Tatum though ... awesome.... "

    Yes, he is. The man's got four hands. :-)