When it comes to artists I have a weakness for eccentrics.
I don't just accept eccentricity in artists. I expect it. At some level, I even savor it.
If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I don't savor, expect or even accept eccentricities in most other people. Would you be okay with an eccentric CEO, lawyer or teacher? Eccentricities in an artist signal positive things, such as iconoclastic genius, while eccentricities in someone like a tax accountant signal negative things, such as audits, huge penalties and a plea bargain.
It's not enough to connect eccentricity with creativity, and conclude that artists are creative and others are not. Anyone who's worked with a great tax accountant understands the central role of creativity in the tax world. I think, though, that the unreliability and unpredictability we associate with eccentricity is something we are prepared to accept in artists and not in others. While it's great to have a creative tax accountant, we also want him or her to be reliable enough to input the right numbers, make sure they add up and then mail the whole thing in on time.
Anyways, I'm not the only one who savors eccentricity in artists.
How else to explain the Cult of Glenn Gould?
I've long admired Gould's versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations. His 1955 recording was the first version I heard of that piece, so it formed my thinking and made other versions seem, in comparison, like tedious finger exercises rotely repeated in slow motion by intermediate keyboard students.
But that's it for me on the Gould admiration front. I never drank Gould's Kool-Aid. I haven't savored his eccentricities. Perhaps that is why I'm now wondering how much of Gould's persistent fame is due to his ability and how much is due to his eccentricity.
Recently Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, in "The canny madness of a remarkable man and his musical talent" (link via Arts & Letters Daily), reviewed a new Gould biography by Kevin Bazzana (Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould). The reviewer recites a few of Gould's many eccentricities:
Gould's peculiar habits and convictions have always led many to speculate about his mental stability. The pianist avoided shaking hands, famously wrapped himself up in layers of clothes even in the summer, dosed himself with thousands of pills a year, feared flying and germs (he traveled with a can of Lysol spray) and gave up the concert stage in his mid-thirties. When he sat down at the piano, Gould needed to be just above eye level with the keyboard, which consequently required any concert grand to be up on blocks while he crouched in that special low-slung chair (its seat just 14 inches off the ground). By the evidence of surviving photographs, he bent over the keys like a hunchback. . . .If you consider yourself an equal opportunity connoisseur of eccentricity, ask yourself whether you would you accept Gouldlike behavior from your tax accountant. Would your eagerness to use his services -- even your willingness to refer your friends to him -- increase if he wore several layers of winter clothing while he sat behind his office desk on a 14 inch chair, hunched over a computer with sweat pouring off his face as he talked to himself and regularly popped pills? I think not. Even if he was really creative.
"He would lope gracelessly onto the stage," Bazzana tells us, "perhaps with his hands in his pockets, looking uncomfortable, then bow perfunctorily, sheepishly. Then came the whole spectacle of Gould playing: the sidesaddle address, the bobbing head, the crouching and pouncing and swaying and flailing, and always the conducting whenever he had a hand free. He sweated copiously. His tangled mane of hair flopped this way and that, and he sometimes wiped it back with a handkerchief. To control his stamping feet he would cross his legs -- hardly a less eccentric option. His mouth smiled and pursed and gaped, his lips sometimes marked the beats, and of course he sang -- and hummed and clucked and buzzed."
So Gould the pianist is inextricably intertwined with Gould the eccentric. But would Gould continue to be so compelling to his many fans if he was a more ordinary man?
Turns out he wasn't a complete loon. Gould's biographer found a number of normal traits:
The ethereal artiste assiduously studied his contracts and his stock portfolio, liked big cars, enjoyed steak and potatoes, wrote pompous, almost Jamesian prose, racked up a slew of traffic violations.If that part of Gould was better known, if he wasn't so wondrously strange, would he be as popular?