The Defense of Art (A Short Story)

The Plaintiff stood midway up the courthouse steps, hands in his pockets, staring at the inscription pounded into the marble above the entrance: “OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE.” He shook his head and went into the building.

The Defendant ran up the steps a few minutes later, almost late, pausing only to note the beauty of the edge of the white roof against the blue sky.

The courtroom was quiet. Only a few spectators sat in the pews. A bored stenographer and a dozing bailiff sat in opposite corners. Plaintiff and Defendant sat at separate tables, ignoring each other. Two lazy ceiling fans diffused the sunlight streaming through the windows.

The judge entered so quietly that the bailiff did not wake up to announce his presence. Plaintiff and Defendant stood, followed by one or two audience members. The judge sat. Everything about his appearance was spick and span, but there was a look of amusement on his face. “This court will come to order,” he whispered, then looking toward the bailiff, smashed his gavel down. The bailiff awoke with an upright jolt, glared at the judge, and slumped back in his chair.

The judge turned to the courtroom. “You may be seated,” he said, picking up the papers on his desk. “As you already know, my name is Judge Striving. I see here we have the Plaintiff, Mr. Purity, suing the Defendant, Mr. Scorn, for copyright infringement. Are either of you expecting representation?”

“No, your honor, we are representing ourselves,” said Mr. Purity.

“And for the record, your honor, I prefer to go by Mr. Nonchalant,” said the Defendant.

The judge looked down at his papers. “It says here your legal name is Mr. Scorn, and that is how you will be addressed in this court,” he said. Looking to see that the stenographer was ready, he nodded to the Plaintiff. “You may state your case.”

“Thank you, your honor.” Mr. Purity rose, buttoned his designer suit, and began. “Your honor, I am a composer. I write classical, high-brow music for competent, trained musicians. I have been extensively educated myself, and my career has encompassed many things:  professional performing and recording of classics, my own works, and other commissioned works; performances with eminent chamber groups; solo and chamber competitions (in which I always place highly); direction of radio and film orchestras; conservatory teaching at several prominent arts schools around the globe; and presentation of my original research and compositions at top tier venues, both domestically and internationally. I have spent my life being nothing but the best, always living up to other composers’, artists’, and authors’ intentions to the best of my ability. I believe that only with this level of perfection is any art truly Art.

“Six months ago, I hired the Defense to premier a newly published composition of mine at an important conference. I had put extensive work into writing it, and I was only willing to put it into the hands of a performer who would truly do it justice. I had heard good things about Mr. Scorn’s competency as a musician and about his interpretive abilities, and believed that he would best serve for the first performance of the piece. I got in touch with Mr. Scorn and asked him if he would be willing to play my piece at the conference. He said yes, so I sent it to him. Based on the recommendations I had received of him, I expected and trusted him to faithfully perform his duty to me, to the score, and to the artistic expectations of the audience.

“That is not what happened. Mr. Scorn sat at the piano and lived up to his name – he scorned the score in a reprehensible fashion. In fact, he performed with the score itself, which is an unheard-of breach of performance etiquette at that particular conference. I am not saying he was necessarily unprepared. Mr. Scorn had clearly studied the music and had made interpretive decisions. But the decisions he made, and the manners in which he executed them, were flippant. He did not at all live up to what I had heard about his expressiveness and artistry. Toward the end of the piece, he lost his place and briefly improvised until he found it again. Now, I understand making the occasional mistake. No one is perfect. But he all but laughed out loud on stage while desecrating my coda. He smirked, shook his head, even glanced at the audience in a jovial way. If he prefers to be called Mr. Nonchalance, truly, that seems appropriate; he didn’t seem to care about the integrity of or my intention behind the score. As this goes against every fiber of my being and every principle of my training, I am suing Mr. Scorn for copyright infringement based on misrepresentation of intellectual property.”

Perhaps Judge Striving smiled, perhaps not. But he put his glasses on and looked over them at Mr. Purity. “This is a bit unprecedented,” he said. “You are suing a fellow musician for not being perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect performance, Mr. Purity. You, as a musician yourself, must know there is always room for improvement.”

“No, I am suing him for not caring if he was not perfect,” replied the Plaintiff. “I paid him to represent my work as well as possible. I do not believe he tried.”

“I see.” Judge Striving fingered his gavel, stared briefly at Mr. Purity, and turned to the Defendant. “The Plaintiff has made his opening remarks. Please do so yourself.”

Mr. Scorn bounded to his feet, re-buttoning his suit over his small paunch as he did so. He was a lean man in all aspects but that, but this detail made the difference between him and his carefully tailored, exercised, and manicured opponent even starker. He pushed his hair out of his face before beginning.

“Thank you, your honor. I myself feel very attacked and misrepresented,” he said, a bit huffily. “I also am a classically trained musician. I had a wonderful piano teacher. She was well-trained, inspiring, and strict, pushing me to perfect adherence to any score I learned. But she also had a sense of fun, and we did not learn just classical music. We explored jazz, blues, pop, and hymn arrangements, even though classical music was our main focus. The variety was educational and fun, and kept me interested in piano. But she pushed for perfection in those other genres just as in classical music. She did not lower her standards just because the music we were learning was not as traditional as Mozart or Rachmaninoff.

“I have always tried to keep that sense of fun alive in my playing and composing ever since (yes, Mr. Purity, I compose, too). I practice every day but do not kill myself over it. I am a dedicated performer but do not stress about it. Because of these things, I am well-known throughout my community. This must be obvious, since Mr. Purity had heard good things about my playing and wanted to hire me. But I also have had my fair share of idiotic blunders on stage. Memory slips, pages of music flying off the piano, large bugs hitting me in the face at outdoor concerts. At first, these mishaps would shatter me. I would become extremely embarrassed and my performance anxiety would get worse for the next several performances. But one day I realized, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? It is just music –‘

A disturbed fluttering of hands and rolling of eyes from the Plaintiff.

“- and the point of music is to share it and have fun! To share it well, yes. But as you say, your honor, there will never be such a thing as a perfect performance (wise words, sir), so why beat yourself up when you do something that in fact isn’t perfect? Perfection, my dear court, is not possible this side of heaven.” Since there was no jury, the case being too low profile, he turned and looked dramatically at the tiny audience. “So why not make light of it when we mess up? I say, let music be about the fun of it!

“So yes, I practiced Mr. Purity’s music, and I played it to the best of my ability. When I lost my place, rather than stopping, I improvised till I found my place again. I won’t deny that. I would not so blatantly imprint myself on the work of another composer unless given express permission to do so, but I did it in an attempt to salvage the performance. And rather than beat myself up over the mistake (which was rather horrendous, I will admit), I chose to laugh it off and include the audience in the joke to put them more at ease. Audiences don’t like it when performers mess up, either. It ruins the moment for them and makes them uncomfortable and nervous. So I was just trying to keep the situation light, which I feel is my duty when sharing music with an audience. Even if, as in this case, the music is pitter-pattery, overly serious, twentieth century-style drivel.”

“Objection!” Mr. Purity yelled over the laughter from the audience. He sprang to his feet, his face extremely red.

Judge Striving banged his gavel, more because he thought he wouldn’t get another chance than out of necessity. The laughter had already stopped. “Sustained,” he smirked. “Mr. Scorn, no more low blows, please. Mr. Purity, do you have a response to the Defense’s statement that he did his best?”

“Yes, your honor. I believe if you are not going to play as close to perfectly as humanly possible, you should not play at all. I’m curious how much Mr. Scorn practiced my music. He says he practices, but how many hours a day? And did he practice my music enough? I clearly think not. If there was any doubt in his mind that he would be less than spectacular, he should have practiced it four, six, ten hours a day. He should have studied it while he ate meals. And he certainly should have memorized it, rather than using the score like he did. Besides, memorization would have improved his understanding of the piece and therefore his performance.”

“Objection,” said Mr. Scorn. “To suggest practicing ten hours a day seems unreasonable, both for practicality and injury prevention reasons, and because you were not paying me nearly enough to spend so much time on your piece.”

“I was paying you to perform the piece well. I am not responsible for how much time you have to spend to do that. You agreed on the fee.”

“Objection overruled. I agree with the Plaintiff in that case – you agreed on the fee. But gentlemen, this is bickering, not good court procedure. Please be more organized and civil. Plaintiff, continue if you have something constructive to say.”

“Perhaps perfection in the eyes of the performer himself isn’t achievable. As you say, there will always be something he knows he could have done better. But I believe the audience deserves to hear perfection. They will not know if you meant to make a certain forte a shade louder – they will simply hear a forte, which is correct in either case. I agree with the Defense that performing is indeed about sharing music – but sharing it exquisitely. We as performers should know the music so well that we master it, beat it into submission so that it can seem easy and seem to soar and float freely from the instrument – seem effortless to the audience. They should be able to hear the works of the masters and the beauty of music in all its glory, without hindrance. Mr. Scorn said he did not want the audience to be uncomfortable because he messed up, because that put audiences on edge. I agree with that also. But I believe we should be so excellently rehearsed, so carefully prepared, so thoroughly one with the music that the audience has cause to trust the performer explicitly with their aesthetic experience.

“To sum up, if we as performers and musicians will not see to it that audiences get a perfect and faithful representation of the music they came to hear, then what are we doing? Why bother to play at all if not to pursue perfection, no matter what the cost to ourselves? It is our duty to music and those who write it.”

“Does that conclude your statement?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Then Mr. Scorn, please make your closing statement. It seems we will get to wrap this case up rather quickly.”

Mr. Scorn rose. “I simply wish to expound on some of my previous statements. I believe music is about sharing fun, and beauty, and art. What is the point of music if not to arouse emotions that speaks to the soul? And what speaks to the soul more than joy, or fun? I don’t mean to harp on that, but truly, shouldn’t the performer get to have fun as well as the audience? I never want my audience to be uncomfortable. But I don’t want to be uncomfortable either. I dare say there are other things in life besides practicing six to ten hours daily, and more to life than performance anxiety and regret when things go wrong, or not ‘perfectly.’ If the integrity of the score suffers a bit, so be it as long as performer and audience are having fun sharing music, sharing Art. If the composer’s intentions suffer a bit, so what? (And where, by the way, does my voice as interpreter get to come in? But I won’t be so self-involved as to develop this idea here and now.) The enjoyment of the music should be foremost in everyone’s minds. Reaching for unattainable perfection just stresses everyone out, and music should not be stressful. And that is all I have to say in my own defense.”

Judge Striving looked between them silently several times, then shuffled his robe and eased himself back in his leather chair.

“Well, sirs, I don’t mean to be offensive, but I think you are both being ridiculous.”

The audience snickered, and the stenographer glanced up at him. Such a personal opinion rarely escaped the lips of Judge Striving.

“Your honor, trying to pursue excellence is not ridiculous. It is….”

“You had your say,” the judge interrupted. “And I didn’t say pursuing excellence is ridiculous. I said YOU are being ridiculous. Pursuing excellence is a noble, worthy, lifelong goal. Neither of you are doing that, however. Mr. Purity, your problem is that you think you are already pursuing excellence. Perfection and excellence are two different things. You pursue perfection in your art. That is not possible – you yourself agree with that. But to pursue it is fine. But there is a delicate mental balance there when it comes to your attitude about your art and your performances. Humans control their attitudes. How do you respond when a performance goes badly, Mr. Purity?”

“I don’t let them go badly.”

“Nonsense. You agreed with the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect performance.”

“Well, I mean, I’m naturally unhappy about anything that goes wrong.”

“And how do you feel when you practice for eight to ten hours a day?”

“Driven. Motivated. Focused.”

“And? Do you ever feel desperate? Exhausted? Frustrated?”

“Well, sometimes. That just comes with the territory.”

“But it doesn’t have to.” Judge Striving poked the desk at every word. “Why torture yourself? That is not mentally healthy. That is not pursuing excellence or health in your personal life. How do you treat other people when you feel this way?”

“I avoid people when I feel that way.”

“That is not pursuing a well-adjusted social balance in your life. And surely sometimes you must see people while in such a mood. How do you treat them then?”

Mr. Purity folded his hands in front of him. “Probably not that kindly.”

“So you are not pursuing excellence in your manners or relationships. So my point is this:  you may be pursuing excellence – even perfection – in your physical art, but that is not the only aspect that makes art enjoyable. Your personal life affects your art. To pursue true excellence in those things, you might have to do what you find unthinkable and slack off on things that you think are necessary – like the excessive practicing.

“But that is only one side of the coin. Mr. Scorn, you seem to have gone too far in the other direction. In the attempt to hit the correct balance, you appear to have stopped pursuing true excellence on the art side. We don’t know how much you practice – you never specifically said. Maybe you practiced hard and did your best at the performance in question. But that is not really the question anymore. It appears you have done better than Mr. Purity at relaxing about your art, but you seem to have relaxed too far. Your attitude is definitely healthier than Mr. Purity’s. But if you are touting yourself as an artist and a performer, then you still have a duty to Art and to your audience to do your best to share the music truthfully with them, and you no longer seem to be doing this.

“You are both equally prideful about your position. Mr. Purity, you are proud of your determination to work as hard as necessary – to the exclusion of kindness, mental health, and your life in general – to achieve what you think of as perfection. Mr. Scorn, you are proud of your nonchalance (I can see why you wanted to be called that) about a job badly done, even though you say you like to do well. This court finds both types of pride unacceptable, and both in need of punishment.”

Mr. Scorn slammed his head dramatically into the table, but Mr. Purity leapt to his feet. “Punishment! I am the one suing, your honor!” His face was bright red. Mr. Scorn looked up and chuckled, realizing that at least he would feel some revenge against his opponent.

“Do you think I have forgotten that?” asked Judge Striving. “If you bring a matter to court, Mr. Purity, you are agreeing to abide by the court’s decision. Sit down and do not raise your voice again, or I will hold you in contempt of said court.”

Mr. Purity thumped back into his seat, satisfying some of his anger by glaring at Mr. Scorn.

“Gentlemen, you are both off the mark. You both seem to think, in your own ways, that aiming for the middle ground is a form of mediocrity. But there are some aspects of life in which striving for a middle ground is actually the opposite of mediocrity. You are artists and human beings; therefore you must strive to be the best you can be at both of those things. If that means passing up some practicing time so that you can graciously interact with friends, or help someone, or spend some time relaxing, then so be it, Mr. Purity. You must be both a human being and an artist. Mr. Scorn, perhaps sometimes you will have to pass up a socializing opportunity, or relax less, and spend some extra hours practicing your art with more discipline and focus. Frankly, you both need to learn something from each other, however distasteful you might find that.

“So here is the court’s judgment. Mr. Scorn, for six months you are to practice serious music three hours a day in a focused manner, and socialize on no more than four days out of the week.”

“Three hours? Four days??” wailed Mr. Scorn, truly thinking his life was over on both counts.

“You won’t die,” laughed Judge Striving. “It should teach you not to scorn your art, and yet not to take the fun part of life too much for granted. You will keep a log and turn it into the court at the end of six months, otherwise the length of the punishment will be doubled. Or if you whine about it here.”

Mr. Scorn’s mouth snapped shut.

“Mr. Purity, also for six months, you are to play popular music for three hours a day, and socialize on no less than four days a week. Also keep a log for the court.”

Having learned from watching Mr. Scorn’s complaints, Mr. Purity kept his raging opinions to himself. He simply whispered through white lips, “Popular music?”

“Yes. Rock, country, jazz, show tunes, Indie covers, whatever you want. Just not serious music. Form a band on your socializing days, record some music, I don’t care, just have fun with it. Or try,” he said, smirking at the look of complete distress on Mr. Purity’s face. “This won’t kill you either. I hope it teaches you to be more human and remember that art is meant to be a cause of joy, rather than torture for the artist. I think you will enjoy it in the end.”

Judge Striving sat for a brief moment, contemplating the looks of shock on both men’s faces. He shook his head and smiled. Tapping his gavel, he declared the court dismissed and rose. The bailiff, awake this time, jumped to his feet and cried, “All rise!” in such a raucous voice that he seemed to be making up for missing it the first time.

The Plaintiff and the Defendant left the building side by side, which only happened peacefully due to mental preoccupation. As if of one accord, they stopped on the courthouse steps and turned to look at the inscription:  “OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE.”

“I guess that’s what Art is all about in the end,” said Mr. Purity quietly.

“Guess so.” Mr. Scorn shrugged and left.

Mr. Purity looked once more at the inscription, noticing the beauty of the edge of the white roof against the blue sky as he did so. He sighed and walked away.

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