By Raymond J. Steiner
THE OLD GREEK aphorism — I know the words are Latin, but the Romans lifted it from the Greeks who originally pointed out that “Art is Long (i.e. enduring)” and that “Life is Short” and, sorry, but I don’t know how to write it in Greek. I do know that the concept has certainly held up and, like much of the wisdom from ancient Greece, still solidly “true” today as it was then. In most instances — especially in the artworld — emphasis is put on the first half of the phrase, but at this time I’d like to focus on the “life is short” side of the equation and how the brevity of life — and how that affects art — was recently brought home to me once again. In early May, I went to see and hear Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana — a Spanish troupe of musicians, singers, and dancers — at the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, New York and then, a few weeks later, a musical program at the Salmagundi Club in New York City that featured the talents of a guitarist, a pianist, and a soprano (see my last blog at rjsteiner.wordpress.com or on www.arttimesjournal.com in which I describe the events of that evening). It was while watching the guitarists from the Kaatsbaan evening — Calvin Hazen and Ricardo Anglada — and then reinforced by the guitarist from the Salmagundi to-do — Francisco Roldán —that I recalled hearing Andrés Torres Segovia perform at SUNY New Paltz nearly fifty years ago. I was fortunate in having a front-row seat during the event, and remember intently watching that master’s strumming and fretwork. A guitarist of sorts — I never learned to read music but was part of a little band that used to play at Saturday night dances during which I switched from guitar to banjo to mandolin during our sessions, banging away as best I could and not half bad inasmuch I “played by ear” — the opportunity to watch Segovia play was something I just didn’t want to miss. Like I said, I was mesmerized by the way he used his hands, but at one point I recall glancing down at his feet — maybe during a pause between numbers or an intermission. I don’t remember what drew my eyes to Segovia’s shoes, but having that front-row seat with my eyes at stage level probably made the connection unavoidable. I mean, there they were, right before my eyes! They were probably patent leather — but scuffed, heel-worn, the leather creased from age — I recall thinking at the time that they could not last him very long, that they were destined soon for the dustbin. Once Segovia picked up his guitar to play once again, my eyes were drawn from the shoes back up to the man, to his hands. Somehow, shoes and hands merged in my mind, how both were inescapably subject to time and extinction, both destined to return to dust. How long before those hands would cease to strum and finger the frets? Vita Brevis. And how, once claimed by death, could the skill of those hands be passed on? Some years later, an artist friend of mine, Eduardo Chavez, gave me a small etching of Segovia, the guitarist focused, hunched over his guitar, and wearing a similar pair of shoes that looked worn, creased, well-broken-in. Chavez’s image is arresting, each time I see it vividly bringing back the day I saw Segovia live on stage. Segovia died in June of 1987, his fingers at rest forever. And how about Chavez’s hands? He died in 1995. Those hands that etched, that painted, that drew? How can the hidden knowledge of what an artist’s hands “know” be passed on to young artists? Both Segovia’s and Chavez’s hands are no more. Vita Brevis. And how soon before the hands of Hazen and Anglada and Roldán are stilled? And what of the feet of the flamenco dancers and the voices of the singers in the Santana Group? Or the voice of the soprano Gretchen Farrar, or the fingers of the pianist Alexander Wu, or the hands of the painters Richard Schmid and John Traynor at the Salmagundi — what about them? Vita Brevis. Oh yes! Life is short and though the art of these artists may be “longa” and survive time, never again will those hands, those feet, those voices, those talents survive the span of a human life. Segovia’s shoes…alas!