The When of Zen

Last Night I watched an artistically made film on Tony Bennett, which is now on Netflix. I was looking for something to steer me away from Ray Donovan, The Fall, and some of the other brilliant, but dark, fare I'm often drawn to. These series are rife with fine performances, which I enthusiastically throw myself into, but the ultimate affect does not lift my spirit. I need to distance myself from some of the things I get too wrapped up in some times. Baseball. Politics.

I have been watching the Cubs like an addict in their push to beat the Cardinals and mired in political debate for too long. I am a political junky and baseball, when my team is performing well, is a passion. And I also see it as an art form. But I get too wound up in the competition of it. There seems to be too much on the line when my team is hot. And I don't aspire to be a rabid sports fan.

I've been a fan of Tony Bennett for years and have seen him in performance many times, most recently last summer when he toured his show with Lady Gaga. It was wonderful. She was meant to sing jazz and swing, and of all the modern collaborators he's performed duets with, theirs is the most successful pairing, I think. On stage together they are on fire. He oozes sex appeal at 85 and his voice is still in fine tune, and she's the kind of performer who can get away with a little bit of the raunchy because she's witty as well as sexy. And she's got an astonishing voice that takes you in unanticipated directions.

One of the things I learned last night about Tony is that he paints and appreciates the masters. He does sketches the way the rest of us stare at our cell phone messages, and sees life as an act of art. Certainly he takes interpreting a great song seriously. He lives in Manhattan and goes to The Metropolitan Museum of art all the time to look at paintings and draw. He's a master at the craft of living.

I have always told anybody willing to listen that if they aspire to be the best at anything, stand before a masterpiece. Or sit on a bench in front of it if there is one. I used to do that more than I do it now, with no excuses, because I still live most of the time in Chicago where we have a world class museum in The Art Institute. I used to go there and choose a Degas or a Rembrandt or an O'Keefe and just stare at it. For a long time. A great painting comes alive in a profound way when you let it, and allows you experience the depth of what goes on underneath the everyday routine we mistake as life. Making art, being art, and experiencing art ought to be an aspiration for more of us, more of the time.

In the film, called The Zen of Bennett, Tony talks about his war experience. Seeing so much death caused him to be a pacifist after surviving it. Killing, he says, is the lowest form of human behavior. War is the epitome of ignorance. Having survived war he saw his life as a gift and has dedicated it not just to singing and painting, but to his genuine respect for the artistic achievement of artists other than himself. He's a generous human being. I recommend the film, dedicated to Amy Winehouse and with a wonderful segment of her and Bennett working through their duet together.

It's important I think, sometimes, to turn off the noise and listen to the music. For me it's a must, or I forget who I am or who I want to be. I grew up encouraged to make things. My mother was a big believer in presenting a child with a blank piece of paper. I never cease to be surprised at what a child does with a crayon on an empty space. Suddenly on the page there is a weird interpretation of life that makes sense to me in an aboriginal way. I often forget about why that that affects to me and why it's important. The film on Bennett made me want to go to a museum and stare at a Hopper. Soon I will get back to baseball, when the Dodgers/Mets series is over. And politics, well, that never goes anywhere. But this intimate film about the life of the dedicated artist reminded me to ground myself from time to time in something bigger, or something smaller, that brings me closer to myself.