Sunday, February 4, 2018


While on holiday, I read this piece in the New Yorker. It's a more or less standard tear-jerker junkfest, although I don't mean to minimize the suffering of the players in it.

The summary is that a young chinese boy is raised to play the violin, exhibits great technical proficiency but lacks emotion. He goes on to Facebook to do that Facebook thing (I don't quite see how it's a Tech Pioneer as such), and after a while gets diagnosed with incurable, fast moving, brain cancer. In the last few months of his life he finally breaks through and learns to play with feeling. Of course he does.

The piece is poor exploitation, of course.

But set that aside, what we have here is a young man who spent, I don't know, a decade or two, being told that his playing was shit, because he wasn't emoting. Yes, yes, technical chops, but so what? It was shit. We see in the piece that he felt Joshua Bell was prone to "over-emoting," can you imagine the hubris? Here's some guy who's been told, repeatedly and consistently by his teachers that his playing sucks because he's unemotional. This guy looks at one of the finest violinists on the planet, and says "he's over-emoting." But of course he sees the light at the end, and gives a couple of brilliant performances and so on.

Dying of brain cancer, or seeing a loved one die of it, sounds extremely unpleasant. And, I am glad that Mr. Sun ended up with some performances he was truly proud of before the end. Good for him. That doesn't detract from the remarkable hubris on display, though.

The lesson here is, I suppose, that if everyone is shouting at you to be more emotional, maybe you should pay attention.

More generally, I think the lesson is to be open, to expose yourself. If you're not pushing it to the point of discomfort, you're probably reading as robotic and closed. The medium, any medium, tends to drain emotional energy from the message. You have to put double the amount in if you want any to come out the other side.

Or something like that.


  1. Maybe, maybe not.

    I think it depends on the audience he's targeted.

    If he wanted to play for other people, then Yes, by all means, he definitely should listen when they tell him what they expect to hear and to the best of his ability, he should deliver exactly that.

    This is particularly true because a lot of classical music has been around for many hundreds of years and as a result, many members of his audience are likely to be intimately familiar with the music he plays.

    As such, what they really want to hear is not just the notes performed brilliantly but exactly as they were written on paper by the composer, but his personal interpretation of the music, which is where the emotional aspects come into play.

    But if he's playing for himself, first and foremost, as often seemed to have been the case, then why should he care what others think about how expressively (or not, as the case may be) he plays?

    Being an artist doesn't always mean doing exactly what your audience wants or expects of you. For some, it means doing exactly what they, themselves want and if others happen to find merit in their work as well, that's great. But if not, that's okay, too.

    (Which is why, many times, these people are referred to as starving artists, whereas those who are able to deliver exactly what the audience expects are referred to as successful artists.)

    In fact, this is pretty much the same approach I take with my photography. I photograph for myself, first and foremost, and do so with a high degree of technical proficiency, which is very important to me personally. If others also find merit in my work, that's great; but if not, that's okay, too.

    It's also the reason why I photograph as a hobby rather than as a profession, because I would very likely starve otherwise.

    1. You may consider me to be one of those people in your life who is shouting "EMOTE MORE GOD DAMN IT" ;)

      That said, having seen some of your pictures, I think you're putting more into them on the emotional side than you'll admit. It might be just that I like you, and therefore am projecting onto your work those qualities I find desirable, though.

      Photography is fuzzier in this regard than music. A technically proficient and emotionally dead violinist is more or less instantly recognizable, at least when you place them next to someone who plays with emotional power.

      A photograph always contains a bunch of relateable stuff, whether made by a soulless technician or an emotional wreck.

    2. One major difference between music and photography is that a musician knows which piece he'll be performing before he does so (unless it's jazz, of course!), whereas a photographer usually doesn't know what photo she'll be capturing until after she's done so.

      With the former, adding emotion to the piece by interpreting it while performing has the potential to subvert the intention of the composer, whereas with the latter, emotion is necessarily built in from the very start, because the composer and performer, if you will, are usually one and the same.

      So you're probably correct that there's more emotion contained in my photos than I realize and this also explains why I generally prefer straight, technically proficient musical performances to overtly emotional ones.

      (FYI, my favorite classical composer is Shostakovitch, who incorporated plenty of emotion into most of his pieces himself, such that -- in my opinion, of course! -- they rarely benefit from any additional emotion added by the performers!)

  2. Yes, the story arc is sufficiently familiar not to get past the "elevator pitch" ("It's 'Good Will Hunting' meets 'Love Story', but with violins and Tiger Parents") -- sorry if that sounds cynical. What I find much more affecting is the case of the youngster who has already plumbed the depths of human emotion -- yer Keats, yer Jacqueline Du Pre, yer Hendrix -- who *then* goes on to die tragically young... How can you possibly have known about this stuff, kid?? What else might you have taught us?


    1. I confess myself mostly sorry to see how thoroughly we Americans have exported our culture to Merry Olde Englande. You have my personal apology for both of those films.

  3. I think the hardest part of making photographs, or being involved in creating any other type of art, is connecting how you feel to what you do. It took me a long time to recognize how to do that on a regular basis, as where previously it was by chance.

    As Mike C. pointed out, some people come by it right from the beginning. Some of us struggle to get there, and then there are others who don't even realize that there is a place to go and wander about images that faithfully represent what they are looking at and not much else.

    BTW, JG's images convey quite a bit to me on an emotional level, whether he means it or not. Art has a way of exposing it's creator no matter how hard he or she tries to hide it.

    It took me quite a while to fully embrace my point of view and figure out how to express it by shooting with intention and having some sort of an emotional connection to my subject.

    And then, I had to learn how to suppress it with my commercial work. I shoot for a living, and for myself, and creating a wall between the two has been beneficial to both. I can only serve one master at a time when making photos, my client or myself.

    I can't help but be barraged by images all day long, and the ones that grab me by making me feel something when I look at them are the ones that stand out to me. Perfect photos of pretty scenes made as a way to show technical mastery or as a collection of scenes, but made without intention or connection leaves me cold.

    1. Honestly, I think this is really the central problem of photography and maybe all of art. The connection, the leap, from a bunch of visual things to the idea, the concept, the meaning. It is, in a way, what I have been trying to make sense of almost since I started this blog, and the results so far are "well, it's hard"

    2. It's what I had the hardest time parsing as a young person looking at powerful images that I didn't understand. It took me a lot of living life, feeling good and bad, and finally understanding where I came from and what I was all about. I was in my 40's when the first inkling finally began to hit me, and it unfolds a bit each day going forward. But to make the photos and connect the dots between how I feel about what I see is still remarkably difficult.

  4. @ Mike:

    Just to clarify, I never knowingly claimed that my photos don't or won't cause an emotional reaction by the viewer, only that whatever reaction(s) they foment belong to the viewer and not necessarily to me.

    In fact, I'm quite pleased to hear that you respond to them on an emotional level. 8^)