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You don't know what you got till it's gone

It is a painting of a cow eating grass.

— There is no grass.

The cow has eaten it.

— There is no cow.

Why would the cow stay after all the grass is gone?

***

An old joke, often told. I remember hearing it first in my pre-teens in a comedy routine probably on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Or Merv Griffin. Either way, it was definitely not Mike Douglas.

I was sent to bed in those days before Johnny.

I likely wasn’t the only grade-schooler who tried to pass off a blank piece of paper as my art assignment, and my teacher most likely was not the first to have to fake a smile at the attempted hoodwinking then send a student back to the drawing board.

***

I was never much of an artist. I’m too obsessed with straight lines and boxes to think outside of same.

A sixth-grade multi-colored chalk drawing made its way into a school show, but only because every student in the class had to be represented. I attempted to mirror the left half of the drawing on the right half.

It was, in words of Ronald Reagan, “a noble failure.”

My mother, being a mother, framed it and hung it on the wall of a spare bedroom in my parents’ apartment right next to a city street watercolor (less of a mess) done by my younger brother.

Neither of us ever lived in that apartment, but my mother (being a mother) nevertheless referred to that room as “the boys’ bedroom.”

The other boy and I were, at that point in time, in our 40s.

I would have preferred she had framed and hung my blank paper.

***

Ultimately, the cow-eating-grass tale could be seen in a far more serious artistic endeavor the Tony Award-winning play “Art,” wherein a man purchases a white canvas for $200,000 to the consternation of his friend — who has his own definition of what constitutes artistic merit — setting a comedic chain of events and conversations about the nature of friendship, the creative process and how we view the world.

“If I’m who I am because I’m who I am and you are who you are because you are who you are, then I’m who I am and you’re who you are,” one friend addresses another.

“If on the other hand, I am who I am because you’re who you are, and if you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I am not who I am and you’re not who you are.”

(It doesn’t get more meta than that.)

n

I am, I said.

To no one there.

And no one heard at all.

Not even the chair.

(OK, maybe it does.)

***

In 1952 in a concert hall in (where else?) Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor gave the premiere performance of composer John Cage’s controversial and experimental 4’33” — a three-movement piece lasting four minutes and 33 seconds wherein the only sounds Tudor made were from opening and closing the keyboard lid to note the beginnings and ends of the movements.

“What they thought was silence, because they don’t know how to listen,” Cage said of the frustrated audience members, some of whom walked out, “was full of accidental sounds.”

***

“Sleepify,” an album by the punk band Vulfpeck has 10 tracks of various lengths, all of which are silent. A promotional mistake for the Taylor Swift album “1989,” meanwhile, led to the release of what became called “Track 3” — consisting of eight seconds of white noise.

Yes, yes, make all the “Taylor Swift/white noise” jokes that come to mind but “Track 3” topped the iTunes charts in Canada.

***

What is the difference, though, between a blank canvas or a silent piece of music on the one hand and something of questionable taste on the other?

Spirit animal Todd Snider addresses this head-on in “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” — in which the Oregon folksinger imagines soaring to commercial and critical success by fronting “the only band who wouldn’t play a note.”

The band gets signed by a record company agent who “said he loved our work, but he wasn’t sure he could sell a record with nothing on it.”

At which point Snider reminds the agent the band was from Seattle, a deal is made, and the group gets a $2.5 million advance, and is booked on MTV Unplugged.

We went right out there

and refused to do

acoustical versions of

the electrical songs

We had refused to record

in the first place

Hey hey ... my my

***

During the state restrictions placed upon us in the wake of the pandemic, we have slowly been losing touch with the arts.

Not the real artists, of course; those who paint and dance, who sculpt and act — who we would call “creatives” if we didn’t think that twee in-vogue term was only slightly less pretentious than “journalist” — those folks find ways to produce.

They couldn’t stop if they tried.

But we, the audience, have had our participation truncated. Sitting in our homes, as theaters are darkened and galleries shuttered, we try our best to remain engaged through our various screens.

Art, in all its forms and constructs open for debate, feeds our humanity.

And, when television presents hours of celebrities cutting each other’s hair or watching “Dr. Pimple Popper,” we are malnourished.

***

May we all soon be able to attend our venue of choice and wallow in disappointment, or joy.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin’s chair does most of the talking at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com

Robert Galvin