Village Song 2: Self-Indulgence and Art; Plus: McSorley’s Drinking Song

I was so enthusiastic about the first episode last week in this Rattlestick Theater series about Greenwich Village written by musical theater graduate students at NYU – that my disappointment with this second episode of Village Song made me think it best not to write about it.  Why give attention to emerging artists just to put them down?

I reconsidered, for two reasons.The first is that I enjoyed one of the songs from the get-go, “McSorley’s Stays the Same.” The second is that the episode got me thinking about the interplay between self-indulgence and art.

With lyrics by Carrie Caffrey and music by Spencer Grubbe, “McSorley’s Stays the Same” is a bouncy old-fashioned Irish drinking song about McSorley’s Old Ale House, which John McSorley opened in 1854 on East 7th Street, John Sloan painted repeatedly starting in 1912, Joseph Mitchell profiled in the New Yorker in 1940, Berenice Abbott photographed in 1947, and each generation of NYU students seems to discover anew. 

The song is clever in incorporating the bar’s history:

Now if we’re known for one thing it’s for being a gentleman’s club
For 126 years no women could enter the pub
But that ended in ’69 we were sued so we let in the ladies
But we didn’t give them a bathroom until the 1980s

The song is performed by a six-member band, five of whom play an instrument, the sixth waves around an empty whiskey bottle, and pretends to drink from it. Occasionally he toasts with the other band members, who each have a glass or a bottle in hand. They sit around in what might be a music room at the school, or somebody’s dorm room – certainly not a bar, but they are clearly trying to evoke the spirit of one.

I suppose it’s a pose, but there’s a point to their indulging in boozy good cheer – to  get the audience to share in the enjoyment.

And that struck me as a sharp contrast with the segment that began Episode 2, which was labeled a “Behind the Scenes Video.” The lyricist and composer offered a short phrase or two of music, but mostly talked to one another about their song and their process, and how much it changed because of the pandemic. It seemed like a private conversation. Was this something they thought worth sharing with an audience, or didn’t they care? “We gotta come up with something to be part of the Rattlestick show,” one of them said at one point

What they came up with felt to me like an exercise in self-indulgence.

Self-Indulgence: A Query

I posted a Twitter poll

The poll had very few respondents, but the surprise for me is the implicit approval of  self-indulgence. The Oxford English Dictionary describes  self-indulgence as “The action or an act of indulging or gratifying one’s own desires or inclinations, especially. with regard to pleasure or comfort.” What’s left out of that definition is the connotation that the self-indulgent please themselves without caring whether they please others.

Not everybody agrees that this is baked into the definition. On the other hand, some people struggle with the idea that art and self-indulgence are one and the same:

“Is the act of creating art self-indulgent or is it a calling?” asks blogger Sara Joseph, who describes herself as “ a gratefully redeemed Christian, a visual artist, a writer and an educator” and uses her religious beliefs to argue that art can be a calling.

I found a Quora forum: What does it mean to say that a work of art is “self-indulgent”?

 Brian Lockett, computer animation and programming: “…when art is “self-indulgent,” it’s art that elevates nothing but the artists’ egos. Doesn’t often exhibit high skill, high appeal, or otherwise high merit. It’s basically just… a social badge for the artist to wear, seeking kudos for just about everything BUT their sense of craft.”

Kent Palmer, philosopher: “What it means to be “self” indulgent is open to interpretation. But art qua art is an expression of the self no matter how abstract or minimalistic or conceptual we attempt to be….Great art hits a chord we all can appreciate somehow.”

Chris Peters: “when….the artist is indulging himself, without concern of his audience.”

Stephanie Smith: “…a self-indulgent artist is one who uses their ego to appeal to the viewer (impress the viewer) rather than to appease their own personal needs for creating.”

So, does self-indulgent art mean the artist cares too little about how their audience reactions, or too much?

Similarly a reddit thread.

“self indulgent would be when you make work that alienates people or that is completely obscure to everyone but you..”

“it becomes self indulgent when it becomes a mirror that only reflects back to you”

“It’s self-indulgent when it is about self-aggrandisement above all else”

“I usually try to quality control my work by asking if I think it is self indulgent, but I’m losing my grasp of what that actually means….”

Both threads ask about a work of art being self-indulgent, rather than the artist being self-indulgent. Maybe that’s the key. An artist may start to create as an act of self-indulgence — to “gratify one’s own desires” — but if what the person creates is judged as self-indulgent — if the art itself is only about self-aggrandizement — can it possibly be good art?

Fresh from these thoughts, I took a look again at the three other pieces in the episode. 

I was startled to listen again to the lyrics of Underneath, by Joe Badore and Elyse Douglas. As if having read my mind, Badore, portraying a poet, sits under a tree and sings:

you’ll miss the bigger picture if you focus solely on me
The proof is in the poems
The part I play is small
Their effect and function are greater than us all

“Anticipation,” with words by Andrew Strano, composed and mixed by Nori Hung, is a piece about the personal experiences of nine international students, including the two creators of the piece.. It’s a soundscape more than a song, with split screen of the performers wearing face masks and walking, uttering  staccato sentences about their connections to the Village past and present – “I wrote an essay about Rent the musical when I was living in Sheffield” “…it’s kind of cool walking past little streets and areas where like Captain America punched a dude…” And, yes, it felt initially like watching individual acts of self-indulgence. But they were the acts of the characters, not the artists, and the  cumulative effect of the eight-minute piece is to offer the audience a glimpse of what it feels like to be newcomers in a strange land during this strangest of times – which is an act not of indulgence but generosity. 

 “Horrid Conditions” exemplifies the exact opposite of self-indulgent work; it is other-directed. The creators, Anastasia Dextrene S. Johnson and Katherine Cartusciello tell us at the outset that “we wanted our piece to speak to those in need.” Their song, with words by Johnson, and music and vivid (occasionally animated) illustrations by Cartusciello, is about the late nineteenth century social reformer Lillian Wald who with her partner Mary Brewster formed the Amercan Community Nursing System.

BUT, it’s telling that even they say: “It’s a story of drive, fight, change and love. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.” (!)

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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