I recently came across Leigh Montville's biography of Evel Knievel. (Evel: The High Flying Life Of Evel Knievel- American Showman, Daredevil, And Legend) It is perhaps the first in depth, no holds barred look into the life of the famed motorcycle stuntman. Montville's Knievel comes across as a complicated, conflicted man shaped by his times, not the completely one sided cartoon figure championed by the 60's and 70's media. I also recently viewed an old interview clip of Knievel on The Dick Cavett Show. For those too young to remember, Cavett was the wittiest, smartest, most provocative talk show host on television. His closest counterpart today would be Charlie Rose although Rose doesn't seem to push the envelope like Cavett did. On this particular show in 1971, Knievel walks out dressed in a zebra-print leisure suit (it was the seventies after all!). The other guest on the set was jazz great Dizzy Gillespie.
But that was Cavett – inviting seemingly disparate guests on to his show and creating magic. Gillespie would demonstrate some comedic chops as the show progressed. Who knew? But it was Knievel and Cavett's interviewing skills that garnered rapt attention from the audience. Knievel and Cavett go on to discuss life, death, fame, and celebrity in this most revealing interview. In fact, Montville deems the interview of such import that he leads off with it in chapter one of his book. And while Knievel has been called many things, ("The last gladiator in the new Rome" actually comes from the pen of screenwriter John Milius) the word "artist" is a term not usually ascribed to him. Back in 2008, I went way out on a limb and wrote as much. Broadening the definition of art itself, I proclaimed Evel Knievel an artist. I threw some observations in about Truman Capote as well. I think it's worth revisiting. Kind of like a Dick Cavett show.
Portait of an Artist as a Motorcycle Daredevil
What Is Art?... revisited.
I enjoyed last month's special edition so much I decided to return to the topic concerning what constitutes art. The boundaries between art and non-art are so subjective and ill defined as to render them meaningless. And perhaps that's the way it should be. Like beauty itself, art is in the eye of the beholder. One man's velvet Elvis can be viewed as art or it can be nothing more than a bargaining chip to obtain a flea market chain saw. And a chain saw can be used for more than cutting up trees. Have you ever seen sculptures in wood or ice produced by a chain saw? They can be quite amazing. But does art have to be aesthetically and technically proficient in order to be considered art? Take a trip to The Museum of Bad Art in Dedham, Massachusetts to see for yourself. "Art too bad to be ignored" is the museum's motto.
Even what has been considered "performance art" has been challenged and enlarged recently. One has to look no further than the focus of my last article - Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. Rev. Billy's "guerilla theater" has combined street preaching, social activism, and humor to hopefully bring about much needed change in our ingrained consumer culture. Joshua D. Maurer, producer of Hoax, has stated that disgraced writer Clifford Irving was engaging in performance art when he conned a gullible public and publisher into believing that he was the conduit for the eccentric, reclusive Howard Hughes. However, I'm almost certain that Mr. Irving regrets serving 17 months in prison for that "performance".
In a scene from the 2006 film Infamous, Truman Capote portrayed by Toby Jones engages one of the murderers of a Kansas farm family. The killer surmises that out of the horrific act of murder can come a great work of art - that art which was later to be known as Capote's non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. Of course many had to suffer in order for the book to come to fruition, including Capote himself. He was never quite the same person after this experience.
And if one must suffer for their art, then no one has suffered more than Evel Knievel. Motorcycle daredevil, stuntman, showman/shaman - artist? Sure, but I don't mean artist in the sense that he was painting portraits in his Harley Davidson/Triumph filled garage. No, the brush he used was his unpredictable motorcycle. The colors he utilized were the red, white, and blue of America itself and the red, black, and blue of a battered, bloody, broken body. The settings for this unique artwork could be as varied as the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace, London's Wembley Stadium or as simple as a cow pasture in Texas. His vision was as grand as the Grand Canyon itself (Knievel never completely gave up on his dream to jump the famous canyon, enlisting attorneys to fight an ultimately unsuccessful legal battle in order to obtain government permission to do so.)
Did he fit some people's idea of the moody, temperamental artist? You're damn straight he did. His message for photographers: "I don't smile. Kiss my ass". He once severely beat up a former promoter with a baseball bat who had written an unflattering bio. He gambled, he drank, he chased women, and occasionally landed in jail. He once described himself as "the last gladiator in the new Rome." He would have felt comfortable at the Circus Maximus or as a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West troupe.
So in the end, what do these Evel Knievel "paintings" reveal? Again, remember this musing is in the context of enlarging and broadening the definition of art. They probably reveal more about us than Knievel. We live vicariously through such thrill seekers and are attracted just as much to the spectacular failures as we are the successes. This leads us back to Truman Capote who once said "failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor." And so for a great conversation starter ask what is art? Also mention Evel Knievel and Truman Capote in the same sentence. It might lead to thoughtful discussion or lead to a fight depending on whether you're at a garden party or a seedy bar. Art and controversy. That's what keeps mankind alive.