Here’s a clip by Russian-born multi-instrumentalist, singer, East Village anti-folk poster girl, and cutting edge songwriter Regina Spektor. It’s her “All The Rowboats”, the first single taken from this year’s What We Saw From The Cheap Seats, her sixth record. Here is a tale of fine art after hours, when the patrons of art galleries and museums have gone home. It’s a tale of desperation with a unique selection of characters – the works of art themselves.
This is a part of Spektor’s approach to songwriting in general, coming from odd corners of perception, and using a wide vocabulary of imagery to flesh it out. This is in turn fueled by a varied series of cultural sources, from pop lyrics, to other languages, to works of literature.
To this point, Spektor is certainly hooked into how art is entwined with human experience. But in this song, that connection is presented in less than a positive light. In this song, the works of art are under the yoke of human captors, their “own fault for being timeless”.
So, what is Regina Spektor saying about art?
Spektor’s approach to being a songwriter diverges from the confessional model that many expect, particularly associated with “the woman at her piano” style performer. Her approach is more in line with a more”What If?” angle. In this case, this song wonders: what if art were self-aware, frightened, lonely, and captive under human dominance? What if they were half-alive, with art galleries and museums being little more than jails built for their immobile prisoners, detained indefinitely?
Yet even beyond this short tale of isolation and paralysis, I think this song has something to say about how our society thinks about great works of art; as something to view at a distance, uninvolved, and held in cultural suspension. In this, there are other ‘what ifs’ to be found here. For instance, what if art is only art when it is expressed, not observed and simply held as a part of a collection? What if reducing works of art down to the level of cultural commodities hamstrings them of their power?
In an age where cultural programs that promote new artists and new art are under attack by short-sighted governments and educational decision-makers (well, arts and culture funding has certainly been under attack in Canada since 2008 in any case …) this is certainly a pertinent idea worth discussing. In a civilized society, art shouldn’t cordened off, and penned in as a thing of the past to be viewed exclusively as an archive; it should be recognized as being all around, and inside us waiting to be born.
For more information about Regina Spektor, check out the Regina Spektor fan forum on her website.