When I was fourteen, my guitar teacher asked me, “Why is the guitar a folk instrument and not a piano?” I’d never thought of that before, and the question blew my mind. Surely a piano could be a folk instrument. Couldn’t it? I was fourteen, anything could be anything. I was interested in the music of “the people” — Gypsies and carnies and wandering minstrels, travelers and scamps, blues devils and hillbillies, cowboys and revolutionaries, people on the run, people on the mosey, people for whom music is an expression of everyday experience to be performed on the side of the road, rather than an expression of a higher sensation to be performed in a concert hall. People who played guitars. So what was it that made the guitar a folk instrument and not a piano? If guitars could be played in concert halls, why not a piano on the side of the road? But this is teenage semantics. When was the last time anyone saw a cowboy with a baby grand slung over the back of his horse? An image of a piano on a roadside might be a poetic one, but it’s poetic precisely because it isn’t realistic. So when my guitar teacher asked me, “Why is the guitar a folk instrument and not a piano?” what he was asking me was, “What is a guitar and what is its role in the world of art?”
Two exhibitions featuring guitars that are currently on in New York City ask these questions too. Yet somehow, the guitar itself feels strangely absent in both.
Over at the Museum of Modern Art, “Picasso: Guitars 1912 – 1914” is just what it promises — an exhibition of Picasso’s guitar-inspired works from 1912-1914. There are drawings of guitars, and paintings of guitars, and wonderful photographs of each. There are a pair of guitar sculptures as well, one made of paper and string, the other of sheet metal and wire. It’s a delightful show that does a nice job of demonstrating Picasso’s pioneering role in the readymade, and how he was so radically directing Western art’s pre-War trajectory with the eruption of Cubism. But why guitars? Why wasn’t Picasso making Cubist cardboard omelets? Or pianos?
John D’Angelico, Archtop Guitar, “Teardrop” New Yorker model
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a show with the uncharacteristically whimsical name “Guitar Heroes.” “Guitar Heroes” presents the work of the master luthiers (string instrument makers) who sprung up in Italian American communities around the Tri-State area in the 20th century alongside decorative string instruments from Italy dating from the 16th century. The guitars on display are handsome examples of the luthier’s craft — spruce-topped Baroque guitars with stunning mother-of-pearl inlays and D’Angelico’s famous New Yorker models with deco details inspired by the New Yorker Hotel. Looking at these beautiful instruments, one wonders: are these objects for making art or objets d’art? Fancy as their carving skills may be, every instrument-maker makes an instrument to make music first. Considering too that most of the show’s guitars are fairly righteous rock guitars, made for the likes of Paul Simon and Steve Miller, I found myself desperate to hear these divas sing.
In both shows, the guitar is mute. It’s a funny position for a guitar to be in as the guitar’s primary identity is widely agreed to be a musical instrument. And so, walking through “Guitar Heroes” and “Picasso: Guitars” I found myself looking at the guitar not as a guitar but as a symbol, and overwhelmed not by music but by visual art’s powerful, and at times oppressive, expression of muteness. Think of the clinical (and occasionally inaccurate) renderings of harpsichords and lutes in the work of Vermeer, cold in the hands of serene-faced ladies. Or the lutes and viola de gambas in the uninhabited vanitas of 16th and 17th century Northern Europe — gloomy still lifes the very name of which, vanitas, means emptiness and were painted to represent the meaninglessness of earthly existence. Just last year a team of English musicologists and craftsmen attempted to craft the instruments depicted in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and found them to be “either impossible to make or painful to hear.” The instruments in these paintings keep us at a distance from actual music and engulf us in a much different theme: the human being disconnected from worldly things. I think Picasso understood this. What is a more powerful symbol of man divorced from the world than a guitar made out of paper?
And though any instrument-as-object can express this estrangement, there’s something about a silent guitar — especially one that’s beautiful, or precious, or two-dimensional — that particularly aches. When a guitar becomes a symbol, the very thing that makes it a guitar, its immediacy, disappears. For “immediacy” is why a guitar is a folk instrument, i.e. the instrument of folks. The guitar is lightweight, cheap, easy to play. Anyone — and I would like to stress anyone — with two hands and the inclination can spend an afternoon learning three major chords (A D E is a good combo or D A G) and be then well equipped to instantly rock scores of songs from “Back in Black” to “You Are My Sunshine.” (Like the old ‘70s fanzine said: “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.”) This is not so with the piano, nor the drums, the flute, the fiddle. Flung over the heart or across the back, the guitar is good for anywhere and any occasion. The guitar is a folk instrument because it is an easy extension of our bodies, and therefore an easy expression of our humanity. The guitar — and all its predecessors and incarnations: the bouzouki, the saz, the oud, the guitarrón — represents the parts of us that are spontaneous, angry, lazy, joyous, raw, unsophisticated and unadorned. The only other instrument that surpasses the guitar in capturing this immediacy is the voice. Which is the final reason why the guitar is not just a folk instrument but the folk instrument — it’s an easy companion to singing.
The guitar as symbol, then, is a populist object made melancholy. In Picasso’s guitar works, the guitar is a stand-in for Picasso himself, a Spanish artist in France, a man living a fractured experience. Likewise, while “Guitar Heroes” celebrates the guitar’s induction into the world of high art, it reminds us that this honor can also turn a living object that helps people create art into a historical artifact that needs no one.
In 1971, the musician Syd Barrett gave an interview for Rolling Stone. “I never felt so close to a guitar as that silver one with mirrors that I used on stage all the time,” he told the magazine. If you don’t know anything about Syd, you might think he was making an endorsement of the showy guitar. But it wasn’t that at all. “I’m disappearing,” he told the interviewer, “avoiding most things.” By the time of the article, Syd was 25, retired from Pink Floyd, embarking on an ill-fated solo career, and feeling old. “He seems very tense, ill at ease,” the interviewer wrote. “The velvet pants and new green snake skin boots show some attachment to the way it used to be.” A few years later, Syd Barrett would disappear, from public life and from music, returning to his pre-music artistic medium — abstract painting. I think I can understand why Syd felt closest to the guitar with the mirrors. It wasn’t about the guitar or even about music. The guitar with the mirrors reflected the musician behind it. In the guitar with the mirrors, Syd could see himself.• 11 March 2011