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JEAN SHEPHERD–Why Create? & ARTSY (5) Raven Rattle

Why do people exert the considerable energy required to create stuff? Why did Shep?

What follows are my thoughts/interpretations of why Shepherd did what he did, in part contributed by my own attempts at self-interpretation. Any comments and additions are welcomed.


Looks great, doesn’t it!

Relates to left-brain/right brain.

(I made the mistake of checking the googled source:

it’s about ads and marketing. Wooden cha know!)


For me, there is a great enjoyment I have in giving expression to my ideas and feelings. This is irrespective of the possible quality of the result. From following Shepherd, I believe without doubt that he got great joy in self-expression. I believe that most artists in all fields enjoy expressing themselves. Some claim that this amounts to an obsession. Sometimes I feel this–I don’t want to stop for food or sleep.


There is pleasure in creating something that one considers to be “a work of art.”


Shepherd, along with most other creators had this joy.

The above categories involve “self-actualization,” the being at one’s

best/highest level that humans are capable of.

See Abraham Maslow–including my post on his work.


This ain’t so bad. All of us need some of this, and artists tend to have it to a very high degree. It may even help them achieve all the other attributes listed here.


This ain’t so bad. Most all of us gotta do this–unless born rich or happen to fall into it. One of the issues most artists have in life is how to balance the need to create with the necessity to make money to obtain food and lodging and a few goodies.

I don’t know how Jean Shepherd could have balanced art and money in any other way than he did. He might have continued–until he died–with his great art of improvised radio work at the sacrifice of more money and renown–but this would probably have driven his ego mad. I think that one of my heroes, Norman Mailer, determined and succeeded in promoting himself to the crass, real world in ways that for him, allowed him to write even his lesser writings in ways that, on some level, also produced work that had artistic as well as monetary value.


♥  ♥   



artsyfratsy 10010

Raven Rattle

I’m fascinated by raven rattles. These are objects used in ritual ceremonies by Northwest Coast Indians. They are carved with a raven and several lesser figures on or incorporated into it, using the typical, stylized shapes of Northwest Coast art. Ravens are usually depicted with something in their beaks. This is a “box of sunlight,” which the mythological trickster-bird opened and gave to humans (in a similar way to Prometheus giving light–fire/knowledge–to humans in the Greek myth).

The main part of the body is the raven. On its back there is usually a red-colored, naked human with his tongue out, being given (at the tip of the giver’s tongue,) some important attribute. Sometimes the giver is a bird, sometimes a frog, etc. On the bottom side of the rattle, carved in slight relief, is a bird’s head with large eyes and various abstract shapes in typical Northwest style.

ARTSY rattles.museum0005

Vancouver Museum exhibit.

When I was designing “Chiefly Feasts,” a large temporary exhibit of Northwest Coast art that would travel to several other museums in the U. S. and Canada, I flew and drove to see and consult at other museums, with Allison and our young son. I’ve seen many actual raven rattles in museums such as the American Museum of Natural History, Chicago’s Field Museum, Vancouver University Museum Victoria.

ARTSY. Chiefly F. by eb

My design sketch for one section of the exhibit.

For several years, every time I walked through the Northwest Coast permanent hall of the American Museum of Natural History where I worked, I’d stop and look at the good one on display. When our museum did a temporary exhibit brought in from another museum, I had the chance to hold a fine example during set-up time.

ARTSY rattle & eb

When I had more brown hair than white.

I’m holding it upside down

as one does during a native ceremony.

A conservator will tell you that the white gloves

are to protect the artifact.

From books, magazines, catalogs, I collect photos of raven rattles by the score.

ARTSY rattles.AMNH,etc0002

Clockwise from lower left: At auction, $30,000-50,000;

Three views of a specimen at AMNH; For sale at a gallery.

In my belief, many I’ve seen are not well carved. I imagine that a good one would go for many times what I ever could afford. As much as I try to collect real stuff, a few years ago I encountered a replica for sale on ebay, thought it compared very well with photos of really good ones, and bought it for $125. The seller, owner of a NW-Coast gallery, had commissioned a half-dozen, made by a family of Indonesian carvers!

A major issue for me is: I’d rather have an authentic one carved by and used by the actual people of the Northwest Coast. But considering all the inferior specimens, actually distastefully/poorly carved authentic ones I’ve seen (even those beyond what I might one day be able to afford) would I really want such a poorly done job facing me nightly? Other than its aura of authenticity, it would be one that fails in all the visual attributes that make raven rattles in the ideal such a joy to behold. My Indonesian replica is better made than most authentic ones I’ve seen—it gives me an esthetic pleasure I’d never get from a badly carved authentic one that visually offends me. Faced with the reality, I’ve denied my ideal principle. I’m very pleased to view nightly in front of me in our living room, my Indonesian replica.

ARTSY rattle.mine0005





JEAN SHEPHERD & Farther Reaches (Part 2 of 2)


These unexpected and higher insights/expressions are open to all of us, but mostly we are trapped in lower zones of our thinking and expectations. (One of my favorite comments, that might be used here, is that “They’ve found the missing link between lower primates and civilized man—it’s us!”) But sometimes other and higher expressions of reality are available through openness and a questing toward them. These heights represent an evolutionary potential—a greater, higher human level.

stary nightVan Gogh’s “Starry Night”

Van Gogh’s landscapes capture what seems to be all levels of appreciation. They express his feelings/thoughts that the visual world is a swirling, flaming, living entity—and his vision of it thus helps many others apprehend it. (I know that often, after experiencing an exhibit such as one of great paintings, as I walk out of that museum, seeing the prosaic world around me, I sense that surrounding world with some of those attributes the artist expressed.

shrekShrek and Fiona

Shreck 1 is quality trickle—especially with its directly imported class-act song,  “Hallelujah,” composed by Leonard Cohen, with its elegant, metaphorical, arcane conundrums.

cohenLeonard  Cohen singing his “Hallelujah”

(On Youtube, Cohn’s is there in several renditions, but the Shrek version is by others.)

 The highest expressions in the arts are not just there for those who directly experience them. The entire field from best to worst gains from what’s highest. It’s clear in every art that perceptions and innovations at the top are absorbed by other lesser practitioners and put into effect in their own, more easily understood forms, and are appreciated on a less sophisticated level at the width and breath of art–from the junk-food bottom all the way up.


From Stan Brakage (Dog Star Man

or from another similar work by him, 1962)

–maybe a fifth-of-a-second frame

Example: I used to attend avant-garde (“underground”) films in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. A technique used to express and convey visual information and feeling in some of those films was exceedingly fast cutting from one image to another–maybe 5 or 6 images a second or more. The technique got around and affected millions who never saw Stan Brakage’s Dog Star Man, 1962, or anything else by him or others in little makeshift movie houses in the East Village in the 60s. Soon that technique (with all its speed-up of input and audience’s growing ability to absorb it and be emotionally enraptured by it) became a fad in television commercials. And subsequently it could be seen in mass-market commercial movies, such as in the  finale of the Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway film, Bonnie And Clyde, 1967. The quick cuts work well to express the violence of bullets hitting bodies.


Warren Beatty and Faye Dunnaway, 1967

(or dead body-doubles)

!   !   !

Don’t deny and kill the best we humans can potentially attain—let it remain as a sometimes-achieved enjoyment, and when we can’t understand or even believe in it or we turn our backs to it–leave it out there in the world. As Don Quixote quixotically sang in “Man of La Mancha”: we can strive for it—as THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM!

!   !   !

donQuixote BalanchineGeorge Balanchine as Don Quixote

in his ballet of that name.

He dreamed and achieved his dreams.

!   !   !

Jean Shepherd’s radio work, for decades, achieved the level of Maslow’s “Self Actualization.” His portrayal of a mind exploring (“questing” maybe?), finding, suggesting, raises our level of humanness, and thus affects our psyches in a form that will not go away. Over the years we pass it on to others in our everyday interactions. Our “excelsiors,” our impossible dreams, sometimes encounter holy grails and advance our sensibilities.

classic shep imageJean Shepherd at the heights.

Excelsiors and impossible dreams coming true

as he performs his artistic essence.

From his voice to our understanding.

Whether we realize it or not.

!   !   !


JEAN SHEPHERD & Farther Reaches (Part 1 of 2)

!   !   !



Jean Shepherd’s radio “art” is not for everybody. In fact, his radio genius is probably, as Donald Fagan put it, an art of “inherent marginality.” Is this good? Is this acceptable in a world of “majority rules”? What is the advantage of the existence of marginal ideas and styles and arts in any society—even–or especially– in one of mass-tastes such as those that dominate our culture and its media?

Such arts as opera, ballet, classical music, and poetry, and avant-garde formats of many kinds survive, it seems, only because they are supported by the wealth of a few and the largess of the state. Even the more popular arts such as the novel, have a more rare and unread form that involves style and/or content that is considered avant-garde and that most people don’t like—they avoid it. Maybe such elite tastes have no place in the world and should not even receive the miniscule amount of support they now get—why protect the elite tastes of a minority if the art cannot support itself through the Darwinian mandates of majority rule? Without necessarily implying that Shepherd’s work is part of the highest equivalent in the highest arts we know, or that I am the ultimate arbiter, here’s why, with two hard- to-explain, yet simple reasons.

!   !   !


Abraham Maslow


Psychologist Abraham H. Maslow, who chose to study, not the emotionally disturbed, but the highest functioning people, used the term “self-actualization” to express that which individual humans at their highest potential can attain. His posthumously published volume is titled The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Maslow pointed out that there is a hierarchy, a series of levels of human needs, from the lowest level: we all need air, food, and a few other basics; a bit higher, we “need” a certain degree of comfort; higher yet we desire some freedoms; and ultimately highest, where humans may attain the ultimate—a full humanness, where there is the potential to think, explore, create on a much higher level than lower life-forms can.

→Click on the wonderful pyramidal image at the top of this post←

Evolution has put humans on this road to higher things, and over millennia we have moved upward to need and desire far more than air and food. So the baby evolves to the child, to the adult, moving from simple needs and thoughts to higher ones. So also does the human appreciation of “arts” evolve from a baby rattle upward to more elaborate/sophisticated vision, sounds, ideas.

Most people stop short of the highest levels, even though these levels are around us, mostly just for the choosing. (If they can’t afford tickets to the opera or ballet, they can enjoy such through DVDs and television broadcasts; for poetry and other “higher” forms of writing there are libraries.) Note that no one expects everybody to consume only the “highest” all the time. We all enjoy a binge of lower pleasures. My favorite junk food is strawberry Twizzlers and I seldom indulge in the highest, upper crust sorts of stuff.


Delightful Junk Food

(BTW, I don’t go for opera, other than enjoying a couple of the more popular arias. Though I don’t indulge in it, I would not want a dictatorship of the proletariat—a tyranny of the majority—to ban the support of it. I’m for promoting it even through public subsidy.)

Through the artists’ innovative perceptions and their expressions, there can be an expansion in our ability to understand the world around us in previously un-thought-of ways. The usual ways that we have understood more prosaically can be altered and expanded—we can get a fuller perception of our reality. It’s because such higher levels are indeed at the top of humanity’s thoughts/feelings/expressions, and are goals that should be seen as shining grails up there ahead of us–these thoughts and feelings and expressions need to exist and be nurtured. Attaining ever higher levels of humanity than we now have can create nothing less than higher intensity and joy in  life. Better than bubble gum and Twizzlers.

!   !   !


See Part 2 coming up!

In which I announce, propose, affirm, 

 substantiate, establish, promote, and stress

“trickle-down” subsidy!