“Conversation Fencing For Artists” by Mark Mercury

Sept 19, 2002 – Los Angeles: As artists we are continually besieged with all manner of questions–from the probing to the pesky to the pointless, and we are expected to wax eloquent on our style, our methods, our purpose, our influences, and our meaning. You may or may not believe that you should respond to these inquiries, but responding well can do wonders for your public relations and thereby your success. So it behooves you to become skilled at the art of conversational fencing.

And how do you do that? You need to arm yourselves with a special sort of sword… an incisive saber…a clever cutlass, if you will. You need, quite simply, the quotation. Quotations cut to the quick, because they compress a lot of truth into powerful, penetrating thrusts.

Suppose you’re a playwright, your play has recently opened, you’re at a party, and someone says to you in a whining, somewhat critical tone, “I liked your play, but how do you explain all those bad reviews you’ve been getting?” You answer: “Oh, I don’t pay them much mind. I just remember the words of that great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius:”

“No statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

Suppose you’re a painter, it’s opening night at your gallery show, you’re at the reception, and some intellectual is “explaining” YOUR painting to YOU, pointing out how well you have “reconciled the minimalist ethic with the post-modernist affectation with thematic nihilism.” Your first reaction is to go “Huh?”, but that’s not very articulate; not for you, the consummate conversationalist. What you should do is pull out your broadest blade, get downright ruthless, and quote the honorable Picasso:

“Those trying to explain pictures are as a rule completely mistaken.”

Now please note, whenever you do thrust forth with one of these elegant repartees, for maximum effect, preface your utterance with the quoted person’s name. Here, for instance, is what you should say if you’re a composer, and you’re confronted with that type of fan who has an insatiable craving to know, who insists on discovering everything about your background, which schools you attended, if you were ever influenced by Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, if you ever composed anything for double string quartet–ad infinitum, ad nauseum: “I am grateful for your interest in me, but I am reminded of what the German composer Karl Maria von Weber once said:”

“If a man would know me, let him find me in my music.”

And of course, we mustn’t forget that situation when you are matching wits with an opinionated and forceful debater, who has, somehow, because of prior inattention on your part, backed you into a corner and has you pinned to the wall with his rapier on your chest, demanding that you explain and justify to him your “creative process”– something that he’s convinced is mysterious and complicated–and you desperately need to buy a few seconds of time so that you may gracefully slither away and high-tail it over to the chips ‘n’ dip. In this case, you unsheathe your Shaw–George Bernard Shaw, that is:

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last you create what you will.”

Let him chew on THAT while you munch on your chips ‘n’ dip!

I could go on and on, because the world is chock-full of quotable quotes. And as you can see, by arming yourselves with them, if you don’t actually become more wise and articulate, you’ll at least acquire the capacity for appearing to be so, and you’ll be well-prepared for those occasions when all else fails and you find yourselves in the midst of a verbal duel, parrying a thrust, countering with a ripost, or lunging in for an attack.

So seek them out, learn them well, and never fear to use them with the utmost deftness to your utmost advantage. For as that Nobel Prize-winning French novelist Anatole France once remarked:

“When a thing has been said and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.”

(c) 1994 Mark Mercury. All Rights Reserved.