A conversation with George Steinmann
You work primarily in the visual arts, but you have always been a professional musician as well. What does music mean to you as a visual artist?
Music has always been part of my life—since I was a child—and it still is. I was already gigging as a guitarist in a rock ‘n’ roll band at the age of 14.But what really moves me is Black Blues, in fact, African-American music in general. It’s a constant source of inspiration. I think the blues is one of the most important art forms ever to come out of the USA.
Can you explain your relationship to the blues in a little more detail?
The blues: well, it’s more than just a musical form, more than just a Black twelve-bar song form, a Black call-and-response structure, more than just blue notes and dirty tones. The blues isn’t just about musical form; it’s about passion. It could really be called a way of life: the pessimism of feelings and the optimism of actions rooted in the hereand-now and in never. Blues is the language of the common people, the lament of the abandoned, the cry for freedom, the rage of the disillusioned, the laughter of the fatalist. There is only one defining criterion for real blues: the experience of life itself. That explains its timeless vitality and originality. In this respect, the blues, for me, is first and foremost a way for an individual’s personal emotions to find expression in music.
I take it you are also interested in the blues as a sociocultural phenomenon.
Absolutely. There is a social aspect to the blues that puts the collective consciousness to the fore. The history of the blues is the history of the Black American community. It is the product of artists from a marginalized community stretching from the deep rural South to the ghettos of the industrial cities. The blues is both an artistic expression and a symbol. I find that very interesting.
As a musician you have had a lot of hands-on experience with the blues.
Yes, for instance, I have worked for years with musicians like Eddie Boyd, Margie Evans, Mike Henderson and Grammy winner Johnny Copeland. But even as a student of African-American culture—I studied under civil rights activist Angela Davis in San Francisco—I had some profound experiences that had a real impact on my visual work. Though mainly on an emotional level, rather than in terms of a conceptual decision. Another important influence is Paul Robeson, an almost Renaissance figure, whose name hardly anyone knows these days. Paul Robeson was an incredible multimedia artist. In the 1920s, he became the first Black man to graduate in law from Columbia University. Not only that, he was also one of the country’s greatest gospel singers and film actors, several times named best American Football League player, and a political activist who worked with Martin Luther King. This open-mindedness, this broad range of interests and multimedia approach gave me a wider view of the blues.
So what you are saying is that your experience of the blues has also influenced your work as a visual artist. Can you expand on that a little?
Well, of course, the aesthetic aspect of the blues is something that has always interested me. Right now, I’m reading about the artists Bill Traylor and William Edmondson, who transposed the blues into visual art in the 1930s and 40s. The same is true of hip-hop, which has taken the blues into the present day. Once you have caught the blues bug, you can never shake it off. Even if that means expressing it in another medium and, as in my case, in another culture.