Monday, September 29, 2014

5 Options for Artists that Aren't Really

Lists are popular.
“10 Best Pick-Up Lines Ever!”
8 Reasons Your Marriage is Already Failing!
5 Ways Parents Can Stop Insulting their Childless Friends!”
I am super into being popular, so I thought I’d create a list, too.  Well, actually, it’s just to get some things off my chest.  I am working on a post on vocation and profession, and I kept getting bogged down responding to all of the old men who, over the course of my life, have felt it incumbent upon them to offer me unsolicited life advice.  Honestly, though, these things still get said, both to me and to some of my artist friends.  Typically in a much more well-meaning way than they used to be offered, but without exception they come from folks who are not artists themselves.
So in the interests of clearing my throat before I get to my post on vocation, and because these points bring up REALLY important issues around capitalism, here are my 

5 Things Non-Artists Need to Stop Saying to Artists

1. Oh, you’re a poet!  Have you thought about being a professional writer?  Like, advertising copy, or journalism, or something?

So I’ve used poetry and writing as my examples, but the same goes for all art forms:  an actor doing TV commercials; a musician playing for a recording studio; a painter doing video game illustration.  The thing non-artists do not seem to get is that your passion, and the skill you acquire expressing that passion, are two separate things.  Using the skill you’ve acquired does not satisfy the passion.  Not one tiny bit.  If I do journalism — and I have, as it so happens — it is no closer to writing poetry or my own essays than is cleaning toilets (which I have also done, and found far easier on my creative side than the supposed creativity of paid writing).

Also, there’s money in journalism?  Are you fucking kidding me?

2. There are jobs for artists.  You could be a college professor!  (Or any type of teacher.  Acting, painting, photography, composition, etc.)

Actually, now that I think of it, this one has a similar problem to #1.  Namely, teaching is a completely different job.  It is not satisfying to creative urges to teach artistic skills when what you want to be doing is painting giant abstracted oil paintings inspired by Victorian novels.

Also — and this is important to the quality of our art, folks — as a professor, I would spend over half my time reading poetry written by 18- to 22-year-olds.  I know what I wrote between the ages of 18 and 22.  I promise you:  reading it would not make you a good artist, of any stripe.  So professors are forced into filling their heads with incredibly heartfelt drivel.
For another thing, in order to get a job at the college level, you have to be willing to move pretty much anywhere in the country.  So, you know, just don’t fall in love with anyone or ever, ever want to settle down and have a family.  (Seriously on this one.  I’ve known people who speak multiple languages, who’ve been moving around the country or the world for over ten years, trying to get tenure.)  Also, going along with that one, 76.4%.  That’s the percentage of professors, across all institutional types, that are adjunct and not tenured or tenure-track.  That means no guarantee of a job next year, and most likely no benefits, and now (and where are those insane tuitions going??!!) most are reported by a recent study to be living below the poverty line.
And finally…  There are no jobs!  Not even crappy ones in the middle of nowhere!  Our parents’ generation is holding onto their tenured jobs for dear life, and there has been such a massive explosion of 30- and 40-somethings with graduate degrees in the humanities that some of my professor friends have told me they are seeing upwards of 100 to 300 applications for every ONE job that comes available.

3. You're making excuses.  There are people out there living their dream.  You could be one of them!  You just gotta be committed!

You wanna know my dream?  It’s so, so simple:  permanent American expat, traveling from one gorgeous, fascinating place to another (Paris!  Lagos!  Kuala Lumpur!  Istanbul!), spending my days writing poetry and essays, painting with media I don't even know the names of, and my nights drinking with other fabulous expats and going to operas, ballets, musical performances, and art openings, and sleeping with so many gorgeous men I finally lose count in a blissed-out, orgasmic haze.  That’s all!  And you know what, the non-artists are right about one thing.  If I was more committed — say, committed enough to marry some rich prick who wanted a tall, blonde trophy — I could totally finance my dream.  So why am I so lazy?

4. Well, but look at [insert famous person with buckets of money]!  He/she certainly seems to have figured it out.

Okay, just for clarity’s sake:  Rick Steves is not an artist.  Neither is Heather Graham.  Neither is Mandy Moore, nor Dan Brown, nor Thomas Kinkade.  Neither are a hell of a lot of other people that Wikipedia will happily label “writer,” “actor,” or “artist.”  They are entertainers.  Pure and simple.  They make crap, so we can all stop thinking for a few minutes.  Nothing against not thinking.  I’m a regular meditator.  It’s just, if you’re going to try to turn your brain off, don’t call it art. Now, that being said, there are artists, across all disciplines, who to all appearances support themselves financially by making wicked art.  Tilda Swinton is a goddess.  Rose Wylie.  Philip Glass.  Arvo Pärt (be still my heart).  Lupita Nyong’o.  Michelle Ndegeocello.  Adrienne Rich.  Anna Netrebko (*sigh*).  Lang Lang.  They are out there.  But here’s the thing:  most had money at their back, and if not money, artistic parents.  No American ever wants to admit this to themselves, but the pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth is largely that.  And for the one in a billion artists who do manage to do that?  Can you not tell that I am far too much of a pessimist to be that one? Did you read the above article I linked to? Read it.

5. (In response to an artist voicing concern over balancing art with marriage and kids.)  Sure you can have it all!  Lots of artists have homes and families!

I saved this one for last because this is tough for me to address.  Not because I have a stance against it.  Lots of talented artists do purchase homes and have transportation and get married (and stay married!) and have kids who don’t hate them or kill people.  It’s not that it’s technically impossible.  It’s tough because how to balance art-making with family life is a legitimate problem for a lot of people. It's a question of priorities and sacrifice, and I find that generally, non-artists whip this one out way too casually.

When you have a child, you understand responsibility in a whole new way.  Your very identity gets changed.  But the problem is, it probably won’t be 100% changed.  So an artist may suddenly see their old, artistically active self as selfish and focused on petty things, and simultaneously resent their children for keeping them from their old selves.  As a woman, I tend to hear more about this from the perspective of moms rather than dads, but I can tell you:  there are some moms out there who both desperately want to hold their babies, and desperately want to throw them across the room and run off to somewhere, anywhere, where they can be their artist selves again.  Somewhere they can not be a mother anymore.
These are not “bad women.”  They are not necessarily bad mothers.  Any responsible adult can and should figure out how to deal with their own disappointment once they’ve brought a child into this world, and buck the fuck up.  Most (that I have seen, anyway) do just that.  But at what cost?  How many ways can a human be split?  And is it such a great thing?
  The major advantage I see to encouraging everyone to do everything is productivity.  Yes, my life would look much more impressive if I published books, made art, studied philosophy, and bought a house and had babies.  So?  Why the obsession with production?  Oh!  Right!  Capitalism!  I always forget.  Right, totally need to get on board with capitalism, and its fixation on making more and more, so we can consume more and more.  Return to Go.
And this is the meat of the matter.  Americans want to believe the aforementioned pieces of advice can work because we really, REALLY want to believe that capitalism can be done in such a way that it doesn’t hopelessly contort each and every soul it touches.  I am showing my so-far-left-I-don’t-know-where-the-leftists-went colors here, but yes, capitalism distorts and taints everything.  Everything.  And everyone.  This is why Beyoncé — whom I instinctively want to fall down and worship — is still a problem.  This is why we should never, ever indulge in regretful surprise when we hear what the pace and demands of capitalism do to creators (click here for one example out of thousands).  Americans want to believe that it is possible to be the most authentic version of themselves possible, within this system.  I assert that it is not.  It is not possible.I speak mainly as a poet here, but there is no way to slice the cake that doesn’t hurt me and my creativity.  The solution I have arrived at — and I make no claims that this is the best solution, only that it is no worse than any of the others — is to protect the space my creative urges come from as much as possible.  For me, this means never, ever placing responsibility for things like food and shelter on their very fragile shoulders.  (Huh.  My creative urges ended up with shoulders.  Metaphors are weird.)
I could go further and get all Žižekian, but as I mentioned earlier, this is mostly a throat-clearing exercise.  Of course, there are probably at least five more silly pieces of advice I could come up with, but these are the main ones that continue to re-assert themselves.  And there are real potential pitfalls to the option I’ve chosen.  For one thing, I think it’s awfully easy for folks like me who choose to (attempt to) keep their art and money as far from one another as possible to get awfully self-righteous (a particular talent of mine). We can fool ourselves into believing that somehow we manage to accomplish what everyone else fails at; namely, that we somehow stay free from capitalism’s dirty fingers.  We do not.  Also, there’s a scary psychological potential here, which is that if not one dime ever comes to me via my art, given that I have a psyche shaped by the belief that money is the primary marker of value, it’s often (read:  always) difficult to remember that I am in fact an artist. This one hurts, and it's a constant problem for me, but again, that's part of my point: there isn't a solution within capitalism. Which means that the solution is... (Raises eyebrows...) Yes...???

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Meno, and too little too soon?

            Commentators on Plato like to have a one-word "This is what X is about," where "X" is Phaedrus, Gorgias, Theaetetus, etc.  Granted, Plato generally does a good job of maintaining his focus within a piece (far better than I do, anyway), but once you combine the oversimplification of "Plato's Republic is about justice," with the problems and complexities of translation, the statements start to feel more and more meaningless.
            So:  Plato's Meno.  Wikipedia-the-all-knowing says it's about virtue.
            Firstly — and I will try to be brief, because this is something of a side note — the Meno is not about anything anyone in the Anglophone world would ever call "virtue."  I touched on it here, but virtue is an unfortunate translation of the Greek arête.  To give an idea of what an ancient Greek might have thought of when they heard the word arête, we need only ask Meno himself, as Socrates did:
SOCRATES:  But Meno, by the gods, what do you yourself say that virtue is?...
MENO:  It is not hard to tell you, Socrates.  First, if you want the virtue of a man, it is easy to say that a man's virtue consists of being able to manage public affairs and in so doing to benefit his friends and harm his enemies and to be careful that no harm comes to himself; if you want the virtue of a woman, it is not difficult to describe:  she must manage the home well, preserve its possessions, and be submissive to her husband.  (Meno, 71d-72a)
Meno goes on to talk about the virtue of a child, an elderly man, and a slave.
            While I will grant that we have another, less morally-tuned, use of the word "virtue" (we speak of "the virtues of diplomacy," "the virtues of sound urban planning," etc), for one thing, it's not a use you hear too often anymore.  And for another, it still wouldn't work in this context.  The "virtues of" use speaks as though virtues were benefits, or good things about the practices in question. Meno is clearly speaking not of practices, but of people, and the people are subjects acting out their arête; it is not something about them, the way their robes might have been blue.
            So from the first pages of the dialogue, the use of the word virtue to translate arête — when virtue, in my ears, sounds something like moral goodness or righteousness — seems dubious at best.
            Philip Vassallo in Philosophy Now* suggests that a better word might be "valor."  I would agree if arête only applied to men.  But as Meno himself demonstrates, it does not.  (While I may personally love the notion of a valorous housewife, it sounds too comic.  And a valorous slave, who would presumably demonstrate his or her valor by submitting to whatever work or punishments meted out to them with all appropriate resignation, sounds awful.)
            Another possible translation of arête is excellence, and I think this is decent.  It allows us the flexibility to use arête in a manner in line with what Meno — in this dialogue, the representative of the classic/Homeric understanding of social values — points towards:  the most perfect expression of carrying out one's life's work.  This also allows us to hear/read Meno's definitions of the arêtes/excellences/ways of excellence in a way that avoids reading him as a prefigure of Nietzsche, or as simply another Thrasymachus.
            Okay.  Side note over.
            Back to this question:  what is Plato's Meno about?
            And then this:  what responses present themselves?
            As for the first question, I do not think the dialogue centers on arête — no matter how we translate that word — at all.  The central questions (according to Terra Leigh), in the order in which they are discussed, are the following:
  • Can excellence be taught?
  • What is excellence?
  • Meno's paradox:  how can one search for what one does not know, as it will (presumably) be unrecognizable since you haven't yet found it or known it?
  • Is excellence a kind of knowledge?
  • Can excellence be taught? Part II
Each section dealing with these questions of course brings up many others (How do we learn?  Why do some kinds of knowledge seem to be "discovered," as though they had always been lying about somewhere in the recesses of our brains?), but these are the big umbrella topics.  In terms of sheer time spent on each, the question of "What is excellence/arête?" gets about eleven pages in my copy.  The question the dialogue opens with, however — "Can excellence/arête be taught?" — gets double that.
            Obviously it would behoove one to know what X is when discussing whether or not X is teach-able.  Socrates/Plato know this, and so spend a respectable amount of time discussing what the hell arête even is.  And Socrates' conclusion — that virtue may be more like a kind of divine inspiration that some lucky folk receive from the gods — whether ironic or not, is a way of circumventing the question of how to know what arête is.
            But my larger point is this:  Plato, here, seems primarily concerned with whether or not arête/human excellence can be taught.  He is trying to get at how to pass on individual qualities which will benefit both the individuals concerned and the larger society.
            When I first realized how much of his time he spends thinking about the teachability of excellence, initially I thought he was barking up the wrong tree.  Because Plato seems to think of teaching as what Socrates does:  one person, who has more wisdom, and another, who has less, conversing, while knowledge is either passed between them or "awoken" by the activity of dialogue.  While I think this can be a decent method for informational transfer, I do not think it works too well for moral transfer.  And when I say "moral," I don't mean something like "ethical behavior," or "knowledge of ethics."  I mean it in the old sense of character, temperament, or possibly even mood.  I mean something like the shape and texture of human persons or souls.  The shape and texture of a person — not some quantity of informational material — will determine what choices they make in life, and in a sense will determine how much or how little they achieve arête.  And the shape and texture of a person will be influenced and generated primarily by their entire environment, not some one individual.
            It may well be that Plato does believe, in writing the Meno, that if arête is teach-able, its teaching will happen in the kind of scenario he presents Socrates in.  I do not mean that Plato — or Socrates for that matter — believed that Socrates had a lot of really good information to pass on, kind of like knowledge of geometric theorems, and that teaching arête or hosion or dike or whatever would transpire the same way teaching Chvátal's Art Gallery Theorem would transpire.  Because of course, that isn't what Socrates is doing.  Still, Plato does seem to place a lot of faith in Socrates' methods, and I for one think they would do fuck-all for a society trying to teach its young arête or any number of moral sentiments.  In this particular dialogue, I get the distinct impression that Plato believes that if arête is teach-able, then Socrates' methods would be the ones to achieve that.
            One can ask "Can arête be taught?"  But while, in the Meno, Socrates does realize this begs the question, "What is arête/excellence?" he doesn't seem to realize it begs the question, "What is teaching?"  This is a central problem for Plato's entire project.
            Like so many of the dialogues, this one ends in aporia.  I.e., there isn't a satisfactory answer, unless you consider this satisfying:  "Can excellence be taught?"  "Umm...  I'm not sure.  I guess not...?"  But upon finishing Meno, and feeling frustrated because Plato's notion of what teaching excellence would look like, I suddenly realized something.  Plato himself accounted for the generation and shaping influence of environment in his later work, Republic.
            I'm not sure whether I will ever write a full blog post on Republic.  It's crazy long and I'm not exactly in love with it.  I think the most interesting aspect of it is its psychology, which is possibly the main point anyway, but it's hard to not read Republic as a political treatise since that is both how it is traditionally read and what is floating around on the surface and easy to catch.  Also, there are enough books and articles and probably now blog posts on it to make me feel less an intrepid explorer, and more an unpaid intern.
            But perhaps I can avoid the question of whether or not to write a blog post focusing exclusively on Republic by discussing it here.  In Republic — which most scholars agree to be a later dialogue than Meno — Plato argues that in order for an entire society to function well, and in order for all of the members to be as perfectly just and good as is possible, all of the various groups and parts of the system must accept their proper roles and perform them to the best of their ability.  While it could well be argued that such a proposal is a neat and tidy way of keeping the lower classes from getting too uppity and too big for their britches, so to speak, it is at the very least an acknowledgment that all humans live in an ecology of ethics and that if the ecosystem is sick, so will their individual systems (i.e., people) and sub-group systems.  And, in turn, if individual systems are sick, such persons cannot help but affect the entire system by pulling unduly in some areas, while going slack in others that need tension.
            I think it bears pointing out here that while Plato's central concern in Republic, which is justice or even righteousness, these can not be equated to what he is after in Meno.  Again, read any translation of Meno I've ever come across and arête will be translated virtue.  This may sound like "justice," but I do want to clarify that Plato is technically talking about the nurturance of two different qualities.  Just for accuracy's sake.
            Still, I would at least put excellence and justice in the category of moral character.  And in Republic, Plato seems to taken into account the ecology and complexity of influences on human development, and how systemic the influences upon the development of moral character are.  One may not be able to tell another person "How to be moral/good/just/pious/whatever" in the same way one could teach them to grow bacterial cultures or knit a blanket.  But if we can take into account the whole system in which humans grow, we may be at least able to have a meaningful conversation about whether or not arête can in fact be taught.

*  I have refrained from including the link above because I see that the article is now available to subscribers only (an honor which I cannot claim, as $32 comes dearly these days).  But if you would like to look at the delectable teaser, which I'm sure will lead you to locate an extra $32 in your budget this month**, you can see it here:  Aren't Philosophers Rich Enough Already Why Do They Need My $32?

**  I have recently discovered that, as a person who religiously keeps a budget and knows exactly how much I spend on everything every single month, I am part of a group constituting less than 10% of the American population.  Which is to say, if you are, as seems likely, part of the 90% of normal people, you could simply spend the $32 and it would probably come off just fine.***

***  I apologize (but not really, of course) for all the dependent clauses.  I have just finished yet another British murder mystery, and Albert Campion is loping through my head.