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...???

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