Songs for the Struggling Artist


“A True Artist – the Perfect Candidate”

Last year, I received an award that was given to another person as well. We were both selected by the committee to receive the residency in question. I’m a white woman in my 40s from NYC and he’s a black man in his 20s from the mid-west. The residency was for emerging artists (see also my post on Can We Find Another Word for Emerging?) and I was surprised and delighted to receive it, even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t what most people meant when they signed up to support this award.

Throughout our time in residence, I could feel comparison happening between us – sometimes in my favor but mostly not. I thought perhaps I was imagining this sort of outside judgment. And then I saw a post on a Facebook page about my fellow award winner and someone in the organization commented on it, saying, he was “the perfect candidate” and “a true {*Name of the award} artist.”

It probably goes without saying that I did not receive a similar comment. And it probably also goes without saying that by saying someone is the perfect candidate and the true artist, they are also saying that someone else is NOT the perfect candidate or the true artist. In addition to making it plain that he had a clear preference for my colleague, the commenter (who is a leader in the award-giving organization,) wouldn’t even look at me whenever we were all in the same space.

I found myself furious – and frustrated. Like, if you didn’t think I was appropriate for the award, a) you didn’t have to give it to me and b) don’t take your opinion about my worthiness out on me.

And for a moment I was jealous of my co-award winner. But then I realized that this is an incredibly old pattern in the history of our country. Take two marginalized groups of people and pit them against each other. Especially white women and black men. I mean – the fight for suffrage got really reprehensible once white ladies, fighting for their rights, started throwing black folks under the bus. It is a giant stain on the early suffragists – many of whom got their start in abolitionism.

So…in the face of realizing that I was about to do the same, starting to somehow feel competitive with my colleague – well, I reached out to him and asked him to let me know how I could support him. Not because he needs it (he’s doing very well) but because I needed to. I needed to make sure that the prevailing winds of dividing and separating didn’t win, even in my own psyche.

The whole experience has been an excellent exhibit of how complex things become when resources are scarce. I am not at all competitive generally. But I know when I’ve been placed a competitive environment. And I found myself stuck in a strange race I didn’t sign up for. I remember thinking “I would have chosen him, too!”

But…that’s not fair, really. There were two places and we were both chosen. We were selected together. There’s enough of whatever there is there to go around. I feel like this is important to remember in this moment, when we are all fighting for the rights we thought were ours to keep. There’s a way where we could splinter easily into my rights, your rights. I could only fight for the NEA or reproductive rights because those have an impact on me. But we will make a bigger difference by fighting for it all, by fighting for Black Lives, for immigrants, for Muslims, for the poor, for the environment, for everyone under attack.

It will always be easy to make us compete, if we are under attack, if our resources are few and we feel we don’t have enough. But I hope the resistance continues to make the more unifying choice of reaching out to those we are being set up against. My commitment to myself is to reach out as soon I notice a sense of competition this way. I’m telling you now so I don’t forget.

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Sexism Can Still Surprise Me
April 21, 2017, 11:43 pm
Filed under: Gender politics | Tags: , , , , ,

I can’t stop thinking about that story about the employees who switched email signatures and how it revealed incredible sexism. (If you haven’t read it, start here to read the woman’s account and click through to the man’s Twitter thread.) I’ve seen a lot of responses to this story that can most easily be summed up as  “No, duh.”  A lot of people (of all genders) have said, “Not surprising.” But I will confess to being surprised. Not that there’s sexism, I suppose, but that it could be so plainly revealed. And in email, too!

But, it also feels more like the fish in water not knowing its wet situation. Like, sexism is the water I swim and I feel like I understand a lot of it. I understand when I’m being denied opportunity or being dismissed or ignored or talked over or patronized or harassed or any number of things. But the specifics of this sexism floored me. You mean, men get shit done in half the time simply because they’re not being questioned and challenged at every turn?

There were aspects that were not surprising (the getting asked out, the harassment) but the TIME! The TIME! Double the time! This shocked me. And it makes me wonder what other behaviors are hiding in my experience in plain sight.

I’ve been noticing sexism ever since I was a baby feminist and I suppose I thought at some point I would know about all the sexisms. I suppose I thought I’d know the whole ocean of sexist behaviors or conditions. But I see now that’s impossible. Each new sexist surprise teaches me something new. For example – at my local bodega, a man got a little too close to me while examining the chocolate in front of the registers. He apologized and backed away. Then he returned and reached for the chocolate bars in front of me, inches from my crotch, as if it were no big deal. I was so shocked, I couldn’t react. And once I was home, thought of all the things I should have done. (Possibilities: scream. Grab his hand and move it away. Pin his hand in place with my knee. Elbow to the head. A loud, “What do you think you’re doing?” or “How about you get the fuck out of my personal space?”)  I’m prepared for the next time some dude unconsciously invades my space. But with so many surprises to anticipate, I can never be prepared for every instance of sexism.

Now, again, as in the email sexism, for a lot of people, this is a “No, duh” situation. For women who’ve had their personal space violated on multiple occasions, this dude’s hand would not be surprising – but I was surprised. This was a part of the sexist ocean I was unfamiliar with. I’ve had creeps invade my personal space before – but those previous invasions were always obvious. It’s the old man groping on the overly crowded bus scenario. But there, too, the first time that happened, I was so shocked, I did not know what to do.

Every first encounter with a new flavor of sexism is going to be surprising and those will be not surprising to the people who have endured them again and again. If you’ve been groped on a bus a dozen times, you might deliver a “No duh” to someone who reports their first grope or their friend’s first grope.

If you’ve seen explicit email sexism in action – if you, say, work in customer service and watch it unfold every day, this email story may well be a “No, duh” situation – but for the rest of us…it still has the power to surprise. And reveal something in action that I wouldn’t have even included in a list of possible sexist behaviors.

Every little bit of the sexism ocean that we light up and reveal helps the other fish swimming through it and gives us tools to fight it, too. Things I’ve learned to try from these two surprising sexisms. 1) If I’m experiencing a time wasting push back via email, I can write back from my (imaginary) associate, Jack, and see if he can’t get it done faster. 2) If anyone reaches into my personal space, I will pick up the hand the way I’d pick up a disgusting piece of garbage and say, “To whom does this inappropriate hand belong?”

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I’m Done Watching Nashville And It’s Probably Not Why You Think
April 17, 2017, 12:20 am
Filed under: Gender politics, music, TV | Tags: , , , ,

No one was more surprised than me when I became a fan of Nashville, the TV show about country music stars. It happened after I read an interview with Callie Khouri, the show’s creator, in which she explained how much her feminism was informing the show. In 2012, there weren’t many folks in show business talking about their feminist work, so I sought the show out immediately. And I loved it.

The show did so many things I’d not seen before on TV: multiple women at the center, women grappling with power, grappling with sexism in the music business. It seemed to have a female gaze, even when directed by men. There was a scene in the first season that was one of the sexiest I’d seen on broadcast TV. It was bold. And it didn’t let us forget that the nice man we all liked so much was once a violent alcoholic. It dealt with domestic violence in a harrowing and sensitive way. The show wasn’t perfect. It was soapy as hell and it lost its few characters of color pretty early on. But it was always an empowering blend of music, ambition and relationships. This year, after being dropped by CBS, it was picked up and given a 5th season by Country Music TV, a very logical choice. I was excited to see it return after such a long hiatus.

But from the beginning of this new season, I felt a strange lack of ease around watching it. The cast was still in place, the characters aligned with their histories, the music still at the center. But I noticed after a few episodes that I just didn’t feel like watching it anymore. Something was missing.

What I realize now was that Callie Khouri was missing. In her showrunner chair are now two men. (It takes two men to replace one bad ass feminist women apparently.) The show had earned my feminist trust so things that would normally be red flags for me didn’t flag at first.

At first, I was so glad to have some people of color back on the show, and for them to be acknowledging the existence of racial tension, however awkwardly.  I was so busy applauding the inclusion of a trans character, I missed what was happening to the other characters. But the show started to irrevocably turn for me when Scarlett, who has always been the emotional center of the show, was bullied and sexually exploited by a film director. Because the show had some feminist cred in the bank, I thought that might be handled deftly at some point, like the domestic violence plot in a previous season. I thought that Rayna (the woman at the center of the story and a woman with tremendous authority) was going to step in and realize that this video was degrading and horrible and that Scarlett was being gaslit and abused. But no – a young silicon valley dude bullied Rayna out of intervening.

And then. SOMEHOW…this film director bully convinces Scarlett that he’s shown her something amazing and true about herself by forcing her to wear a low cut dress and crawl like a cat on a dining room table and so in the last episode that I will ever watch of this show, she decides she has feelings for him and sleeps with him in his hotel.

I hate this plot so hard. And I tried to twist it. I tried to think the best of the show (due to aforementioned feminist cred.) I thought, “Oh, maybe it’s a long game. Maybe they’re going to have Scarlett work out that she’s been gaslit later in the season. Maybe they’re sending her on some path of a feminist awaking by pairing her with a gaslighting bully.”

But I don’t think so. I think that the new showrunners maybe think they’re giving her a sexual awakening brought on by a wise video director who knows what’s best for her. (They are, after all, such fellows themselves.) I think they think this video director seeing Scarlett as a man-eating dynamo prowling through a crowd is somehow empowering. It ain’t.

I was thinking, before I realized how much had changed in Nashville’s world, that this would eventually get sorted. Then I read a review, which exposed me to reviews of the subsequent episodes and discovered that…(SPOILER ALERT TIMES A LOT. IF YOU’RE GOING TO WATCH NASHVILLE AND DON’T WANT IT ENTIRELY SPOILED SKIP THE NEXT BIT… Spoiler: They’ve killed off Rayna James. Now, I understand that Connie Britton, who plays her, has bigger fish to fry and wanted to leave the show. So, I’m not so much mad that they’ve killed Rayna so much as sure there will be no extracting themselves from the sexist mess they’ve gotten themselves into now. The thing is – Rayna is the only woman with any real authority in the show. She is the only character who can right the wrongs when things go lopsided. She is not just the moral center, she is the only advocate for the younger women in the business. Without her, and without any peers like her, the show doesn’t stand a chance of reclaiming its feminist glory. SPOILERS COMPLETE.)

When this show started, it sparked articles like “Is Nashville the Most Feminist show on TV?” and “As an Urban Feminist, I was Surprised to Fall in Love with Nashville.

It’s clear to me that that period is over. Nashville has lost its feminist showrunner and so has lost its feminist sensibility. I’m not saying men can’t be feminists. They absolutely can be. But these particular men are doing a very bad job at feminist TV making. And this feminist can’t bear to watch it any more.

The Nashville Cast and Showrunner at Paley Fest 2013. This photo would have a lot more dudes in it this year.

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Art is Vital
April 10, 2017, 8:56 pm
Filed under: art, business | Tags: , , , , , ,

I keep thinking about selling out. I don’t mean I’m considering selling out myself. I’m considering the cultural shift that has changed the meaning of selling out.

I learned on a podcast (You Are Not So Smart) that the generations after mine don’t know what selling out is. They think it’s a good thing. Like, when your show sells out. For my generation and the ones before, selling out was a danger, a bad thing – selling out meant losing your credibility. It meant trading in your artistic credibility for commercial success. Today, there is no sense of lost credibility in achieving commercial success. On one hand, this is a positive move – a world that is perhaps more unified – artistic values, perhaps permeating the dominant culture.

On the other hand, it has created an intertwining of art and commerce in a way that creates a world of problems, including the current political landscape.

When there is no difference between art and commerce, art’s value becomes its commercial potential. A painting becomes only as valuable as its price tag or its marketing reach. The painting loses its intrinsic value as a work of art.

And perhaps the loss of one painting or one piece of piece of music as being of intrinsic value isn’t the end of the world. But I think losing the entire CONCEPT of the intrinsic value of art IS.

I can draw a direct line from the devaluing of artistic values to the election results of 2016. We decided that the only good art was successful art, was popular art, was art that sells and this then leads to a value system that privileges power, popularity and money. By continually lionizing the billionaires, the moneymakers, the hit TV shows, the popular art, we chose a culture that values money above all else. Lil’ Donnie T is the direct result of over-valuing commercial interests.

When we stopped seeing art as valuable in and of itself, when we started trying to defend it as a viable economic growth builder, when we began to pitch it as an agent of social change rather than as a thing that is good for our souls – we lost. We lost a long time ago.

I’ve watched this happen in Arts Education. When I first started working in schools, it was enough to just do art with kids. Then we expected the arts to teach them something else – more academic subjects or team-work or conflict resolution. Then we needed the art to solve the problems in the classroom or the school system and when it couldn’t do that impossible thing, it was pushed aside for things that could. I’m not saying it’s not super cool to teach math through theatre or conflict resolution or life skills. It is! But what’s happened is a trend toward teaching these things instead of theatre itself. I remember being in a meeting of artists, educators and principals years ago and a principal stood up and declared his support for “Art for Art’s Sake.” He asserted that he was dedicated to Art, itself, no qualifiers. I cried and applauded – because I could feel how much of a stand he felt he needed to take to say that. That is, the world around him was so insistent on dismissing “Art for Art’s Sake” that he had to push hard to make room for that idea. In some education circles, “Art for Art’s Sake” has become kind of a joke – as in, not enough, as in, naïve, as in old fashioned. And so art ends up in service of other more commercial or socially relevant things.

We let this happen.

On an individual level, I have seen incredible artists devalue their own work due to its lack of commercial success. They think that their painting, art or music or show or sculpture or poem isn’t worth anything because they couldn’t sell it. It’s not worth anything because it isn’t “worth” anything.

But some of our greatest artists were never commercially successful. Van Gogh sold a handful of paintings in his lifetime. But later, most of us understand that his work was incredibly valuable artistically. And then his work became valuable commercially as well. The commercial perspective will say that he became successful after his death because he became popular and his paintings sell for tons of money. But even if they never sold and very few people knew his work, the art itself is intrinsically of value. We all got mixed up on this point at some point.

This relates to a trope that I keep seeing pop up – that artists should stay out of politics. I find it fascinating that anyone could think that would be possible but it speaks to a perception of art. It suggests art is seen as decoration instead of meaningful discourse. This movement to cut the arts is sometimes an impulse to “trim the fat” and get rid of the inessentials: – to cut the frills. Art is the frills for some people. It’s seen as a luxury item that conservative folk don’t want to pay for. I get it. I’ve played into it myself. At a grant interview, I was seated next to an applicant who wanted to increase access to drinking water in Zimbabwe. I felt like – how can I make a pitch for artistic exploration when there are people without drinking water? There is also a line of thinking that suggests that cutting the arts are a targeted way to control discourse, that the authoritarians know that stifling the arts is a way to control freedom. I’m not sure our authoritarians are all that smart yet. But whatever the reason for cutting the arts, my response comes down to that idea attributed to Winston Churchill who is said to have said, “Then what are we fighting for?”

In my own life it is fucking ESSENTIAL to have music and theatre and dance and art right now. It was nice before but it is essential now. It occurs to me that a sign of our previous freedom was the freedom to think of art as a frill, to think it might not be necessary. We could think that because we could afford to. We can’t afford to anymore. For now. Art is vital right now. For me. For everyone I know.

My mother, for example, is at a protest or public meeting or advocacy event, nearly every single day and at night, she is uplifted and energized by concerts, by movies, by art, by books. Personally, I have been more moved than I have ever been when sitting in theatres, listening to music, singing, watching, listening. We’re learning something that people in oppressed conditions have always known – that art is a need. That art is what we’re fighting for. And perhaps for the people who are not terrified right now, for the people who celebrate the oppression of immigrants and Muslims and women and give no shits about Black Lives – maybe for them art isn’t essential. Maybe they’re so happy, celebrating their victories, shooting deer or rabbits or ducks or whatever, that they feel like they can do without all that art stuff. I doubt it though.

I think, if more folks had had more access to art in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation. If there was music to go see in the coal towns of West Virginia, if the ballet came through the Alabama rural landscape, if former steel towns, rusted out due to their employers moving the company abroad, could get some relief at the rust belt art museum, I don’t know, maybe I’m naïve but if they could see that stuff , I’d hope it might make a difference. Art won’t feed a hungry child or solve endemic problems. I know that. I’m pretty clear art can’t save us by itself. But it can help. It can make a difference. It can give hope.

We let art slip into a commercial way of thinking and if there’s any upside to the current political nightmare, it’s that other kinds of values are rising up, making themselves obvious. I’m not saying commercial art isn’t art. Just because something is popular doesn’t make it bad. But popularity doesn’t make it good either. Prince sold a lot of albums. But he’d be just as good if only a handful of friends saw him in a basement. His artistry is not his commercial success. Commercial success isn’t the only way to succeed. There is value in singing to yourself. In the dark times, there will always be singing. And it doesn’t have to be for sale.

 

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Theatre’s Loss: Janelle Monaé

From the first time I heard “Tightrope,” I was a fan of Janelle Monaé. I was head over heels for her music and her aesthetic, as well. She was musically exciting and theatrical in her style. Seeing her in concert was an incredible ride. She took the audience on a journey, the likes of which I have rarely experienced at a concert. She is a consummate showwoman and a brilliant connector. I’ve heard her described her as a contemporary female James Brown.

This year, Monaé went from making exciting, surprising music to making exciting movies. I thought she was just trying something different, building on her music career with some film exploration – but in an interview, I discovered what was news to me. Monaé trained as an actor. She started in theatre. In acting, she is returning to her roots – not doing something new. I’d been thinking about this since I learned it. Then I saw a short biography of her on Pandora. It said she trained at AMDA, did some off-Broadway theatre but then moved to Atlanta when she realized that there weren’t roles for her in musical theatre. This blew my mind. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

I mean, of course, there weren’t roles for her. For a whole host of reasons I have surely written about before. BUT. What strikes me, now that I know this information, is how Theatre Lost. We Lost. One of the most brilliant artists of our lifetime and Theatre didn’t have a place for her. I mean, I can’t help but imagine a Cindi Mayweather Musical full of androids and tuxedoed dancers – a Black Lady Ziggy Stardust for the stage. I mourn for what we could have had – how Monaé could have invigorated the entire medium given half a chance. But she wasn’t given half a chance. Her creativity was too much for the American Theatre and there was no place in it for her. This does not speak well of our art.

Unlike Office Depot, which also famously had no place for Monaé, the American Theatre could really have benefited from her perspective, skill and artistry. But we failed her.

Now – I’m not entirely sorry that theatre failed her. If theatre failing her meant that she turned to music, then I’m grateful. I’d rather have “Electric Lady” than Monaé stuck in some production of Wicked forever. But…I think it is entirely Theatre’s Loss. We had this brilliant performer, writer and creator in our midst and no one saw it. No one made space for her to create. This is a problem. Because I know for a fact that Monaé isn’t the only artist that this has happened to. The Doing Things the Way We Have Always Done Them means true innovation is always happening elsewhere. In music, in film, in technology. We have to find a better way to nurture theatrical minds. We just have to. We lost Janelle Monaé. But maybe she’ll come back to us. I will definitely go to an Android Musical and I’m gonna drag you all there with me.

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Sticky Benevolent Sexism

It happened weeks ago, after the Women’s March. Since then there have been many more marches and many more protests but I can’t stop thinking about this experience I had right after participating in that first one.

I was at a conference. We were wrapping it up with a reflection session – talking about what had been successful and possibilities for the future. Towards the end, a man stood up to say he’d been to the Women’s March and that he’d been inspired and now wanted to recognize all the women in the room. He asked us all to stand and receive applause and appreciation from the men. We stood, as requested and received the applause. And don’t get me wrong, I love applause. But this felt so so bad.

Why? I wondered. Why was I upset by this nice man wanting to honor the ladies in the room? He was just being nice. Why did it make my skin crawl? For weeks, I’ve tried to unpack this moment. And then on International Women’s Day, I felt the same feelings upon reading multiple posts and tweets and tributes.

And still, I struggled to understand. So I talked about it with my partner. I told him about the request to stand and be recognized and he seemed to instantly know what I was reacting to. “It’s like Secretary’s Day,” he said. And I said, “Yes! Exactly! Exactly that! But what is that?”

And it comes down to power, folks. We have a secretary’s day because bosses have power and they express that benevolently (if also patronizingly) via things like Secretaries Day. A man who steps forward and asks for everyone to recognize the women in the room is asserting a similar kind of power. It is claiming an authority over women. He takes on a boss role and thanks the helpers. The fact that it is outwardly benevolent is what makes it confusing. This is called benevolent sexism and it is a bear, y’all.

Benevolent sexism is super confusing for a lot of dudes. It’s why the Orange Man in Chief thinks he’s great for women. Women are also confused by it. It’s men being nice, right? But so many studies show us how not nice it can be. It can be very dark and very dangerous.

My moment of benevolent sexism was confusing for me because I like to be appreciated and recognized. But I would like to have all of those things happen due to my accomplishments and artistry. Being applauded for just being a woman suggests being applauded for my service to the real art, the men’s art. I’m getting accolades for being a good helpmeet, not being an artist, or an achiever – because that’s what we ladies do, right? We help! We make the coffee and mop the men’s brows from doing the real work. Golly, we need a day to thank those ladies!

When that guy asked us to stand, I stood. And I cried. I thought, briefly, that I cried because I was moved, because I was touched by the gesture. I know now that I cried because I felt utterly undermined and defeated. After a day of women asserting our voices and our power, we were suddenly reduced to secretaries, to helpful wives – rather than the peers and colleagues we are. Now, I think I was crying due to how quickly that feeling of empowerment can be ripped away. BUT. But…

The good news is that now I’m wise. And I won’t fall for this trick again. Next time, I will not stand. Maybe I’ll even ask the men to stand and let them see how it feels.

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The Resistance Will Be Handcrafted
March 22, 2017, 10:41 pm
Filed under: art, music, puppets, resistance, theatre, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

Since the digital age really kicked in, I have watched a lot of things that were important to me fade away. In a world that values social media currency and digital art and so many things on screen, my analog skills of theatre-making, performance and presence have felt less and less valued in the world. While I have adapted as well as I can, I have at times felt like an analog girl in a digital world – a handwoven basket in a factory town.

But since the world turned upside down on Jan 20th, I have found that my old-school art skills are suddenly relevant again. At a recent rally and march, I suddenly realized how many skills I was pulling out of storage to be there. Some examples were: creating an impromptu puppet, gathering protest props that not only can pop at a protest but be light-weight and fit in a bag so I can carry them on the subway, putting a costume together, singing loudly, helping ladies find a pitch when a man is leading the singing and puppeteering.

And it’s not just me – there’s a call for all kinds of analog skills that might have felt lost to the digital age. Examples: Painting signs, playing drums, marching bands, one man (woman) bands, creating spectacle, knitting. Art supply sales are booming. There is something poignant about our old-school skills suddenly being useful again. We can’t rely on video to save us. We need things in real life. Now more than ever.

In a way, it’s a shift of our public spaces out of the internet and into actual spaces. We are all out in public more. And I find I want to bring out even more things into that space. I want to cry in public space. (I was a little disappointed there was no keening at the mock funeral. I could have used a good cleansing cry.) I want to read in public space. (What if we had a Read In?) I want to just sit quietly with a bunch of my fellow introverts and shush anyone who gets too loud.

There is something about this moment that is calling us to really stand behind what we value and those values may not always be obvious. It reveals all the things we’ve let dwindle – things we actually once loved or felt were necessary. Journalism. Theatre. Music. All things we stopped paying for because we could get them for free. If there’s anything to hope for in this depressing mess of a year, it’s that adjustment of value. It’s that subscriptions of newspapers and magazines are back up, people need music like never before and theatre might just make a difference again.

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