Songs for the Struggling Artist


“No one told me there would be celebrities here!”
March 23, 2012, 9:15 pm
Filed under: art, business, dreams, theatre | Tags: , ,

My fellow artist boyfriend and I were recently at an event, far way from home, with a group of people who are not artists and never have been. They’re fascinated with our lives and ask us lots of questions about what we do as a theatre artist (me) and musician (him.) The man who’s most curious wonders if he might of hear of anything we’ve done. (Nope.) He tells us that when he comes to visit NYC that he’ll look for us listed in the newspaper. (Sure, look, but you’re not likely to find.) And after a long series of questions about our lives, he says “No one told me there would be celebrities here!” and both of us, at once, say “Who’s here?” He’s talking about us, he says, because one day he’s going to be able to say he knew us when.

This is a pretty normal conversation between the artist and the non-artist. I’ve been hearing things like this my whole life but this is the first time I’ve realized how insidious a lifetime of hearing this sort of thing can be.

It occurs to me that in the eyes of the majority of Americans, to be an artist only has value as far as as it relates to the possibility of celebrity. This guy doesn’t care about what sort of art we make or any of the things that matter to us. He wants to know our names in case we become famous. It’s his way of telling us he is interested in us and our success but it feels like such a diminishment of our actual accomplishments.

When I was first starting out, I found this flattering. 22 year old me would have thought, “He thinks I’m a celebrity! Just because I’m an actor! Probably I will be!” Here now, at 38, I have a deeper dedication to my craft, a higher standard of excellence, an aesthetic, a point of view, a treasury of experience, an understanding of my context in the world of my art and none of that has anything to do with celebrity.

This is one of the fundamental problems in finding funding for the arts in this country. If the prime value of the arts is their ability to create celebrities, then they are no more significant than the tawdriest reality TV show. If people are only interested in what artists do that puts their name in lights, there is no reason to support the work itself. Every person who has ever said to me, “I’ll look for you on the Academy Awards!” has unwittingly said that they’re only interested in my career insomuch that they can say they knew me when.

To the average American mind, art works like this: You have some talent at something. You become famous at it. You get your name in lights and the people who once knew you get a little boost at your award ceremony. Some of my theatre students think it works like this, too, which deprives them of the very crucial step of having something to say and the skills and the persistence to say it.

This is celebrity culture. I get it. My work falls into that context, just like everyone else, but I’d like to take some of the glamor off the arts and focus on the work again. When you’re a carpenter, you just work on being the best carpenter you can be and when someone meets the carpenter, they don’t fantasize about their future as a celebrity carpenter. They ask about the sorts of things he builds, what his craft is, what sort of materials he uses and maybe the sorts of people he works with. I’d appreciate being spoken to as if I were a carpenter. My work is happening now, not later, in fame. I make things regardless of who’s paying for them. Ask me about my work. Don’t dream of a future that isn’t mine.

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