Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Shadow of Optimism

When I was a teenager, I applied and was accepted Early Decision at my First Choice College. I’d only visited once and was a bit starry-eyed about the place before I went. I remembered someone asking me, “But what if it’s not all that you hope for?”
“Well, then, I’ll change it!” I said.
And I believed I could. I firmly believed that I could change anything I put my mind to. I’m not quite sure where this belief came from. Not from my experience: I was wholly incapable of changing the public high school I went to despite all my railing against it. Regardless, I was full of idealism and fire at that time and truly believed I could change anything and everything.
You may not be surprised to learn that I was due for a come-uppance and had that belief thoroughly shaken many times over. I have a great deal of head-shaking affection for the version of myself who believed she could change everything. Bless her heart, she had no idea what she was up against and also a whole mess of sweet hot ego to push her through.
I often encounter the shadow of that person that I was and usually I see it reflected in other people. When I write about the failures of institutions and systems, inevitably someone will give me a kind of pep-talk, a “You go in there and shake things up! You can do it! Just believe in yourself!” The 18-year-old version of myself would have taken that pep talk and run right into the fire with it. (So would the 25-year-old and probably the 32-year-old, by the way.) The 40 year old me shakes her head and bites her fist at the foibles of American support.
I think it is our cultural belief that any individual can change everything. We pick out one hero who made a change and say, “That guy did it! It was him!” We tend to look at the fight for civil rights, for example, and make it seem like Martin Luther King, Jr. did it all by himself with maybe a little help from Rosa Parks. But the truth of that movement is that hundreds of thousands of people worked together in a targeted, organized communal push to create that change.
There is such a strong bias toward the hero in our culture that it filters into almost everything. We have a blindness to systems and institutions and an overemphasis on individual change. So we refuse to see that a corporation is racist in its organization and instead tell the individual to adjust his attitude about the racism. Rather than acknowledge the forces of economic inequality, we encourage every person to get out there and make it! And we blame them if they don’t.
I see this happen in the Arts, too. There is a desire to believe that the system works and that the cream always rises to the top. We think that if you have talent and are nice and work hard, that success will be yours! (See also this article in the New York Times about the comforting myth of poverty:  “Who wants to believe you can work your whole life and end up not being able to afford food? You want to believe those people had to have had something go wrong with them, in order for them to end up in that place. ” – Margarette Purvis, from Food Bank for NYC)

I was listening to this podcast in which two well-known comedians talked about their path to success. They talked about how sometimes they’ll meet a guy who hasn’t made it and they’ll be all confused, because he’s so talented and how could it be? And then poof! They find his tragic flaw and their own successes are justified.
But the fact is that there are structures and systems in place that privileges the success of some over others. It privileges men over women, white people over people of color, rich over poor, the young over the old, the able-bodied over the disabled and so on and so on. Our culture would prefer to look at the flaw in one person that can explain their “failure” rather than the big picture that sets some up to succeed and some to languish in obscurity. (And, as I just learned from the Brooklyn Commune Project’s report, for every artist who is making a living from art, there are 20-30 who are not. And that’s just making A living. I think the numbers probably jump for a DECENT living.)
And, you know, people can get really cranky when you point systematic stuff out. That’s when the real Positive Thinkers will start to accuse you of being bitter (the greatest American sin) and suggest you join the Landmark Forum or do a course with Tony Robbins or a dozen other businesses that exist to puff you up and make you shiny. There are any number of books and articles and motivational speakers who will insist that if you just think Positive, the world will be your oyster. Many will go so far as to insist that if you just believe hard enough, what you want will be yours.
As artists, we’re particularly prone to this sort of thinking. We have to be. The odds for our success aren’t good. Sometimes self-delusion is the only way to keep going. I’ve done it. Did it for years. I totally walked that Positive Thinking Talk. I have walked into more impossible situations armed with nothing more than optimism and conviction than I’d like to count. I’ve been a “Leap and the net will appear” person for most of my life. Problem is, sometimes the net doesn’t appear. Most times, in fact. And when you’ve landed on your face enough times, you start to think maybe it might be a better idea to examine the conditions around the leaping a little bit. Check the wind, as it were. Maybe see if you have a friend with a truck and a feather mattress who might be willing to wait below where you’re leaping, in case that net doesn’t show up after all.
There’s some new scholarship around Optimism and psychology. The Antidote is a book about these ideas and after years of being sure I could change things by myself, I can’t wait to read it. I need some new way of leaping, a way to create change that doesn’t involve falling so firmly on my face all the time.
Additionally, I’ve found a great deal of actual hope in people that are coming together to make change in my community. I joined the League of Independent Theater this year and I’ve already seen them make a difference in all kinds of sectors I’d thought were un-touchable. Similarly, the Brooklyn Commune Project has pulled together a passionate group of people who have worked tirelessly for the good of the whole.
It’s starting to dawn on me that when we’re just Thinking Positive, we’re all on our own. We take on all the risk in exchange for all the (possible) glory. But when we are working together, facing the edges, as it were, we don’t have to work so hard to pretend it is all alright. We tackle the hard stuff. We see it. And some of us hold the net ready while the others are jumping. We don’t have to Believe so hard that way.


P.S. I just watched an RSA video of Barbara Ehrenreich talking about this exact thing, from a different perspective. It made me laugh and feels like EXACTLY what I was trying to say. Watch it. 


1 Comment so far
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I admire your ambition to “change the world” as it were but I think placing the burden of responsibility on your shoulders alone can be too much for anyone to handle. I hope you have a solid support system. I’m just reading through your blog now to find out a bit more about that aspect of your life.

Either way, I loved this post. You make your insecurities very transparent and that takes a lot of courage. Thanks for giving comfort to others like me with your own experiences.

Comment by Jason Ellis

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