Songs for the Struggling Artist


Art as Service

I considered his suggestion to play some open mics. I haven’t done one of those in over a decade and even though I hate them and had sworn off them, I thought, “Well, yes, those are a thing I could do. Maybe I should make myself go again.” But then, I thought, “Why?”

When I played open mics in the past it was to try things out, to practice playing in front of an audience, to perform when I was hungry for applause. But, after decades of performance experience, I am about as comfortable in front of an audience as I can expect to be and I have no real need for applause. In the past, those kinds of performances were an opportunity to learn and a boost for my fledgling ego. Neither of which I am particularly motivated by anymore.

Now – I am motivated principally by service. I look for how and where I can best be of artistic service – what I can create that can make a difference for someone. In other words, I don’t do things so much for myself but for some (usually imagined) audience. I create theatre that I imagine someone like me would want to see. I write books that I would want to read. I sing songs that I hope will be of help to people. I blog for the same reasons. I’m not saying it’s an ego-free situation. My ego is perfectly healthy. But – the decisions I make about what to do are more connected to serving some greater imaginative force than something I’m doing for myself.

When you try to make a career in the arts, over and over, you learn how to “put yourself out there” how to “sell yourself” how to market your best assets. The business of the arts is more like a car sale than a public service. And for some that suits them just fine. They are happy to promote themselves and their work, no matter the cost. For most of the service-oriented artists I know, though, the focus on salesmanship is not only tremendously disappointing, it is also at odds to what brought them to art in the first place.

I have learned all those marketing things. I’ve taken the workshops, read the books and I get it, more or less. I understood how to shift my thinking to make marketing a way to share my work instead of selling a used car. Some days, I can actually take all of that on board and be as creative in marketing as I am in my work. But it never really does the job. Somehow my creative marketing ideas don’t actually sell the thing I was meant to be selling and despite all those workshops from organizations that claim to be serving the arts, nowhere have I learned how to be of service when producing. Every arts service organization teaches you institutional skills and marketing and grantwriting but no one will teach you how to be of artistic service.

When I apply for grants, the applications ask me how many people we will serve – and genuinely, I have no idea. And due to the lack of visibility I have as an artist, the answer is usually not a very large number. And because grants and such have to have measurable outcomes, if you serve more people, you are more likely to get the funding. My not very large number numbers (due to lack of visibility) are a pretty large barrier to actually serving any community, despite my drive to do so.

The thing that’s tricky about being motivated by artistic service is that, for the most part, no one particularly needs what I have to offer – or they don’t know how what I have to offer might be of service.

For example, I’ve been writing plays about women and power for decades. I’ve been putting women at the center of mythological stories for ages. I think this is entirely necessary if we want to change the world. Stories matter and the stories that are the foundations of Western civilization are the foundations of the patriarchy. I’m convinced that shifting those stories is important work – that I’m doing my bit to change the world. But – the world is not asking for such things. At least they haven’t been so far. And now, if they are starting to, they are not asking for them from me. Am I really being of service if so few are seeing my work?

That is the painful conundrum at the heart of almost every service-oriented artist I know.

Very often, the most service-oriented artist suffer more than those who have leaned into the salesmanship of artistic production. Many of my artistic kindred spirits have left the arts to work more directly in service. They became teachers and social workers, physical therapists and aid workers. Which is great for all those professions but not so great for the arts.

Losing our service-motivated artists to actual service is not good for the art itself. When art is full of salesmen, instead of people who want to serve, it becomes emptier, less rich in feeling and depth, more decadent, more shallow. This is related to my recent post about Art vs. Entertainment – the preference of the culture is for louder, brasher, splashier work. That splashier work is easier to sell over the clamor of the car lot, where there are so many flashy things competing for your attention. Art that wants to serve, like almost all service professions in American culture is radically undervalued.

Almost all service-oriented professions are insufficiently valued and compensated. Teachers, nurses, social workers, non-profit workers, careworkers are some of the most underpaid people around. And artists with this bent toward service are similarly undervalued and undercompensated. But, additionally, I think we, the service-oriented artists, are also overshadowed by our showier, flashier comrades. Most of the world sees no difference between me and a Broadway chorus boy. And maybe I’m fooling myself to think there is a difference between my life-long commitment to serving art in the best ways I know how and an attractive young man who’s learned some choreography. Maybe I just need to make myself get back out there and sing at open mics for a smattering of applause. Maybe singing a song or two to some other people waiting for their turn in the spotlight is the way forward. But I hope not. I don’t think me doing something that I don’t enjoy and would have to force myself to do in an environment that tends to be uncomfortable and loud and unpleasant for me serves anyone, really. I don’t think it serves the art. And that is what I’m here to do. Art is service for me and I choose what I do based on what I think serves art the best.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and more. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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2 Comments so far
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Emily, I do enjoy your blog, it makes me think. But I disagree with your theories about what is art and perhaps even what is service with art. I think the thing about art is that it has different meanings for different people. So someone singing their art at an open mic might be about self promotion, but it also might be about moving forward in their own dream. And one never knows how one’s art serves others. Who is to say that your singing at an open mic might not inspire or deeply affect someone? Or my performing my cabaret act might just help someone shift in their own life? Is that not service? I don’t think there is any one way to make art, or to serve others in making one’s art. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss commercial actors (such as myself) as not being artists, or commercial art as being less than your own, simply because they perform on Broadway, or make more money or fame at it. (And dancing on Broadway is no joke, btw, those chorus boys you speak of have worked long and hard at their craft — yes! dancing is a craft! — and won out against many, many other dancers to hoof on those boards.) I have seen great art in commercial venues. At the same time, I do understand your frustration with the lack of funding for art that is perhaps less commercial. But who gets to determine what is art and what is not? What is service and what is not? It’s different for each person. Everyone gets to do (or experience) the art that makes sense for them. Go to an open mic if you want to. Or not. But you might enjoy the simple act of performing your art! And someone might be inspired or moved by it. And maybe that can be enough.

Comment by Diva

Your comment has given me a lot to think about! And I think, may, in fact, generate a further blog post to try and help me illuminate what I mean. There is a lot to look at here! At the most basic level, though, I will say I really don’t think anyone’s work is less than. This has nothing to do with quality or skill or talent or money. It is intention and motivation I’m interested in looking at here. Of course everyone’s work is important, takes skill, is meaningful, etc and I’m certain your work is, especially. But More soon!

Comment by erainbowd




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