Songs for the Struggling Artist


ID NYC Makes a Difference
September 15, 2016, 12:05 am
Filed under: art, class, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve lived in New York City for over a decade and a half. This year, I’ve probably gone to more museums and cultural institutions than I did in all the previous years put together. This is due to the new ID NYC, a program originally conceived to assist undocumented immigrants but that is now making a difference in the lives of all kinds of New Yorkers.

The ID NYC allows for memberships to over 3 dozen cultural institutions across the city. It means for me, that dozens of places that were formerly cost prohibitive are now completely available. I feel like I’m participating in the culture of the city I live in in a way I never have before. The doors are open.

I have experienced this kind of availability in London – where so many of the pubic institutions are truly public and charge no admission fees. This kind of openness creates an engaged literate population. Why has it taken so long for NYC to open its doors this way? I can’t imagine that any of these institutions were thrilled about offering free memberships – but a lot of them operate at the city’s pleasure and the city must be making it worth their while somehow. It’s a hugely important step toward making art be for more than just the privileged few. I hadn’t been to the Guggenheim in probably a decade. The Museum of the Moving Image, maybe 2 decades. And I care about the things they have in their buildings. I just couldn’t shell out $25 a pop to see that stuff. With the doors suddenly open, I can engage.

We talk about accessibility a lot. In so many of the grants I write, the foundations or governments or whomever’s doing the funding, want to know how we make our work accessible. The burden of accessibility seems, in the past, to have fallen primarily an individual artists or companies, while institutions, just by virtue of existing seem to been able to claim accessibility because of various education programs or community events. But those are just gestures. ID NYC has flung open the doors to so many places and I’m very excited about what that will mean for the art that’s going to come. Maybe, finally, we can have a real diversity of audience – of income, of race, of culture. Accessible and exciting.

One of the most amazing things about suddenly having access to museums is my new ability to just run in for a short time. I was early for an appointment and I was near the Met – so I just ran in for half an hour – I got a dose of the Egyptians and ran back out. It was actually a perfect way to experience the museum. When you’re paying, there’s a need to somehow make it worth your while. You don’t want to pay $20 to just dash in and look at one thing. And then in trying to get my money’s worth, I end up over-stimulating myself and I forget more than I remember.

Previously, the policy at some museums where the “Suggested Donation” meant you could pay them whatever you wanted didn’t actually make the work accessible. The shaming effect of just paying a dollar is probably hard on everyone but for people who are actually poor, it can be prohibitive as there is already considerable stigma for poverty. No one wants an appraising look from a museum clerk to add to the bad feeling. So to be able to run in for free, with no status drop required, for as long or as short as you want – it’s a total game changer. For me, it will surely make a difference in my creative work to be able to dash in and get a dose of inspiration when I have a spare half hour.

Culture should be like this. We should be able to access it whomever we are or however much money we have or don’t have. This stuff is important.

I’m inspired, too, by Italy’s decision to invest half of their terrorism prevention dollars in culture. I think it’s very smart. Because the more culturally engaged we are, the less likely we are to want to murder people.

Being able to freely see things like Ancient Egyptian papyri and beautiful paintings can save lives! But also…it just makes for a richer arts environment and that makes for better art, in the end.

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The Selfless Teacher Story
May 6, 2016, 9:42 pm
Filed under: class, education, TV | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I watched a clip of the Ellen show in which they honored a kindergarten teacher for her dedication and generosity. On the surface, it was a touching story about a selfless dedicated classroom teacher, honored on TV and re-paid by a generous corporation. And maybe that’s all it was.

But it seemed to me that the real story was the systemic failures that we, as a country, are failing to address. The remarkable thing that this teacher does at the start of each school day is to make sure all her students have had breakfast and have clean clothes to wear – and if they don’t, she helps them get those things. That she does this on a teacher’s salary is even more remarkable. Target gave her 10K as a thank you for her service and 10k to her school. Which, I won’t deny, is very nice. But probably pales in comparison to what the school needs for its students.

Couldn’t we, as a society, pay our classroom teachers at least 10k more a year?

The salaries for teachers are vanishingly small and when they’re also supporting the impoverished students of their classrooms, it’s embarrassing for us as a first world nation.

Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10K more a year to schools that help develop the kinds of citizens we want to see in the world? Couldn’t we, as a society, give 10k more a year to fight poverty of the kind that sends millions of kids to school every day without breakfast?

I mean – it’s nice of Target to pony up 10k this one well-publicized time – and of course this teacher is remarkable and deserves to be honored – but it feels very much like a con game to me. It’s a snow job where we look at this generous woman and a generous corporation and feel good about ourselves for a bit instead of looking directly at the way we’ve structured our society. I don’t know my dystopian science fiction so well – but surely there’s a story wherein the culture sets up one person a year to help congratulate them and the whole culture rallies around them to celebrate – thereby dissipating the anger that might be brewing around the growing income disparity and poor children everywhere. Which story is that like?

Or maybe that’s just us.

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I searched for images of children in poverty and every single one of them was a child of color in a far away land. No poverty to see here in America, no sir! (ahem.)

 

Normally, at this point on the blog, I’d ask you for to contribute money to my blog by becoming a patron on Patreon. This time, though, I’d encourage you to donate any spare dollars you have to help fight poverty in America. I mean, 1 in 5 American kids are living in poverty. So – – –

There are tons of organizations that work for economic and hunger relief. Here’s an option: Fight Poverty in the USA

But, of course, poverty relief is a bandaid. Total reform would be nice. Maybe the National Center for Law and Economic Justice might be a better place to send your dollars. 

Meanwhile – we rely on Target and the Ellen show. 

 

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In which we lose an old growth forest, hope and Marley’s ghost

The Board of Trustees of my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, just made a decision last week to dismantle its study abroad program in Florence. Alumni of the program (of which I am one) banded together, and over the weeks leading to the decision, wrote letters, set up a fundraising campaign and made every effort to save it. To no avail.

The plans are to fire the staff of the program in Florence (many of whom have worked there for decades,) let the lease expire on the Florence campus, set up a partnership with another college to keep it going in name only, or, failing that, to dismantle it altogether.

And a lot of us (over 600 members in the Facebook group) are FURIOUS (and heartbroken, distressed and baffled.)

Why? Why should we care about a program that some us haven’t been to in over 20 years?

And why should you care? You, who probably didn’t study with us in Florence or probably even at Sarah Lawrence?

I wasn’t sure why I cared about it at first, or why I thought you might – but the more I think about it, the more I see this decision as an example of a disturbing trend in our culture. I have seen this sort of thing happen many times before.  BAM dismantled its Shakespeare program, for which I’d taught for 14 years. Universities are relying on adjunct faculty for 70% of the teaching, without providing a living wage for its scholars. Over and over again, successful, rigorous educational programs, like big old growth trees with venerable root systems are chopped down and replaced with cheaper, younger forests created for quick profits. And this is happening in the arts, journalism and education.

I’ve previously written about my own confusion about what college is for. To train for a job? To make money? To transcend class? To learn? To grow a soul? I settled firmly on the “build a self” and “Grow a soul” side – even though, for me, that has meant a lifetime of poverty. And I stand by it. I was proud as hell to have gone to an institution that helps create more interesting, well-rounded people that want to make the world a better place. My fellow alumni are articulate, passionate and socially minded. We love learning things. At reunion this year, I failed to find out what most of my former classmates were up to because we were too busy talking about ideas, our teachers and things we learned in college. The ideal Sarah Lawrence experience deepens the intellect, expands one’s empathy and horizons and gives one tools for social change. I’m not trying to be an ad for Sarah Lawrence (SLC) here. Far from it – because this decision about Florence tells me that the Sarah Lawrence I knew is dead. The new SLC has nothing to do with who many of us alumni feel ourselves to be.

I keep thinking about William Deresiewicz’s article about what college should be for. (It showed up in my last post, as well.) And SLC can really do that self building stuff sometimes. Or it could. (On a good day, when it isn’t cutting out pieces of its soul like it’s doing right now.) And the program in Florence could REALLY do it. Here’s how:

1) While there may be a glut of American programs in Florence, (yes, there are a ton) the SLC program was particularly good at encouraging intellectual rigor and building on our natural curiosity, as so many of the letters written to the President of the college recounted. While other programs were the Hop on Hop Off Bus Tour version of studying abroad, our program was an embedded, immersive experience. While we experienced Italy, other programs were Epcot Italy. I went there looking for A Room With a View experience and came back with a whole new world of Machiavelli, Goldoni, Dante, Boccaccio, Calvino, Levi, Giacometti, Cherubini, Vivaldi, Caravaggio, Vasari and Giotto.

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2) Self building doesn’t just happen in a classroom. So much of my learning happened off campus in Florence – in museums, streets, in the countryside. We traveled with support and context and I began to understand both the country I was in and how I might become a citizen of the world. Guided by compassionate, intelligent people, we learned how to feel at home in a foreign land. My experience there made me braver and stronger. I got my spine there.

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If the program sucked, that would be one thing. I’ve seen any number of administrators who ought to be fired and programs that had no educational value whatsoever that I would not bemoan the loss of. But by all accounts (so many of them!) this program in Florence did an exemplary job of all the things we hope college will do for us. It was the highlight of most of our college careers.

I’ve worked in a great many schools, programs and colleges and it is exceptionally rare to find a program that is this beloved and respected. You will be hard pressed to find an administration so well regarded elsewhere. So to see this program that is highly successful, that does the job of building selves, that provides such important soul work to its students, be summarily dismissed because there are cheaper options available? It makes me want to throw things. Hard things. That break.

I mean – there are any number of cheaper options for going to college. Why not just dismantle SLC altogether? I mean, all it’s doing is a good job educating the people who choose to go there – it’s just too expensive. And there are so many other options for college. I mean, just in the tri-state area alone! So what if many of the faculty have been there for decades? So what that a lot of us loved the place? It just doesn’t make sense to spend money on education, apparently.

That’s what this decision says to me. It tells me that the values of an institution once known for its values have changed. It would seem that the college is more interested in the bottom line than in the extraordinary education of a small group of students. Which is all the college is.

SLC in Florence is SLC in micro. It starts here – with a diminishment and dumbing down of something valuable and where does it go from here? Will SLC eventually cut the entire humanities curriculum like colleges in Japan are considering? Are the arts no longer worth it? They’re expensive. Artist alumni don’t give back as much as hedge fund managers could. Old growth forests can’t make you cheap paper like a pulp forest can.

Is this where we’re headed? Is this where all culture is headed?

Good god. I hope not. Because I am running out of things I can throw.

Finally, I think a good education also features morals and social justice. We learn, from other people but also from books, from art, from teachers, how we ought to treat one another. Whether or not we do it is another question. But in college, we hopefully learn what we think the right thing to do is for the culture and for ourselves. We shape our sense of social responsibility.
That’s why the firing of an administrator (as well as her staff) who has given 29 years of her life to the betterment of this particular program,  (and thereby increased institutional reputation internationally) feels so fundamentally out of line with everything I thought my alma mater was about. We don’t behave that way, do we? We take care of people. We treat the guardians of our education, our intellect, our lives, with respect. We don’t toss them out on their ears when the lease on the classroom gets expensive. That’s Scrooge shit, right there. And we all learned that lesson way back in the Victorian age. Or has our world transformed so much that this cheap paper version is the new norm? In the gig economy, maybe everything and everyone is disposable.

And it’s not just SLC behaving like Scrooge here. All over the world, beloved institutions that have always done good work disappear because they don’t meet someone’s line item on the bottom line. We lose libraries, theatres, museums, schools – all of which do the good work of helping us deal with the mysteries of life and become better humans – not just humans who will fit appropriately into machines.

Is this who we want to become? Excellent sheep as Deresiewicz suggests? I’d like to believe not. I’d like to believe that there is still a place in the world for small groups of people learning, building themselves, experiencing edifying art and cultural touchstones and just becoming better people. Is that too corny for the current moment?
Are we all Scrooges now? And are we in a world with no Marley to come knock on our doors and remind us of who we dreamed we could be?

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.”

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Charging Application Fees
April 13, 2015, 11:14 pm
Filed under: business, class, Rejections, writing | Tags: , , ,

The day I published my blog about the math of rejection and patronage, I got a rejection notice from one of those very residencies I’d applied for. The cost of that application was $25.

In the rejection notice, they let me know that around 500 people applied. This is supposed to make me feel a little bit better, to indicate how competitive the program is. I think I’m supposed to take this news and go, “Oh well. It’s competitive then. Okay, I guess it sucks less.”

What I ACTUALLY did with that information was Math. Because what this means is that they made about $12,500 on those applications. On what this organization made from aspiring writers, I could have lived for a year. This makes me feel a little funny.

I understand that the cost of running residency programs is probably a lot more than this – that someone, somewhere is very likely covering the actual cost of the program – and probably all the help they can get helps. However – collecting so much money from people who just want a shot, well, it makes me twitch a little bit.

I understand why people charge for applications. It takes time and effort to read and respond to those things. If I ran a residency program, I’d want to compensate my adjudicators for doing that work. But I’d want that money to come from somewhere besides the applicants.

I also know a lot of places charge an application fee, not because they need the money but because they’re trying to weed out applications. The idea is that you’ll lose the less serious applicants that way, that you’ll get a higher quality of writing by charging a fee. Very reasonable, of course.

But the unintended result is that you privilege the wealthy artists over the poor. By charging a fee, you’re effectively saying “Economically privileged artists only.” Which, you know, everyone’s doing that in some form or another, so, you’re in good company – but it is definitely something I find troubling in a nation that prides itself on giving everyone a fair shot.

It’s not a fair shot. Application fees are a significant obstacle. I was only able to apply to this particular residency program due to the generosity of my Patreon Patrons – but other economically disadvantaged writers were not so lucky. $12,500 is a lot of money to collect from writers. I hope they do something awesome with it, like commission a writer to write something.

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The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

There’s a really interesting conversation happening in the media these days about the value of a college education. From the Freakonmics show “Is College Really Worth It?” to The Economist article, “Is College Worth It” the worth of higher education is clearly on the table. The Federal Government is thinking about it, too. There’s a plan in the works to assess university education on affordability and value. Many people are trying to quantify what an education should be worth and judge institutions by whether they fulfill that promise. The stakes are high as Federal Funding hangs in the balance.

My alma mater has gotten in on the conversation early. As mentioned in a story on  Marketplace, the college is worried about the proposed measures of financial success of its alumni as a measure of value. It’s fighting for the place of Liberal Arts in the culture.

I find myself with mixed feelings about all this. I have great affection for my small elite liberal arts college. I believe in the values they’re discussing in the media and I am grateful for the role the college and those values have played in my life. What the college claims to do is exactly what it did for me and I value those skills. But I’m broke. And I wonder about the role Liberal Arts education has played in my broke-ness.

My small elite liberal arts education was expensive. At the time, it was the most expensive in the country. I was only able to go because of some extremely generous financial aid. When I was there, one half of the students basically paid for the other half.

It was a beautiful, rarefied place to learn. The atmosphere of the place encouraged deep thinking and analysis. It encouraged independence and challenging the status quo. We all left with a degree in Liberal Arts.  We all left with a lot of conversations about Truth and Beauty and literature and philosophy and history behind us.

What we didn’t leave with were jobs. Or desirable job skills. Which was fine at the time. We’d learned about something more important than money. Our values were marinated in philosophy and Art. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

My college prided itself on its uniqueness (slogan: We’re different, so are you.”) It attracted (and still attracts) people with an interest in independent thinking, people who are different, people who cluster at the margins of things. Studying there helped us develop our uniqueness. It trained us in individuality and independent thinking. As a rule, if there is a box, my fellow alumni and I are particularly skilled at thinking outside of it.

The problem is that, at the moment, all the money seems to be IN the box. I sometimes wish I’d gone to a place that trained me to think more conventionally – just so I could make some conventional dollars.

I started to think about all this after an alumni Holiday party where I encountered one alumna after another who was struggling with money and in the middle of a career transition. We all loved our alma mater but were a little mad at it too. There was a sense of “Shouldn’t we be seeing some financial return on our elite education?” Like, shouldn’t we be part of the elite having gone to the most expensive college in the country?

At some elite colleges, there is a pipeline. When you leave those institutions, you have a club membership, you have an introduction to the halls of power. Your degree can open doors. You go to Harvard, for example, you can go work with other folks from Harvard, whether in law or in comedy.

There is no such pipeline for us and maybe it’s because my fellow alumni didn’t go on to become investment bankers or politicians. They’re poets, philosophers, teachers, film-makers, journalists, musicians, theatre artists, visual artists, etc, (basically all the middle class jobs that are vanishing in the information/digital economy.) I think we partly chose the place because we were interested in those creative/academic lives – which is why I can’t blame the institution, as much as I’d like to.

I mean, I chose to work in Theatre. As Lewis Black said about theatre work in a recent podcast interview, “Crack whores make more money.” Theatre is what I studied and what I chose to pursue. So it’s my own fault, really. But I can’t help noting that if I’d studied Theatre at Yale, I’d have some worldly access that I don’t have with my degree. Is it the institution’s job to care for its alumni once they’re gone? Probably not.

But I also note that one of the hopes of elite liberal arts education as a whole is to transcend class, to give people a leg up the ladder. And it seems like, in my college’s case, the students who came in Low Income have remained Low Income and those who came in Middle Class have remained Middle Class and so on. And maybe the same thing is true at Yale. Maybe it’s NOT the Yale connection that opens doors but the socio-economic class that accompanies the student to Yale.

If that’s the case, then a measure that gauges economic success is really just a way to measure where people with money tend to go to school. It’s not so simple.

Would I have changed my elite liberal arts education? Nope. Not at all. It’s exactly what I wanted and it did all of the things it now claims to teach. The discomforting thing is how little those things seem to be valued out in the world. In a way, a liberal arts education is education for an ideal world. It educates aspirationally, almost as if people really cared about art and literature and philosophy.

I’d like to live in a world in which everyone were trained in thinking analytically, expressing ideas effectively, bringing innovation to things and thinking independently but, we live in a culture that seems to only care about money, that wants to measure what you learned by how much money you make, that wants to value people and experiences this way. A liberal arts education hopes that there will be some other measure out there – some other way of doing things and sometimes this means a major crisis in its students when we discover that no one really cares about our ability to analyze literature – and when we discover that all the things we loved and trained in are things that the culture has continued to devalue – artists, teachers, academics, etc.

Adjunct teachers around the country (who make up around 70% of faculty) make so little money that many of them have multiple other jobs. Adjuncts make peanuts. I know because I’ve been one. The most famous example was a beloved French teacher with decades of years of teaching at a college who died at 83 without health care or any sort of safety net. And my elite Liberal Arts College isn’t paying adjuncts any better than anyone else. Adjunct faculty are teaching students for pocket change, while the students are paying crazy amounts of tuition to learn from them.

And yet we persist. Because we love poetry. Or philosophy. Or whatever it is. And the college persists, in hope, I’d guess, that one day the world will organize its values a little differently.

Maybe in the future, when we are all artists, as Seth Godin suggests in Linchpin, our independent learning will start to pay out. No one knows. Meanwhile, if I were a parent, (I’m not, I can’t afford to be) I’d have big questions about where to send my child. To an elite liberal arts college where they will learn how to learn? Or to a college that might help them make a decent living when they’re done?  (Although, no guarantees now – I heard that there are so few law firm positions open that lawyers are waiting tables now, just like actors.)

I don’t have an answer for any of it. I wish that it weren’t an either/or situation – that the skills and values of a liberal arts college were so valued in the culture that everyone would come out of school and get PAID. And then a measure of how students do financially after going to school somewhere would be an actually sensible measure.

So, good luck, Federal Government, on your quest to figure out how to place value on all the colleges out there. You’ve got a hell of a task ahead of you.

 

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Class Questions

We were in the kitchen of our small house out in the country. The wood stove might have been kicking out its dangerous warmth. The buckets of drinking water from the ice from the creek may have been melting nearby. That’s if it was winter – but I don’t remember the season. We were at the kitchen table, though, I remember that. And I asked my mother what class we were.

I was in elementary school and somehow the subject of class had come up. Almost all of my friends identified as middle class. But I was confused because middle class seemed to mean you had some money and we didn’t really seem to have much. We didn’t have plumbing in this house, for one thing. At the time, my mom worked as a secretary and my dad drove the Bookmobile. So at the dinner table that day, my mother eventually answered my question with “lower middle class” which reasonably settled my confusion around the lack of money we had compared to my friends.

Many years later, I find I am newly confused about this class question. Here in America, the myth of our classless society remains – even as income disparity becomes more extreme. The only class Americans are meant to have is the middle class. This is the only class we’re allowed to discuss. The working class, which in other cultures can be a point of pride, is an aspiring Middle class and the Upper Class is either the Elite or Upper Middle Class.

It seems to me that there is another class in operation that we don’t talk about and that is an Artist class or the Cultural middle class. Financially, I am not even close to middle class. I have been eligible for food stamps at many times in my life (though I’ve only used them that time the application came along with my contract at the theatre where I was working full time for $50 a week.) But I’m culturally middle class. I have a Master’s and a Bachelor’s Degree.

One of the things that’s awkward about this artist class confusion is that we operate in a world that is completely in line with us culturally but out of line with us financially. When our friends from college go out for a birthday dinner, they throw down $40-a-person like it’s no big deal. So usually we don’t go out to our friend’s birthday dinner because that $40 is our grocery money. We get farther away from our cultural peers as their lots in life improve and ours remain hand to mouth.

If you choose to make a life as an artist, it’s very likely that you will find yourself in this awkward middle space – with all the indicators that would suggest upward mobility but the reality of a downward mobility. Should we identify more with the working class then? At my first meeting with the League of Independent Theater, John Clancy proposed the idea that we’re not getting anywhere until we acknowledge that we’re actually working class.

I’m interested in this idea. As Planet Money recently pointed out, most artists have extreme downward mobility. Daughters and sons of doctors and lawyers become artists and their salaries never rise to meet their parents. But because these artists grew up middle class or upper middle class, perhaps identifying with the working class is loaded somehow. It may create a kind of cultural cognitive dissonance.

We don’t have a metric for people who are culturally rich but financially poor. But there are tons of us. And we spend a lot of time and effort pretending we’re doing better than we are. We go into debt to buy clothing that will help us fit in with our cultural peers. We go to those dinners with our friends. We go see the Broadway show even when we really can’t afford to. I mostly don’t do these things anymore myself but sometimes it’s unavoidable. And I’m not saying you have to be poor to be an artist. It’s just that it often turns out that way. Most artists I know who’ve stayed out of poverty consistently have managed it by finding well-paid day jobs.

People talk a lot about the Starving Artist trope but when’s the last time you met an artist over 25 who actually acknowledged that they were starving? People say it’s romanticized – but the romance is almost always in the past. It’s Paris in a Garret in the 1800s. It’s Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith when the Chelsea Hotel accepted art in lieu of rent. But I’m sure, even then, starving wasn’t so romantic. Last year’s troubles and all that. Poverty sucks. It sucked before and it sucks now. But pretending we’re not poor because we are culturally rich means that not only are we denying our own experience but also the opportunity to band together with the working class, to use our cultural capital for good.

We have a class society, whether we acknowledge it or not, and maybe we need a designation for the artists. There was that movement towards the Creative Class a while ago but it didn’t really catch on, not among actual creatives. Maybe that’s part of the reason it turned out to be ineffective. Meanwhile, the middle class that we might have aspired to is vanishing.

I wonder if it’s all just a distraction from the real stuff at the heart of it all. That is, a living wage for everyone, artists included. It seems that while our primary value as humans is money, all of us, the poor, the working class, the artists, the cultural rebels, the back-to-the-landers, the non-profits, will all be left out of the benefits of a money-driven society.

If someone asked me at my kitchen table today what class I am, I couldn’t give them an easy answer. That question would probably yield more than the asker was bargaining for. The answer would be as long as a blog post.

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