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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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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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



A Day Without Immigrants
December 31, 2016, 2:28 am
Filed under: Racism, resistance | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

UPDATE: I’ve noticed that some people are ending up at this blog after searching “A Day Without Immigrants” or “A Day Without Immigrants NYC.” The good news is that it is actually happening on February 16th. The bad news is that it seems to be more well publicized in Washington DC. I’ve heard rumors that there will be another Day Without Immigrants in April. But meanwhile – this article may get you the info you’re actually looking for: http://fusion.net/story/386686/washington-dc-day-without-immigrants/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=fusion

Now – back to the blogpost from a couple of months ago:

London. 2016. The day after the Brexit vote. The city was in shock. I was visiting and that day I saw multiple friends, coincidentally all of them born in other countries but residents of the UK for well over a decade. One of my friends proposed a response to all the immigration hysteria gripping the UK. She suggested organizing everyone who had emigrated/immigrated to the UK to pick a day to not go to work. The country would inevitably grind to a halt – and everyone would see what a vital contribution immigrants make. I thought this was a brilliant idea.

NYC. 2016. My own city is devastated by the news that our election yielded us a xenophobic, racist, sexist, internet troll who ran on an anti-immigrant platform. It seems that a lot of my fellow countrymen voted against immigrants.

I’m heartbroken for a lot of reasons that it will likely take me years to sort through. Meanwhile, the most heartbreaking emails come from the college where I do some adjunct work on occasion – they’re about how to help undocumented students, how to assure immigrants’ safety, how to get the message out about keeping them safe so they can get through the end of the semester. The xenophobia is already destroying people’s lives. Already. And it’s only just begun.

And then – on the subway – I see tourists whom I imagine made this horror waterfall happen. (I know, I know, #NotAllSoutherners, #NotAllMidwesterners) And I can’t help feeling my own version of xenophobia – a fear of xenophobia – a fear of xenophobes. Is there a word for this ? Xenophobicsphobia?

And then I hear these tourists talking about where they’re going to find good Thai noodles in the city and I become irrationally furious. It kicks off a whole imaginary rant in which I tell them:

“Oh? You voted out of fear of immigrants? And now you want to eat Thai noodles? No. You don’t get to. You can’t eat Thai noodles or Chinese dumplings. You definitely shouldn’t get to have tacos anymore or burritos. No hummus. No pita bread. If you’re afraid of immigrants, you shouldn’t get to benefit from their contributions. Why don’t you commit to your old school America? You can now only eat the foods of your white ancestors from Britain. It’s Hard Tack and Ale for you from now on. Maybe you can have some canned veggies but be careful! Most of our agricultural goods are farmed by migrants – so if you want to really commit to your traditional white-only ways? You’re going to have to grow your corn yourself.
And you’ll need to turn in your iPhone. The founder of Apple was the son of a Syrian refugee so his work is not for you. Turn it in.
Like Broadway shows? Too bad. There are a lot of immigrants on Broadway stages. And not just white ones, either. Plus, given the concurrent homophobia that travels with xenophobia, you’re going to have to give most culture a miss – because we sure have a lot of gays in the theatre and I know how you feel about them. You’re not allowed at the theatre anymore. Or the ballet. Or the opera. Or popular music – which, by the way has been very much influenced by people of color who are really what you’re afraid of let’s face it. So – sorry – you can’t listen to pop music, not rock, not hip-hop, not R&B, not country. It’s only English folk songs for you from now on.
If you can’t support the people who make the things you like, you shouldn’t get to have them. You wanted new rules? You get them.”

But of course I know this would be exactly the wrong strategy to take. I know it is through art and food that bridges can be built and it would be counterproductive to deny their diplomatic power to people who need it the most.

It is, perhaps, lack of exposure to this sort of difference that causes people to behave in this nationalistic isolationist way.

There’s a Trump voter I know who, when I knew her, was a big fan of the word “different.” If she had a food she’d never had before, she’d report it was “different.” And if she saw a show she’d never seen before, that too was “different.” For her, even just a new flavor of Dorito might qualify as “different.” There was a hint of both excitement and distaste in her use of this word. And I think she is not alone in her response to things (i.e. foods, people and culture) that are different. I think that’s maybe what she was afraid of. Difference. At the heart of xenophobia is just a fear of difference.

But everything was new and different once. Even original flavor Doritos.
And it is that difference that has historically made the United States great. It is that difference that a lot of us embrace and celebrate. Maybe anti-immigrant voters embrace more than they realized as well. If we take their tacos away – their Thai noodles and culture – maybe they’ll start to appreciate them and the diversity of the people who make them.

We can’t do that, I know. Not yet anyway. But maybe my English friend’s post-Brexit protest idea would work here as well. One day without immigrants – documented, undocumented, long term and new. One day.

statue-of-liberty-1746808_1280

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



“Art under fascism is good, actually”

As soon as it became clear that the worst had happened on November 8th, my friends and fellow artists began saying things like, “Well, it’s horrible. But at least we’ll get some great art out of this.” and “Repressive regimes make for great art movements.” Ethan Hawke in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview said, “The Artistic Community thrives when fascists are in charge.
While I understand the impulse to look on the bright side, this is not really a bright side. Nor am I 100% sure that this is true. I think, artists make great work in repressive regimes in spite of the repressive conditions, not because of them.

It might be comforting to imagine the great art ahead but meanwhile, every artist I know is practically paralyzed by the current political climate. Everyone I know is just barely holding on. Where is this great art going to come from?

Listen, I’m marginalized already due to my gender. People of color are marginalized already. People with Disabilities are marginalized already. People without economic privilege are marginalized already. If we’re not in the mainstream now, how will our voices be heard when all the progress on social issues starts to fall apart? We’ve been making the greatest art we can on the margins but in the new landscape, what hope is there?

If feels like the most vulnerable artists, already straining to break through, are now vulnerable on multiple fronts. Sure, there were some great Jewish artists during the Holocaust. But not as many as there had been. And where are the great women artists of the fascist era? Trans artists? Artists with disabilities? I mean – sure. Let’s celebrate the possibility that we MIGHT survive and we MIGHT make great work despite the oppressive regime that we are likely about to experience.

Sure – yeah – let’s get excited about some paintings that a white dude might make in response to the very real life threatening conditions for women, for Muslims, for LGBTQ people, for people of color and people with disabilities.

It is cold comfort to me. My feeling is that mainstream culture wasn’t listening to us before and I have no real hope that we’ll be listened to now that we’re looking at a fascist future. Before November 8th, the real I hope I held for my work as an artist were all the progressive policies that encouraged and supported the inclusivity of women. I bet the same is true for other marginalized communities.

If we’re busy fighting for survival, if all the resources are engaged in fighting for justice, I don’t see a lot of hope for making inroads in artistic equality. We have been making great work all along and the mainstream culture gave no shits. Why would it start listening now, as alarms are ringing, as people are screaming, as the sprinklers rain down on the burning building?

In times of crisis, most things return to a kind of status quo. People rely on the familiar when the chips are down. And the familiar is sexist, racist, homophobic and ableist.

Is there a way to shift this? Is there a way to respond to the four alarm fire in politics and simultaneously make space for artists on the margins? I don’t know. But I certainly don’t expect it.

I will keep making art, as I have always done but I don’t do it with any hope or expectation of it being recognized as great at some point just because I’m doing it in the new repressive world order. And I will not celebrate the loss of progress for all the vulnerable, marginalized artists, already at the edge.

budapest-1320025_1280

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



A Universal Symbol for “That’s Racist.”
November 24, 2016, 12:35 am
Filed under: Racism | Tags: , , , ,

The couple got on the N train and asked in their best English if the train was going to Scent Pearl. I asked them if they meant “Central Park” and if so, yes, it was going there and they settled in. They were from Brazil and delighted that I could understand their English sometimes and occasionally bits of their Portuguese. We had a companionable ride, misunderstanding one another at every turn. (Example: “How long are you here?” “We’ve been married 25 years.”) They told me I was very nice and friendly (I think this is what they were saying) and that they were happy to meet me. I told them I was also happy to meet them. They told me their names and I told them mine. I was pretty pleased to have made a nice connection with some strangers from far away.

Then the man made a gesture that I decided couldn’t possibly be what I thought it was because it was so racist. Then he did it again, bigger and clearer and I heard “chines” and I realized he was, in fact, making an incredibly racist gesture. I said, “No!” which he somehow interpreted as a license to keep going and so followed a series of gestures and sentences I couldn’t understand – but I presume added up to an unfavorable rant about Chinese people. I was horrified. And given the language barriers, I could not figure out what to do. I wished there were a gesture for “That’s Racist.” It would come in handy – not just when there’s a language barrier like this but in situations where it’s just not a good time to have a full discussion. Just a simple hand or finger wave of some kind. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a universal symbol for “That’s sexist,” too. It’s amazing how much racism and sexism can be expressed without language; I would love for a way to express the opposite some way as well.

And unfortunately, given the current climate, we will likely have many many opportunities to use a gesture that expresses that something is racist or sexist. With hate crimes on the rise, it’s ever more essential to address the stuff when it comes up in the moment. It occurred to me that so many people were okay with voting for racist candidates because they didn’t fundamentally understand what racism is. They missed the multitude of racist statements because they didn’t recognize them as the racism they were. If we could do call it out with a gesture, we could register our response and keep moving. We could express ourselves, en mass, when our new elected officials denigrate their target of choice. I don’t know how gestures become popularized, but now is the moment for us to get one.

barbra-streisand-62838_1280

This gesture might work.

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read it on Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist




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