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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Sticky Benevolent Sexism

It happened weeks ago, after the Women’s March. Since then there have been many more marches and many more protests but I can’t stop thinking about this experience I had right after participating in that first one.

I was at a conference. We were wrapping it up with a reflection session – talking about what had been successful and possibilities for the future. Towards the end, a man stood up to say he’d been to the Women’s March and that he’d been inspired and now wanted to recognize all the women in the room. He asked us all to stand and receive applause and appreciation from the men. We stood, as requested and received the applause. And don’t get me wrong, I love applause. But this felt so so bad.

Why? I wondered. Why was I upset by this nice man wanting to honor the ladies in the room? He was just being nice. Why did it make my skin crawl? For weeks, I’ve tried to unpack this moment. And then on International Women’s Day, I felt the same feelings upon reading multiple posts and tweets and tributes.

And still, I struggled to understand. So I talked about it with my partner. I told him about the request to stand and be recognized and he seemed to instantly know what I was reacting to. “It’s like Secretary’s Day,” he said. And I said, “Yes! Exactly! Exactly that! But what is that?”

And it comes down to power, folks. We have a secretary’s day because bosses have power and they express that benevolently (if also patronizingly) via things like Secretaries Day. A man who steps forward and asks for everyone to recognize the women in the room is asserting a similar kind of power. It is claiming an authority over women. He takes on a boss role and thanks the helpers. The fact that it is outwardly benevolent is what makes it confusing. This is called benevolent sexism and it is a bear, y’all.

Benevolent sexism is super confusing for a lot of dudes. It’s why the Orange Man in Chief thinks he’s great for women. Women are also confused by it. It’s men being nice, right? But so many studies show us how not nice it can be. It can be very dark and very dangerous.

My moment of benevolent sexism was confusing for me because I like to be appreciated and recognized. But I would like to have all of those things happen due to my accomplishments and artistry. Being applauded for just being a woman suggests being applauded for my service to the real art, the men’s art. I’m getting accolades for being a good helpmeet, not being an artist, or an achiever – because that’s what we ladies do, right? We help! We make the coffee and mop the men’s brows from doing the real work. Golly, we need a day to thank those ladies!

When that guy asked us to stand, I stood. And I cried. I thought, briefly, that I cried because I was moved, because I was touched by the gesture. I know now that I cried because I felt utterly undermined and defeated. After a day of women asserting our voices and our power, we were suddenly reduced to secretaries, to helpful wives – rather than the peers and colleagues we are. Now, I think I was crying due to how quickly that feeling of empowerment can be ripped away. BUT. But…

The good news is that now I’m wise. And I won’t fall for this trick again. Next time, I will not stand. Maybe I’ll even ask the men to stand and let them see how it feels.

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The Resistance Will Be Handcrafted
March 22, 2017, 10:41 pm
Filed under: art, music, puppets, resistance, theatre, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

Since the digital age really kicked in, I have watched a lot of things that were important to me fade away. In a world that values social media currency and digital art and so many things on screen, my analog skills of theatre-making, performance and presence have felt less and less valued in the world. While I have adapted as well as I can, I have at times felt like an analog girl in a digital world – a handwoven basket in a factory town.

But since the world turned upside down on Jan 20th, I have found that my old-school art skills are suddenly relevant again. At a recent rally and march, I suddenly realized how many skills I was pulling out of storage to be there. Some examples were: creating an impromptu puppet, gathering protest props that not only can pop at a protest but be light-weight and fit in a bag so I can carry them on the subway, putting a costume together, singing loudly, helping ladies find a pitch when a man is leading the singing and puppeteering.

And it’s not just me – there’s a call for all kinds of analog skills that might have felt lost to the digital age. Examples: Painting signs, playing drums, marching bands, one man (woman) bands, creating spectacle, knitting. Art supply sales are booming. There is something poignant about our old-school skills suddenly being useful again. We can’t rely on video to save us. We need things in real life. Now more than ever.

In a way, it’s a shift of our public spaces out of the internet and into actual spaces. We are all out in public more. And I find I want to bring out even more things into that space. I want to cry in public space. (I was a little disappointed there was no keening at the mock funeral. I could have used a good cleansing cry.) I want to read in public space. (What if we had a Read In?) I want to just sit quietly with a bunch of my fellow introverts and shush anyone who gets too loud.

There is something about this moment that is calling us to really stand behind what we value and those values may not always be obvious. It reveals all the things we’ve let dwindle – things we actually once loved or felt were necessary. Journalism. Theatre. Music. All things we stopped paying for because we could get them for free. If there’s anything to hope for in this depressing mess of a year, it’s that adjustment of value. It’s that subscriptions of newspapers and magazines are back up, people need music like never before and theatre might just make a difference again.

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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



The Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

At a recent festival, the audience favorite was a show that re-told a fairy tale – one that featured a king reckoning with his power. It won an award, people loved it so much. But it made me furious.

I don’t blame the creators, really. The source material was tried and true and they tackled it well. The aesthetics and storytelling were expertly executed. But. In watching it, I thought to myself, “I never need to see a story like this again. In fact, maybe I should make a list of stories I don’t need to see anyone.” In this case, a show about the difficulties of being a young white male king just didn’t resonate with me. I have seen a lot of these in my life. Maybe because I spend a lot of time in the trenches of Shakespeare, I feel like I’ve heard this story just about as thoroughly as I’d ever hope to and with much more scintillating language. And who knows, one day I might want to see one again.

However, meanwhile – I never want to see another story about how a young man should assume authority. Young men know how to do this. They got it. There are tons of models. If you want to show me a story about how a young woman assumes authority, I’m all about that. Extra points if she’s a woman of color. But I don’t need any more authoritarian stories. Please.

I think, too, this particular show triggered my fury because it did a lot of things at the beginning that made me think something else entirely was going to happen. I thought we were going to go in and subvert authority. I thought we were going to understand our power as a group. I thought we might even learn how to overthrow a king and become a true democracy. These are all lessons I actually need right now. That’s the show I needed to see and I didn’t get it. That’s not the company’s fault. They didn’t know what show I had in my head.

At the start of this show, we all practiced our bows for the King we were due to meet. I played along, because it’s fun to play. But I really don’t need to practice bowing to authority. Too many of my people are already too good at this, metaphorically speaking. Bowing to authority is one of the things that got us into this current political mess. What I’m seeking are lessons in resistance. I need people who can show us how to refuse, to resist, to make change.

I’m now trying to work out how to write the show I wanted and didn’t get. But there are very few models in this realm. I can only think of one or two. If you know of one, please send it along, I need some inspiration of radical democracy, of collective power.

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My First Troll

You guys. I’ve been on the internet making and doing things, writing and posting and sharing for years. I’d assumed the trolls would be coming for me at any moment because I have heard all these stories about what it’s like to be a woman on the internet. But the trolls mostly left me alone. (My guess is that this is due to my only real viral posts being theatre related – and there aren’t a lot of theatre trolls, luckily.) Then when I retweeted John Patrick Shanley talking about artists and added my own…a troll emerged. A troll, a troll! My very own real troll!

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First, I was stunned it wasn’t a rape threat and then shocked that it’s basically a knock on artists. I mean, I know trolling feminists is a thing but they’re trolling artists now?

Anyway – the good news is that it didn’t break me. During all these years of posting blogs and what not, I was afraid that too much of a public profile would lead to this type of experience – one which this conflict-averse artist would generally like to avoid. But it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. And it feels worth the risk at the moment.

I mean, it’s a risk to be a woman in public in any way. It is a risk to walk down the street in most places. And the internet is just another version of the street. I go out into the world, despite the possibilities of harassment, rape or general sexism. I don’t let it keep me in the house.

Nor will I let a troll keep me off the internet, I find. I thought I would cave. I thought I would get a tweet like this and run. But I will not run. I’m celebrating that I have raised my public profile enough that an asshole wants to troll me. If I’m making enough noise to activate a troll, I’m on the right track, I figure.

I recognize that this could all change. If I started to receive the treatment of Lindy West or Anita Sarkeesian or Leslie Jones,  I have no idea how I’d get through that. But here, with my very first troll, I can at least recognize that it will take a lot more to silence me than I previously thought. I’m stronger than I thought. More willing to fight. Tougher. Fiercer. More unafraid.

So I celebrate this rite of passage and honor you, my mean little troll. In the same way that most women will always remember their first street harasser, I will always remember you. But I’ll also never hear from you again, either, cause you’re muted, troll.

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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



How to Value a Voice
February 5, 2017, 10:26 pm
Filed under: Gender politics, resistance | Tags: , , , , , ,

At the Women’s March on the 21st, I saw a sign that said, “Girls should be told that their voices are valuable.” And it stuck a chord so deep in me that it took me days to unpack it.

I don’t disagree. Girls should, of course, be told that their voices are valuable. But it’s not enough. Not even close. Being told your voice is valuable means zero if you’ve never been shown that your voice is valuable. Telling is useless.

It’s like when a customer service automated phone services says, “Your call is important to us” while you sit on hold for an hour. It’s disingenuous. It’s lip service. I have been in so many rooms where I have been told my voice is valuable but was then talked over, interrupted, ignored or dismissed when I tried to use it. I have worked in many organizations that claimed to value my voice but then made it impossible for me to express anything.

Telling someone that their voice is valuable ain’t shit without actual support for that voice. On top of that, whenever someone tells me my voice is valuable, it is almost always extremely patronizing. In fact, one sure signal to me that my voice is not actually valuable is to be told that it is.

My friends don’t need to tell me my voice is valuable to them because I know that they care what I think. My colleagues don’t have to tell me my voice is valuable because they listen to it and ask for my thoughts regularly. My family doesn’t need to tell me because they respond to what I tell them. I have even had employers who didn’t need to tell me my voice was valuable – because it was apparent from every angle.

I was at an event where I heard again and again how important it was to get the voices of the young people involved. I heard how the organization valued the voices of the young. But I never heard those voices. There was no space in the event to actually hear those “important” voices – which makes it clear how important they actually are. That is, not at all. And I heard from those young people how unheard they felt, how unwelcome, despite the constant verbal welcoming.

But what, you may be wondering, am I supposed to do if I’m leading a group of people who I want to encourage, who I want to support and/or mentor? How do I convince them to talk, for example, if they don’t?

It’s actually fairly simple. If you want to know what someone thinks, if you want to hear them talk, you’ll need to ask them what they think about something. If you want people to feel as though they’re welcome to speak in a space, you have to make space for them to speak. If you are in a position of authority, that is up to you.

One of the challenges you’d be up against is that people who have had their voices dismissed for an extended period of time – girls, for example – may be less likely to leap into empty space. Many women have learned helplessness in these situations. Women’s speech is constantly policed. Vocal fry, qualifiers, upspeak are all sins that women get bashed for regularly. Women might speak more quickly than men, hurrying trying not to be interrupted. We have less practice in speaking in groups because we have been socialized to understand that the space isn’t ours. It is entirely likely that this having an impact on your group conversation.

The same holds true for any marginalized group – anyone you’re not hearing from isn’t not talking because they don’t know how to talk – they’re not talking because while they may have been TOLD their voice is valuable, they have not been SHOWN. And you show value by welcoming, by invitation, by direct question, by listening, by affirming, by reflecting and acting on what you hear.

You value a voice by actually valuing a voice. Don’t tell. Show. It’s that simple.

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Overlooking Shit Ladies Say

In Caitlin Moran’s most recent book of essays, she proposes a five year moratorium on having opinions about women. It’s a proposition for embracing everyone’s imperfect feminism – forgiving ladies’ dumb lapses of feminist judgment. …and just celebrating their kick assery. She suggests maybe not worrying about Beyonce’s weird choice of naming her world tour the Mrs. Carter Tour and just getting in formation, ladies.

I’m super down with this idea. I mean, just because I find the idea of putting a ring on “it” problematic and objectifying doesn’t mean I can’t rock the dance floor when “Single Ladies” comes on.

I started to think more about this proposal because I found that in the midst of this post-election terror, I need Michelle Shocked’s music again. I have a strong palpable need for her brand of feminist folk punk and nothing else will do. I know she said some incredibly stupid things a few years ago and very possibly fell off the deep end into crazy town. I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy her music anyway. I need 1988 Michelle Shocked. 2013 Michelle Shocked can be as crazy as she wants. And I don’t know what 2016 Michelle Shocked is doing. Hopefully getting her shit together. But meanwhile – I need her. I need Ani Difranco. Who, yes, did that dumb retreat a few years ago that was a pretty bonehead move. But I need her. So I’m letting it go.

If Janelle Monáe, who I also need really badly right now, were to go off the rails, I would forgive her, too – because she’s necessary. Luckily, she’s about as careful and measured as a human can be and being a freakin’ monster of inspiration. If she fell – it’d be a hard hard fall. I don’t think she’s gonna, she’s so careful. But – if she did…I’d forgive her.

And here’s the thing…women are usually pilloried for pretty minor shit, all things considered. It’s not like we’re overlooking ladies committing child rape – for example – the way millions of people were able to do while electing our misogynist in chief. It’s also not like we’re overlooking violence incitement, spousal rape or sexual assault. If people can overlook all that shit and still vote for a dude for president, I feel like I can overlook some dumb shit that some marginalized women said one time. I mean – let’s adjust our public shaming scale, shall we?

It doesn’t make any of the dumb shit my ladies said alright. It’s still dumb shit. But the sheer amount of intolerable behavior we’ve tolerated from our male artists is boggling. Roman Polanski’s raping a child? Fine. What a great filmmaker! Woody Allen sexually assaulting his children? Big deal! What a genius! Give that guy a TV show! Bertolucci ordered a real rape on screen, for Art! Big deal! And on and on.

Obviously, this “not having an opinion on women” thing wouldn’t be total. I propose that, in an emergency, we might write about something that women are doing; if a prominent female politician turned into some manner of malign she-werewolf and sold her children to Nazis, say, we could legitimately opinionize on that. But on nearly every other matter concerning a newsworthy woman…

It’s time to start an overlooking campaign for ladies. No more opinions about ladies’ opinions. For five years at least or at least until we iron this shit out.

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