Songs for the Struggling Artist


In Which I Try to Defend My (Seemingly Terrible) Choice to Dedicate My Life to Theatre
January 28, 2019, 11:43 pm
Filed under: art, musicals, Quitting, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Theatre is part of me. It has been since I first learned about it in pre-school. My pre-school teachers were actors and there has never been anyone cooler – before or since. Even if I quit theatre making tomorrow, I’d still be a theatre person. It’s almost a physical characteristic at this point – Oh, she has blue eyes, curly hair and theatre.

Other people who have theatre in their bones know what I mean. They know how inevitable it feels, how compulsive, how deep.

The people without this quality cannot fathom why theatre has so much power over us. Why do we continue to do it, despite the heartbreaks, the inconsistency and the hopelessness of the whole enterprise?

Oh, how I wish I knew the answer. Theatre is not logical.

It may have been once – back in the old days when it was the only place a community could really gather, when it provided the only drama or comedy around. But now, when we can get our stories on screens of all sizes, it no longer has the urgency it once did. Why gather in person to watch something if we can gather virtually?

If you have theatre in your blood, as either a theatre-goer or maker or both, you know why. If you don’t, I’m not sure how to capture the magic spell the rest of us are under. Why do we go to it? Why do we sacrifice for it? Why do we dedicate years of our lives to its charms?

A few years ago, after a friend’s benefit for her theatre company, a few of us were out for dinner afterwards and a friend said to his wife, “Why does she still do this? Every year. She keeps going and going and it never gets anywhere.” Even though he was talking about our friend, not me, I still experienced the words with the heat of a white hot poker.

“Why does she still do this?” Fact is, this is a question I used to fear that people were asking about me all the time. Every time I sent out a fundraising letter I’d hear that voice saying, “Why does she still do this?” Every time I promoted another show “Why does she still do this?” Every time I’d have to ask a new round of people for assistance, “Why does she still do this?”

When we first started our theatre company, people responded with great enthusiasm. They were sure we’d be the next big thing. As were we. As a culture, we respond to the new. I’ve seen this happen to other fresh faced theatre companies when they first get started. Folks on Kickstarter love to fund that brand new project for someone to follow their dreams. But just the first dream. Maybe the 2nd. After that, everyone expects you to have MADE it by now and begins to resent your asking. But the truth is, in contemporary American Theatre, almost no one “makes it.” And even if you do “make it” (i.e. you’re produced on a nationally recognized stage and get publicity and stuff,) because we have no national arts funding to speak of, you will still be asking everyone for money. In fact, you’ll be asking for more and more money as your budgets will get bigger and bigger the more “making it” you are. Why do we still do this?

My worries about hearing “Why does she still do this?” have faded and the question has now become “Why do I still do this?” The longer I keep at it, the less I worry about what other people might be thinking. Now I ask myself – whenever I return to the theatre, to the work, to the heartbreak. Why do I still do this?

I know why I WANT to. I know how it starts. It starts with inspiration, with an idea I want to see realized. It’s this ridiculous thing called Art that calls to me, where I cannot help but do it, no matter how little encouragement I receive. Many of us cannot be talked out of our art by the forces pressing on it. The sheer numbers of painters, sculptures, writers and composers who died unrecognized, with no assurance from the outside world are staggering. We count among them many of our greatest. . . but no one wonders why Van Gogh still painted. Why Kafka still wrote. They made things because they had to make things. Not to make it but to make. I’m the same. So is my friend who “never gets anywhere.”

I started this essay a decade ago and I am still making theatre – no matter how much it breaks my heart and seems to not be worth it sometimes. As time goes by, the putting on of shows becomes harder and harder to do, more and more draining. It feels less and less sensible to keep at it. Is the satisfaction of seeing my inspiration realized enough? Is it worth the agony to get my ideas to the stage?

I’ll be honest with you. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it is not worth it. So I got my idea up on stage. So? So? A handful of people saw it, a small percentage of them were moved. So?

Grantmakers measure a company’s worth in how many people were present, that saw a piece of work. My company does not get those grants because we do not reach a lot of people. Maybe that means I should just quit. Sometimes I really think I’m going to. I can do so many other things, after all. Perhaps I could be satisfied with fiction, with music, with writing about art. But…

We could just go on, dreaming of our future audiences who will, one day, understand what we were trying to do, while they miss it today. The major difficulty is that because our medium is live and ethereal, as theatre makers, we don’t really stand much of a chance to be recognized when we’re gone. But it doesn’t matter. We still do it because it is what we do. Van Gogh painted because he painted. Kafka wrote because he wrote. We put on shows because we put on shows. And that is why she still does this.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

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

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Like the blog? Why not help support it?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

Or buy me a “coffee” at Ko-fi. https://ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

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Advice for Artists

If I could offer one piece of advice for artists, it would be to be skeptical of all advice for artists.

After so many years of dedication to making art, I think I’ve heard most of it. Some of it might be useful. A lot of it isn’t. I started to think about this after receiving my copy of New York magazine featuring a cover story of advice for artists. I found myself confused about what it was doing there on the cover. Why should advice for artists be a front page story? I read the advice – hoping to uncover some clues as to what made this front page material but there was very little in the thirty three tips that I haven’t read before.

I discussed this article with another lifelong artist and realized that its presence on the front page probably mostly was a result of the author’s recent Pulitzer prize win. He won a Pulitzer so he gave some advice so they took some funny arty photos of him and put him on the cover. And when I received this magazine, I felt weird about it. Not because his advice is bad – some of it does accurately reflect my experience of making art – but because I don’t understand who this advice is really for. On one hand, it seems to be for “the young who want to” – and on the other, it’s for the veteran and also the one about to have the New York Times come to their first gallery show in Soho. Who is that? An arty preteen with super fancy connections and an old soul?

That’s when I realized how bound by our own experience any advice is. Jerry Saltz, the guy who wrote this advice, is a critic who just won a Pulitzer prize for writing. He’s a hotshot. He may feel like he has his finger on the pulse of the art world – that he’s seen the range of the super star artists and the strugglers. But the fact is, Jerry Saltz only sees artists who are in the mix. For some artists, Saltz coming to their show is their one big shot. If he doesn’t respond positively to their work, it will become the story of the time they almost made it. But the art scene also includes artists who will not only never get Saltz at their art show but will also never get a show. They’re not in the mix. The artists Saltz is seeing, and therefore advising, are in the mix – which means they have already experienced a level of success or privilege. This doesn’t negate this particular critic’s advice – it’s just to contextualize it.

Likewise, any advice I’d have to offer anyone is going to come from my particular point of view. To me, the most salient bit of information in Saltz’s advice, was his perspective that it only takes 12 people to create a successful career. That’s something he’s seen happen a few times I’d wager and probably seems relatively easy to accomplish from where he’s sitting. Why, he knows at least 12 well connected people! And he knows a lot of people who know 12 well connected people. No problem.

But the good news about this guy is that he also understands that not everyone has access to well connected people. And that is one of the things that makes him a valuable voice for the arts. Sure, he may have used a photo of (notoriously terrible family-man) Pablo Picasso to demonstrate that being an artist parent is possible but his advocacy for museum space and artists is incredibly important for the cultural life of New York City so I’m glad he’s out here fighting.

But if you’re an artist looking for useful advice, I regret to inform you that no one has the answers. There isn’t a right way to do this. Living with that sort of ambiguity is sort of what it’s all about.

If you find little bursts of information inspiring for your art, yes, please read them and make your work. If Saltz’s article encouraged just one artist to dig deeper into her work, then it was worth it, in my view.

But if this sort of thing left you a little cold and confused as it did me, take my advice and forget all advice. When it comes to making art, yours is the only advice to follow. Not your teachers, not your parents, not some guy in a magazine and not some struggling artist on the internet either.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

*

Want to help this artist?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



I’m Not a Productive Member of Society and I Have No Worth
November 11, 2018, 10:52 pm
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Now – before you leap to my defense against myself, you should know that I know this is a lie. I’m being deliberately provocative here. On good days, I see myself as incredibly productive and worth a whole lot. But there are days when I feel the capitalist values beating against me a little more strongly than others.

Capitalism says that the way for me to be a productive member of society is to make a lot of money, a lot of capital – which I should then spend. Or, if I don’t create capital, I should be productive by providing my labor to someone who IS doing some capital generating. I don’t do any of this and am therefore an unproductive member of society. When productivity means money, which it usually does, I am very clearly not productive.

But – there are those who define productivity in the sense of producing stuff. In this sense, I am in a very productive stage of life. I may not be contributing capital but I have, this last year or so, put forth into the world five albums worth of music, several plays, two podcasts, a novel and a multitude of blog posts. By sheer volume of creation and production, I’m one of the most productive members of society I know. But not one of those things earns me a salary or makes a profit. So I‘m not worth anything.

If you measure by money and not ideas, I am worthless. This is why I don’t measure by money. I have zero net worth. By your usual American standards, I am not a valuable member of society. Neither is any other struggling artist.

But I hope you realize how ridiculous this is. Do we only value a work of art when it makes money for someone? There are some for whom that is true. I happen to think art is worth something separate from how much money it can bring in. If you’ve gotten this far with me, I’m guessing you think so too.

It’s not just art that’s worth more than money, either. Raising one’s own children might get you a tax credit but it’s not money in the bank. In order to get that tax credit, you have to make some money elsewhere. The multitude of caretaking jobs that are unpaid or underpaid are overwhelming. Can we call someone who cares for their sick or elderly family member unproductive? Worthless? When we value “productivity” and “net worth” above all else, that’s what we do.

Then, too, when we extend this idea out to its natural conclusion in the other direction, we’re looking at many many “productive” people who are actually quite destructive to the society, culture and/or the planet. Guys selling sub prime mortgages were extremely productive if we define productivity financially. They made SO MUCH money. And they destroyed, not only many people’s lives but also the world’s economy, which led to destroying even more people’s lives. Someone happily at home taking care of their children isn’t looking so bad now, is it?

I’m not trying to take down capitalism. (Couldn’t if I tried.) But I came up with this title (and therefore this whole piece) on a day when I was feeling a sense of shame about my life and how I’ve chosen to live it. On a better day, I recognize what a load of crock it is that we define productivity and worth financially. I’d love to see some way to embrace some of the other measures of productivity in development. If we had a Universal Basic Income, for example, and we weren’t so worried about finding the money for essentials, we might discover a world of possibility for things created outside the realm of the financial demands. Scientific discoveries could expand tremendously if they weren’t tied to a need to make money for the companies that fund them.

In other words, if we worried less about being financially productive members of society, we might be able to be actually more productive. We could make more things. Discover things. Create things. Contribute love and service. Make an exciting, artistic, scientific, thrilling world full of art and love. Not just money.

I have seen many an artist twist themselves into knots trying to demonstrate the more socially acceptable forms of productivity while their artistic productivity languishes. I’m not talking about the day jobs we do to survive. I’m talking about busy work. I’m talking about feeling like I should be writing emails instead of writing a song. I’m talking about feeling like I’ll be a better person if I just do more tasks that might, one day, relate to money or a job.

For my own creative practice, I have seen that the less I worry about my productivity in a capitalist sense, the more productive productive I can be. In other words, when I can joke about not being a productive member of society and having no worth, when I can embrace a sort of anti-productivity stance and start to scale my worth differently, if only in my own mind, I find that I can actually access creativity in a fuller, more whole-hearted way, which births many creative children that would not have otherwise been born. That’s the kind of productivity I actually value. That is worth a great deal to me.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

*

Want to help increase my worth?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



Tortoising and Hare-ing

The afternoon that the lullaby came to me, I was in the middle of working on a big long term project. Or rather, I was preparing to continue the work on a big long term project. But the lullaby called itself into existence and before the day was over. I had not only written a song but recorded it, too.

Most things I do are not like this. Most things are bigger, more unwieldy, the sorts of projects that can take years. But occasionally a shorter lightening rod piece will flash through.

When I got the burst of lullaby inspiration, I thought, “Oh, I’m a hare! And my artist friend laboring over an epic work is a tortoise! Artists come in different speeds!” But I very quickly realized that this was wrong. I have at least one project that I’ve been working on for a decade and a half. So, I’m definitely not typically super fast. What I realized, though, is that an artist isn’t either a tortoise or a hare. They’re both. Sometimes we’re the tortoise, inching along, headlights only illuminating a few feet ahead and sometimes we’re the hare, dashing ahead to a finish line in an instant. Sometimes we’re both – we send one slow project along the track and then send another to quickly dash ahead. (I also recognize that, in the fable, the hare loses but I’m sure there are races that hare could win.)

I suspect a rich artistic life has a bit of both styles in it. In the midst of working through a novel, for example, it is a gift to see an entire creative process come together in an afternoon. Most artists I know have those big pieces that they chip away at slowly, like marble carved into shape one knock of the chisel at a time, so to take a break and to do a quick sketch can be very refreshing. Simultaneously, if you’re in a space of making a series of short term projects that you can finish in a day, maybe adding a more ambitious project with multiple steps and even an invisible deadline will give you a good shift in perspective.

It’s not that some artists are tortoises and some are hares. It’s that some projects are short races and some are long. Some ideas are hares on a quick track and others are tortoises on a marathon, slowly plodding forward to an epic finish. We are not tortoises or hares, we are either tortoising or hare-ing. The trick is knowing which is which.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

*

You can help support both my tortoise and my hare projects

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



A Great Idea for a Musical! (or What is Art? And who gets to decide?)

A comment on my Art as Service post began this way: “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.” And asked “Who gets to determine what is art and what is not? What is service and what is not?” which are good questions – even if it implies that it should definitely not be me who gets to determine such a thing.

The answer to these questions is that no one is determining anything. There is no line around art or service and just because I, a person on the internet said so, does not make it so. Unfortunately, I have not yet developed such an enviable super power.

In the absence of strong boundaries in the world, I attempted to make some distinction between entertainment and art, not because I want to be mean to entertainers but because I’m weary of watching artists suffer over the confusion. Since no one makes distinctions, the market also makes no distinction and capitalism just chews up art and entertainment and service all in one messy mouthful. Of course art means different things to different people but without a common distinction, artists suffer and diminish while corporate execs thrive. Without a line drawn, commercial art thrives while more esoteric art starves. Which is not to say that commercial theatre, for example, sucks. Some of it is very entertaining and artfully done. Just because I don’t think something is art doesn’t mean I think it’s bad or badly done or unprofessional or that I don’t want to see it. I love being entertained as much as anyone.

Art does not mean good. Entertainment does not mean bad. Entertainment can be great. Art can be terrible. Drawing a line between the two does not mean drawing a line between good and bad. It just means, for me, that we use different metrics for success in those two approaches. And listen, debate about this stuff has raged for centuries over wine, beer, cocktails, coffees and college cafeterias so I get that the “What is Art?” question can be controversial.

However, I’m very curious about why everything wants to be art. Why should we need SpongeBob SquarePants to be art? Why are we not satisfied to simply have it be an entertaining piece of theatre? If you’re making tons of money, entertaining people, having a great time, I don’t really understand why being an entertainment isn’t enough.

I have as much admiration for great entertainers as I do for artists. They’re just different flavors. One is strawberry ice cream, the other is coffee gelato. Both delicious. But I wouldn’t want one to be the other.

Part of the problem, I think is the word “art.” There are, problematically, two definitions. Etymologically speaking, art began as a way to say “skill.” The Greek word for art basically means craft, or skill. Commedia dell’ Arte was a popular entertainment of skill. They were skilled comedians. If someone used their art, they used their skills.

Round about the 19th century this other sense of art began to evolve – the sense of an artist as a person creating new and challenging work, as a sort of romantic expression of self and the universe and such. Art became an expression of something – a creation – an invention where once had been a blank page, stage or space. When I talk about art and artists, this is the sort of stuff I mean. I mean people who take what they are given to create something that challenges the status quo, that makes important inquiries into the human condition, that expresses something unique and untold where once there had been nothing.

The other form of art, the one that is skill and practice and rigor and craft and form is, of course, incredibly important – but I think of the person who crafts that as more of an artisan than artist.

Our American culture is profoundly confused by all these words. Take, for example, the way advertising and marketing have co-opted the word artisanal to now be entirely meaningless. What once meant something crafted by hand by a skilled practitioner with care and attention is now readily applied to mass produced food products. You could get an “artisanal” bagel at Duncan Donuts not long ago. I don’t know what that means. So what I’m trying to do in making distinctions is to point to the Dunkin Donutifying of art – that by making EVERYTHING art, then NOTHING is art and words lose meaning and poof, there is no funding for the expressive artist anymore.

It might help to keep these strands of art in mind – the art of skill and the art of expression/creation. Perhaps we need new words entirely – and the art that means skill – as in (Zen and) the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as in foam art in coffees, as in balloon art and so on could be called one thing and the art that means invention and creation, as in what we hang in art museums and fund for the public good…that could have another name.

Having it all be the same thing is what prevents people with no experience of the arts from understanding why in the world we should support it, donate to it, give it public funding. They think, “I wouldn’t pay my barista extra for putting a swan on top of my coffee – I mean, maybe I’d tip her a dollar or something – but why should my taxes support the arts if anything could be art? After all, I just spent over a thousand dollars to take my family to see that show on Broadway. I did my bit.” (See also my post on We Support the Arts. Buying tickets for Broadway shows is not support.)

Anyway – I tend to think of entertainers as being particularly incredible artisans. The Broadway chorus boy may not be an artist (in my definition) but his skill at doing complex jumps and turns is remarkable. He is an artist in the same sense that the barista who has spent decades perfecting the perfect foam swan is. It’s arte. He’s an entertainer with incredible arte.

And if an artist, say, a choreographer, created a show that required a chorus of such artisans, they would be participating in the manifestation of that artistic experience. Likewise – if the artist, the choreographer, required a chorus of swan-making baristas, they too would be part of the manifestation of that artwork.

And I suppose this is where the service component comes in. So let’s back this up. Let’s say this artist, this choreographer wants to make a dance featuring a chorus of Broadway dancers and a flock of skilled baristas for his piece. He intends to make a piece of art. Why he wants to do it is what I was trying to point to in my art as service blog. He could want to simply get an idea in his head out in the world. He could want to see his thoughts reflected onstage. He could want a good review in the New York Times so his father will finally love him. And/or he could want to be of service to an audience in some way – to change the way they see the world, to shift some dynamic in the world, to simply be a voice for the unheard baristas of the world.

That’s what I mean by service.

What’s tricky, I think, especially for performers, in terms of understanding this, is that performers are often really in service to everything they do. A singer is in service to the song. An actor is in service to the play, a dancer is in service to the dance. They are artisans in service to the art, so of course this notion of there being art without a service component is actually baffling to a performer. They are in constant service.

And I expect it doesn’t help a performer to make distinctions between art and entertainment. In fact, it could be a hindrance. I remember once helping one of my actor friends run her lines for a terrible film. I mean, the dialogue was appalling and absolutely nothing of interest happened in it. I was deeply impressed by how much respect and attention my friend gave this wretched dialogue. It’s part of how I came to realize that I didn’t have it in me to really chase after an acting career. I loved/love to perform but I didn’t have the capacity to ignore terrible content. I could not put myself in service to anything or anyone that I did not believe in 100%. This is kind of a big liability for a performer.

For me, because I am creative in a number of different ways, I will often make distinctions between the part of art I’m practicing. When I’m creating something from scratch, beginning from a blank page, blank canvas, blank stage, I am a generative artist. When I am performing something someone else created, I am an interpretive artisan. The two impulses feel very different for me and there are times when I can only manage one and not the other. After the 2016 elections, for example, I had no capacity for creating anything new and could really only sing other people’s songs. Sometimes there is blurriness, sure. If I invent a whole new way of performing a song, that feels like I’m blurring the lines between generating and interpreting but still, I tend to make a distinction.

Fundamentally, I am talking about that blank page – about how a piece begins. That is where I am hoping to make the distinction between art and entertainment especially clear. That is – if a piece begins in a corporate boardroom, it is very likely not art. If, say, at Microsoft’s headquarters a bunch of execs sit around and say, “Hey, what if we got in on this Broadway market? I’ve been thinking Clippy the Musical would really make us a lot of money and give us some ironic legitimacy.”


The subsequent Clippy the Musical will not be art. Not even if they hire Tony Kushner to write the book, Bjork to write the music and Laurie Anderson to write the lyrics. Not even if they get Taylor Mac to direct it. Not that I’d begrudge any of those artists making a little bit of corporate money – but Clippy the Musical would still be a corporate property cashing in on a possibly lucrative market.

Now Clippy the Musical may sound silly but that is essentially how 9 out of 10 musicals are born. SpongeBob SquarePants is owned by Nickelodeon, which is owned by Viacom. Viacom is the real winner here. Most Broadway musicals don’t come from a writer or composer sitting in a room struck by inspiration. Most musicals begin at the corporate level. Whomever owns the rights to Pretty Woman hired an agent to hire them a team of writers and a director and they all got paid to give us Pretty Woman, the Musical. (Lord help us!)

There are those who will find this corporate exercise entertaining and I do not begrudge any writer, dancer, actor or singer the opportunity to make a bit of money for a change. I’m not saying it shouldn’t exist or that we shouldn’t enjoy it. Clippy the Musical might be delightful with the right people making it.

Let’s just not call it art, okay? That’s all I’m asking. But of course, the choice is up to you. You can call it whatever you want. I don’t “get to” decide anything more than anyone else does – but I’m hoping that being a little more circumspect about what we call art might lead to the culture beginning to value work outside of the corporate purview a little bit more. About the only thing art, as I define it, has going for it, is a kind of romanticism and a hint of respectability. I’d love to see the people who create something from nothing in their rooms (or studios or wherever), those who get inspiration from the world or the gods or whatever and not the corporate paycheck, get just a little something for their trouble.

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

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

*

You can help me make art

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



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.

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

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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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You can help me be of service

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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 (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Art, Entertainment and SpongeBob SquarePants

My friend told me about some friends of hers who came to see her dance performance and were clearly pretty baffled by it. She didn’t take this personally because she understood that these friends of hers had no experience of contemporary dance or art in general.

What was ironic about these folks with no art experience was that they were convinced they were dedicated arts supporters. They went to tons of Broadway shows after all; They thought themselves very artistically literate. My friend tried to explain to them that Broadway wasn’t so much art as entertainment but they had no idea what she was talking about.

I think most Americans would have no idea what she was talking about. We conflate art and entertainment so dramatically that it is sometimes very hard to distinguish between the two. I have spent my entire life in the arts and am only now starting to work out the distinction. Art can be entertaining and entertainment can be artful but art and entertainment are not the same thing.

I suspect that if you come from a country with funding and support for the arts, this distinction is obvious. The national theatres, state granted and council funded work iare more likely to be art and the shows in commercial houses are entertainment. Done and dusted. Sometimes there’s crossover but it’s mostly clear. Here, where we have no state theatre, no national arts, there is little to no distinction. Maybe at the margins you can find consensus. We might be able to agree that amusement park shows and cruise ships are entertainment and avant-garde performance in a gallery space is art – but as those two things approach one another, things start to get muddy.

The distinction can be muddy for people who work in Arts and Entertainment as well. When you think of yourself as working in The Business (as in Show Business) and The Industry (as in The Entertainment Industry) you approach your work in one way. If you think of yourself as working in The Arts, you are likely to approach it another way. Even if what you are doing is fundamentally the same. Context is everything. If I sing a song on a cruise ship, it is Entertainment. Even if I sing it artfully, it is still entertainment. If I sing that very same song in a contemporary dance performance, it’s art. Same material, same artist, different genre entirely. For many performers, there is no distinction and no need to make one. And perhaps that’s true for audiences, too.

But asking these categories to do one another’s jobs makes for an anemic art climate. In a capitalist culture, entertainment consumes art, like giant multi-national banks gobbling up local ones. Entertainment grows and expands while art starves and diminishes. People start to expect art to make money, to boost the economy, to create an insatiable demand for tickets. And while that may work for Broadway, for entertainment – it will never work for art. Art is not motivated by money. Art is after something else. Art is concerned with a dramatically different range of values. It won’t be a good return on your investment. If it IS a good return on your investment, odds are good, it’s probably not art, really. There are exceptions, of course. But very few.

I am pretty clear that I am pursuing art. I enjoy entertainment as much as the next person but art is my goal, my purpose, my raison d’etre. I mean, true, there is no business like show business, like no business I know. I agree that you can nowhere get that special feeling as when you’re stealing that extra bow. Applause is exhilarating and intoxicating and I am delighted to receive it any chance I get. But – for me, applause without art feels hollow. I’d rather do without applause than reckon with that emptiness.

And so we need to talk about SpongeBob SquarePants, the Musical. When I heard it was opening, I laugh/cried so hard at the absurdity of the world. SpongeBob SquarePants is not art. It’s on Broadway. It is theatre. But it’s not art, y’all. Not even close. No matter how much the Creative Team tries to convince us otherwise.

Tina Landau, former director of Steppenwolf Theatre (art,) writer of multiple theatrical works (art,) directed SpongeBob SquarePants and in a promotional video declares that this show is what we need now. America needs SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical, she suggests. Everyone on the creative team seemed to echo this sentiment of significance and importance in this video. Everyone was on message and seemed to be trying to convince us that this was a great artistic triumph.

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And maybe SpongeBob SquarePants, The Musical is amazing. The cartoon is very entertaining, I concede. Critics seem to love the musical (“It’s not that bad!” read one review I read) but even if it is artfully done, it is not art, it is not important, it is not what America needs now. It may be what Tina Landau, formerly a director of art, needs right now – like she needs a summer house, so she’s directing a mega show based on a lucrative licensed cartoon figure affiliated with a multi-national corporation. And that is fine. I do not begrudge Tina Landau being able to buy a house – not many theatre directors can do that, especially female ones. But I do begrudge her trying to convince us that SpongeBob is important, that SpongeBob is art. It’s not. It’s just not. I’m not saying it’s not entertaining or not well done – I’m saying it’s not art and I resent every single piece of media that equates it with things that are actually art. I saw multiple Best of New York Theatre 2017 lists and most of them featured SpongeBob and I didn’t see any with Indecent on them – which was the single most relevant piece of theatrical art I’ve seen in decades. SpongeBob is selling well and Indecent closed – twice. Entertainment sells like hotcakes. And Art is food for the soul and awfully hard to sell in mass quantities.

As an antidote to the entertainment-heavy world I live in, I’ve been reading the writings of Tadeusz Kantor, painter and theatremaker from Poland. He sits firmly in the art camp. He rails against the stultification that can come from theatre buildings. He bemoans the theatre’s move toward professionalism – toward codification and art strangulation. He would not be confused about the landscape we have here in America. He would not let the existence of SpongeBob SquarePants make him feel despair about his own work. His work has nothing to do with SpongeBob. And mine doesn’t either.

For me the distinction between art and entertainment comes down to a simple question. That question is related to Kantor’s history. During World War II, it was illegal to make theatre in Poland. He did it anyway, in a basement – risking death for his art.

The question I ask myself if I’m wondering if something is art or not is. “Would someone perform this in a basement in the middle of a war?” “Would someone put this on in their attic at great personal risk?”

I have a long list of shows I cannot imagine in a secret war torn basement and SpongeBob is right at the top of that list.

So why is this important? Am I just splitting linguistic and categorical hairs here? The American Theatrical landscape has always been thus. Let’s look at 1922. Alongside the premiers of Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Hairy Ape and The God of Vengeance were also plays called: Hunky Dory and Hitchy-Koo of 1922. There’s nothing new in the crass work presented alongside the sublime. It is perhaps our national impulse to sit entertainment side by side with art.

We once had national organizations to help foster and develop art. The Federal Theatre Project in the 30s and the development of regional theatres in the 60s. But now, due to the eliding of categories and things like enhancement deals, a regional theatre is much more likely to produce an entertainment than some art. There are very few places that foster the growth of art, independent from the rules of the entertainment business.

With no distinction made between art and entertainment, the Boards of theatre companies continue to make choices that privilege entertainment and the theatre’s bottom line. And there’s absolutely nothing in place to stop them doing that. On a smaller, more personal scale, artists who make ART are often made to feel that what they do has no value because it does not make a lot of money. Look at the concept of “making it.” “Making It” is a Show Business concept – not really an artistic one. But that doesn’t stop every artist I know from feeling bad about how much or little they have “made it.” Without a distinction between The Business and The Art, artists will relentlessly beat themselves up for failing to meet criteria that has nothing to do with their actual raison d’etre.

Artists can start to feel bad that they can’t make a piece of work that “America needs right now” because they can’t bring themselves to make something like SpongeBob. This could be mortally wounding to American art if we don’t start to make some distinctions and some adjustments to the field. SpongeBob and Kantor’s The Dead Class are technically the same medium. Naked Boys Singing and The Bald Soprano are both theatre. Is it any wonder people don’t want to support the arts? They think because they spent $150 a head to see School of Rock or Kinky Boots that they’ve done their bit. But they haven’t. They’ve paid $150 a ticket to be entertained. And the arts continue to languish unrecognized and underfunded.

There is a sort of Venn Diagram of Art and Entertainment. They overlap, for certain – but some things are clearly one or the other, while others sit squarely in the middle, as both. We fund and support the entertainment circle, including the bit that overlaps with art, while the Art circle is only supported where it overlaps with entertainment. This is not good for art, obviously. But is also not good for entertainment which benefits profoundly from that overlap. For the sake of our cultural health, we need to start making distinction so we don’t let art get left behind.

You can help me make art

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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 a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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

*

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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