Songs for the Struggling Artist


Art is Vital
April 10, 2017, 8:56 pm
Filed under: art, business | Tags: , , , , , ,

I keep thinking about selling out. I don’t mean I’m considering selling out myself. I’m considering the cultural shift that has changed the meaning of selling out.

I learned on a podcast (You Are Not So Smart) that the generations after mine don’t know what selling out is. They think it’s a good thing. Like, when your show sells out. For my generation and the ones before, selling out was a danger, a bad thing – selling out meant losing your credibility. It meant trading in your artistic credibility for commercial success. Today, there is no sense of lost credibility in achieving commercial success. On one hand, this is a positive move – a world that is perhaps more unified – artistic values, perhaps permeating the dominant culture.

On the other hand, it has created an intertwining of art and commerce in a way that creates a world of problems, including the current political landscape.

When there is no difference between art and commerce, art’s value becomes its commercial potential. A painting becomes only as valuable as its price tag or its marketing reach. The painting loses its intrinsic value as a work of art.

And perhaps the loss of one painting or one piece of piece of music as being of intrinsic value isn’t the end of the world. But I think losing the entire CONCEPT of the intrinsic value of art IS.

I can draw a direct line from the devaluing of artistic values to the election results of 2016. We decided that the only good art was successful art, was popular art, was art that sells and this then leads to a value system that privileges power, popularity and money. By continually lionizing the billionaires, the moneymakers, the hit TV shows, the popular art, we chose a culture that values money above all else. Lil’ Donnie T is the direct result of over-valuing commercial interests.

When we stopped seeing art as valuable in and of itself, when we started trying to defend it as a viable economic growth builder, when we began to pitch it as an agent of social change rather than as a thing that is good for our souls – we lost. We lost a long time ago.

I’ve watched this happen in Arts Education. When I first started working in schools, it was enough to just do art with kids. Then we expected the arts to teach them something else – more academic subjects or team-work or conflict resolution. Then we needed the art to solve the problems in the classroom or the school system and when it couldn’t do that impossible thing, it was pushed aside for things that could. I’m not saying it’s not super cool to teach math through theatre or conflict resolution or life skills. It is! But what’s happened is a trend toward teaching these things instead of theatre itself. I remember being in a meeting of artists, educators and principals years ago and a principal stood up and declared his support for “Art for Art’s Sake.” He asserted that he was dedicated to Art, itself, no qualifiers. I cried and applauded – because I could feel how much of a stand he felt he needed to take to say that. That is, the world around him was so insistent on dismissing “Art for Art’s Sake” that he had to push hard to make room for that idea. In some education circles, “Art for Art’s Sake” has become kind of a joke – as in, not enough, as in, naïve, as in old fashioned. And so art ends up in service of other more commercial or socially relevant things.

We let this happen.

On an individual level, I have seen incredible artists devalue their own work due to its lack of commercial success. They think that their painting, art or music or show or sculpture or poem isn’t worth anything because they couldn’t sell it. It’s not worth anything because it isn’t “worth” anything.

But some of our greatest artists were never commercially successful. Van Gogh sold a handful of paintings in his lifetime. But later, most of us understand that his work was incredibly valuable artistically. And then his work became valuable commercially as well. The commercial perspective will say that he became successful after his death because he became popular and his paintings sell for tons of money. But even if they never sold and very few people knew his work, the art itself is intrinsically of value. We all got mixed up on this point at some point.

This relates to a trope that I keep seeing pop up – that artists should stay out of politics. I find it fascinating that anyone could think that would be possible but it speaks to a perception of art. It suggests art is seen as decoration instead of meaningful discourse. This movement to cut the arts is sometimes an impulse to “trim the fat” and get rid of the inessentials: – to cut the frills. Art is the frills for some people. It’s seen as a luxury item that conservative folk don’t want to pay for. I get it. I’ve played into it myself. At a grant interview, I was seated next to an applicant who wanted to increase access to drinking water in Zimbabwe. I felt like – how can I make a pitch for artistic exploration when there are people without drinking water? There is also a line of thinking that suggests that cutting the arts are a targeted way to control discourse, that the authoritarians know that stifling the arts is a way to control freedom. I’m not sure our authoritarians are all that smart yet. But whatever the reason for cutting the arts, my response comes down to that idea attributed to Winston Churchill who is said to have said, “Then what are we fighting for?”

In my own life it is fucking ESSENTIAL to have music and theatre and dance and art right now. It was nice before but it is essential now. It occurs to me that a sign of our previous freedom was the freedom to think of art as a frill, to think it might not be necessary. We could think that because we could afford to. We can’t afford to anymore. For now. Art is vital right now. For me. For everyone I know.

My mother, for example, is at a protest or public meeting or advocacy event, nearly every single day and at night, she is uplifted and energized by concerts, by movies, by art, by books. Personally, I have been more moved than I have ever been when sitting in theatres, listening to music, singing, watching, listening. We’re learning something that people in oppressed conditions have always known – that art is a need. That art is what we’re fighting for. And perhaps for the people who are not terrified right now, for the people who celebrate the oppression of immigrants and Muslims and women and give no shits about Black Lives – maybe for them art isn’t essential. Maybe they’re so happy, celebrating their victories, shooting deer or rabbits or ducks or whatever, that they feel like they can do without all that art stuff. I doubt it though.

I think, if more folks had had more access to art in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation. If there was music to go see in the coal towns of West Virginia, if the ballet came through the Alabama rural landscape, if former steel towns, rusted out due to their employers moving the company abroad, could get some relief at the rust belt art museum, I don’t know, maybe I’m naïve but if they could see that stuff , I’d hope it might make a difference. Art won’t feed a hungry child or solve endemic problems. I know that. I’m pretty clear art can’t save us by itself. But it can help. It can make a difference. It can give hope.

We let art slip into a commercial way of thinking and if there’s any upside to the current political nightmare, it’s that other kinds of values are rising up, making themselves obvious. I’m not saying commercial art isn’t art. Just because something is popular doesn’t make it bad. But popularity doesn’t make it good either. Prince sold a lot of albums. But he’d be just as good if only a handful of friends saw him in a basement. His artistry is not his commercial success. Commercial success isn’t the only way to succeed. There is value in singing to yourself. In the dark times, there will always be singing. And it doesn’t have to be for sale.

 

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The Danger of Relying on Opinions

My theatre company’s crowdfunding campaign for Research and Development of our show got me thinking about arts funding and the way art gets supported. Generally, arts crowdfunding campaigns live or die based on the response to an idea, that is, the opinions of the people funding it. If a project’s friends and family LIKE the idea of the project, they fund it. If they’re not keen on it, like they think, “I wouldn’t want to go see that,” – they won’t. This is actually, at the gut level, often how grants get passed out as well. “Is this show, art-work, dance – something I’d want to see?” If yes – Stamp of Approval. If no – Rejection.

This basically means that whether or not something gets made is connected to the opinions of the consumer. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I decide whether to support something or not based on whether or not I think it’s a good idea. But I think this is problematic and symptomatic of an overly commercial sensibility when funding the arts. If you’d pitched me some of my favorite shows just as ideas, I’d definitely not have funded or chosen them. A stage version of the film, Brief Encounter? A one man show about tribes in the rainforest performed by a white dude? If you’d asked me to fund a show about a horse who goes to war, I’d have said that was an idea that was doomed to fail. And I would have been very wrong about that.

The fact is, whether or not I LIKE an artist shouldn’t preclude that artist’s ability to make the art. I don’t like all kinds of things every day. But I shouldn’t get to be the arbiter of what gets made.

We live in a world where Spiderman The Musical got made because Marvel had money to burn on it. We had Legally Blonde, The Musical because it was paid for. And I have to bet that not many people were truly passionate about making Legally Blonde the Musical. It was not born from a group of artists getting together to create something where there was nothing. A group of producers hired a group of writers to do a job and make some money using an existing property. It has all the hallmarks of a show put together by agents to showcase people at their agency.

Do we truly want a world where agents and movies studios decide what theatre gets made and artists like us – and like so many of our peers – have to send our ideas to the Idea Cemetery simply because our friends and/or granting organization didn’t like the idea? From Broadway all the way down to the smallest company, we’re letting the market determine who gets to make art.

This is why government funding for the arts makes sense. While no Arts Council is perfect, they at least aspire to a more equitable distribution of resources. They can keep their eye on inclusion and diversity. They can fund things that people won’t necessarily LIKE but really should get made and seen anyway. I’d rather have all kinds of work I don’t like funded, knowing that there are other metrics under consideration than whether the panel or audience thinks it’s a good idea.  I mean no disrespect to grant panels or audiences – but they don’t always recognize the good ideas from the outset. They tend to respond to things that are like something they’ve seen before. And this is not a great way to innovate in the Arts.

For the arts to thrive, we need to be able to explore a wide variety of ideas. We need to chase down the “bad” ones as well as the “good” ones. Good ideas sometimes make bad art. And vice versa. We need an arts funding culture that isn’t predicated on whether or not someone likes the idea. If we could, instead, fund the artists, fund the companies and fund the places that say to artists, “Whatever you want to explore, here are some resources.” That’s the way toward a vibrant, thriving arts landscape.

And, I think, that is why my company’s current campaign is going better than any crowdfunding we’ve done before. We’re not trying to sell the idea this time. We’re sharing a process. We’re looking to fund an exploration instead of a product. No one has to have an opinion about where we’re headed or what we create. And it is liberating for both artists and funders. We’ll save the opinions for the critics.

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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



The Perilous Economic Intersection of Arts and Education

The week before the teaching gig was due to start, I was told that I was going to be paid $200 less than I did last year for doing exactly the same job. This program, I was told, was too expensive – so they had to reduce everyone’s fees. In the end, I negotiated my payment back to where it was meant to be but it took a great deal of effort just to get paid what I was meant to be paid in the first place. Being underpaid is one thing, being paid less than underpaid is quite another.

This is par for the course in two arenas: the Arts and Education. The fact that I work on the intersection of both of them puts me in a double whammy of reduced status. The people making decisions about fee reductions have very real limitations. They work in a field that doesn’t make money. (So do I!) They have to figure out a way to keep the programs going without enough income. (also a problem I’m familiar with.) I’m sure they look at the budgets and the only thing they can see to cut is the rate of the artists, educators and scholars.

But I can’t help but notice that the people who make these decisions also have salaries (something I don’t have) and those salaries are never on the cutting block in these situations. I’ve never seen someone in this scenario looking at an underfunded program and saying, “Oh, I’ll just make $200 less that week to make up for it.” And of course, they shouldn’t. That’s absurd. But so is cutting the one really meaningful resource in a teaching program, which is the teachers. I’m worried about what this trend portends.

Reading Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier has made me think a lot about all of the jobs that are vanishing as we shift our world into the digital age. Lanier warns us that the artists are the canaries in the coal mines of our current moment. It might be something like: “First the digital economy came for the artists and we didn’t worry because we weren’t artists. Then it came for the journalists but we didn’t worry because we weren’t journalists. Then it came for the educators and what did we care? We weren’t educators.”

And so it goes through all sorts of surprising middle class jobs. Law. Medicine. There are very few things in the future that are safe from the changing landscape. Bit by bit, the current economic climate chips away at the arts and education – and I’m standing here at the intersection watching it fall apart.

I am deeply worried that so many of the things I love most are losing their value. That is, people still like those things, they still think art and education are great, they’re just not willing to pay for them anymore. And that means while I managed to keep my $200 payment this time, who knows how much less it will be next time. If there is a next time.

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How Patronage Feels
July 15, 2014, 10:17 pm
Filed under: art, writing | Tags: , , ,

I recently published one of the first blogs I’ve posted since I joined Patreon. This means that for the first time, I will actually be paid for writing this stuff. It’s not a lot. At my current numbers, I’ll make $20. But it feels tremendously different than making no dollars for my writing.

I’ve only been paid as a writer a couple of times before (for productions of my plays at theatres and schools.) This is the first time, though, that I’ve been in a position to know that I would get paid for something I put out in the world. That is, I make something with the knowledge that there will be a financial return. It feels good, it feels direct and I start to understand what it must feel like to regularly be paid for things you value.

It feels so good to have a squad of people who like my work (or me) enough to want to support it or me. It makes me want to be better, do better, just for them.

In addition to feeling really good, this new patronage has started to shift the work itself. It’s not changing the writing so much yet. With the exception of this one, most of the current wave of blogs were written many months ago. But patronage has made a big impact on how I edit these things. It means that I take more time to look things over, to re-write. I take 4 passes at it, instead of 2. It means that I take the time to find the perfect links within a post. I take time to find the right images and I take more care with the way the text makes the switch from my word document to the wordpress platform. In general, the $20 my patrons are donating are paying me for those extra hours of care. Partly this is because I know people are paying for it but also because I know people are interested enough to support it and/or read it.

The pledges I’ll receive each time I post a blog are still nowhere close to paying me minimum wage for the hours I put into blogging, but they are a vote for this work rising up my priority list.

As a freelancer, I spend the majority of my time doing things that may or may not yield direct results. I go to networking events with the hope of meeting future clients. I update my websites with the hope that someone might end up there and hire me. I make posters and hang them in the appropriate locations. I fundraise for a project, which hopefully will be enough to pay me too. Very few things I do are a direct exchange and much of my time is spent trying to work out which thing will rise to the top of my to do list.

So this – I-write-something-and-get-paid-thing feels pretty revolutionary to me.

So, while this is, yes, a big thank you to my Patreon supporters (Thank you!) It’s also a plea for arts funding in the bigger picture. When you fund things you can make them better. Sure, that artist might make her dance without $20 . . .but $20 might buy her an extra hour of rehearsal space and that extra hour of rehearsal space allows the dancers to really drop into the piece, moving it out of adequate and into excellence.

The more directly you fund art, the more difference you will make in the work itself. That is, when you fund artists directly, rather than institutions, you can you’re your donations have immediate impact on what they are able to create. Take it from an artist who will be paid directly for her work, for the very first time.

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American Arts Funding
October 5, 2011, 12:05 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , ,

From earlier this year:

This week in the Puppet Lab, we discussed funding. One of our members is a recent arrival in the U.S. and he’d asked about who to apply for for funding for his show. The short answer? No one.  There is no funding. The long answer? Well, there’s this grant and its deadline has passed or this one, for which you’d have to apply after the fact and here are all the Sort-Of-Resources you might be able to draw on.

In that discussion, one of the members brought up something called the 80/20 rule. He said that someone told him that you have to spend 80% of your time looking for funding and 20% of your time on the Art. This rule of thumb (while likely the reality of the current system) made me want to throw up. The idea that this is the recommended way of making theatre in this country is horrifying. It means that the work of an artist is really to find money and that the Art is a hobby.

All signs point to a hobbyist sense of theatre making. We do it in our spare time, not with the bulk of it. We have to fund it ourselves. (Most of the participants in the Lab are buying their materials and rehearsal space with their own money. We might as well be building model train sets. It would probably be cheaper.)

Now this program is one of the few supports for puppetry in the city. It’s at a prestigious theatre and comes with a little basket of status. However, there’s no money for it. Every single hobbyist puppeteer has to find his/her own way to fund the project – to fund this 20% – to fund the model train convention, to speak metaphorically. Watching a room full of people explain to a new arrival to the country that this is how it is, made “how it is” seem all the stupider to me. I was embarrassed for us – embarrassed for a culture that turns artists into hobbyists – that believes in this 80/20 rule  and that instructs the artists arriving to our shores to expect less than they were used to in less privileged cultures.

Most career/self-help books will instruct us that whatever we do the most is really our career. If we spend 80% of our lives looking for a way to pay for the other 20%, we’re not doing anything more than funding our expensive and heartbreaking hobby. Those numbers NEED to be reversed. We need a system where artists can spend at least 80% of the time making art, making it better, mastering it. Malcom Gladwell says in his book about genius that people become geniuses by doing something for 10,000 hours. How is anyone ever able to do this with only 20%? It’s time for new rules.




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