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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Transforming Victim Theatre

The show was a series of monologues, of testimonials really, of women who’d experienced violence. I’d seen many shows like it before. You might know the genre. It’s a collection of narratives from an ensemble, a catalogue of horror stories. This particular show was well dressed. The aesthetics of the storytelling were well crafted. It was a little different than the usual monologue show in that it would seem that the actors were telling their own stories – which made them particularly hard to hear. For the kind of show it was it was very well done. But if made me long for a new kind of show – one I haven’t seen the likes of before.

At the end of the show, after the catalogue of atrocities committed against these women, the performers showed us a march, the protest in the streets. We finally got to see the women empowered, walking with strength and fury. I wished the show had started there.

I’ve seen women victimized on stage again and again and I’m not so interested in seeing these stories anymore. It’s important for us to tell them, of course, and important for them to be heard but – do we have to stage them, too? Maybe there are people who still need to see them, for whom the atrocities are a surprise and call to action.

However, I realized as I watched the show, that the stories I need to see and hear now are the ones about women who took the shitty things that happened to them and did something about it – or did something great in response to it.

I want to see the story of the student who carried her mattress with her everywhere in protest. I want to see the story of the organizers of Black Lives Matter. I want to see how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony got us the vote. I want to see the story of Victoria Woodhull, a Gilded Age candidate for president. (Did you know a woman ran for president in 1872? And that she was an advocate for Free Love? I only learned it this year. That’s ridiculous.)

The victim stories are dramatic, I know. Sometimes it’s the only genre that can give women a taste of success and women ARE disproportionately the victims of violence. I’m sure we’ll continue to tell them for as long this shit continues. But I want to see the part of the story where they kicked ass, took names and helped other women.

If we have to tell victim stories, let’s tell them in a new context – as background, perhaps, as the backstory for the awesome power of what these are doing women now.

 

Victoria Woodhull, Presidential Candiate & Bad-Ass

 

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