Friday, February 27, 2009

And Also, Art v. Commerce

I've been meaning to weigh on this, for a bit, but this damn day job keeps expecting me to do actual work so as to stay employed. But I do want to say some things on this front. (You can also see this, this and this for more background) This is, of course, at the risk of bringing the wrath of Messrs. Hall and Walters on myself. I know what I'm getting into.

Art may be a "way of life." But "artist" or "playwright" is a job. It's not always a good job, but it is a job, a vocation. Just like "law" is a way of life (or whatever) but "lawyer" is a job that people have, for various reasons, in various ways. And, honestly, I think that talk of art as "a way of life" actually does some harm to us out here doing the job of "artist." It's a big part of what I think of as the Talent Myth (which isn't exactly the talent myth here, but shares some aspects).

The Talent Myth goes that being a playwright (or a sculptor, or an actor) is something that is inherent in you, it's a manifestation of your true inner self and either you have "it" or you don't have "it." "It" can't really be taught or learned, only perfected. If you don't have "it," the best you can hope for is to be a decent craftsperson or a teacher. If you do have "it," whatever you do is "art." Unless you pervert it in the interest of making money. Then you're wasting it by falling from the true path. It's a solitary, all-consuming life, where everything must be sacrificed for your "art."

I call bullshit.

Now, before Don and Scott descend on me to say that's not what they're saying, I know that's not what they're saying. Exactly. But it's a big part of it. Let's take the law, for example. Let's say I'm a smart kid who likes to argue my point and has a great recall of facts, names and dates. This is my skill set. I get good grades, and finally decide that the area of expertise that fits my particular skill set is the law. But what kind of law? It's up to me. If I really, really care about the environment, I can practice environmental protection law. If I really, really care about the rights of corporations, I can practice corporate law (or become a Republican lawmaker). It's my call. Now, if I really, really care about the environment, or civil rights, or public law, well, those don't always pay as much as making sure corporations make loads of money (usually by trampling on the environment or civil rights). So I have to ask myself how much I care about the environment, and how much I can about having a big screen TV. Now here's the key thing: I make the choice. Now let's say the choice is between working long, long hours at a huge corporate law firm and spending more time with your family. Let's say that you're really, really good at corporate law and like it (believe it or not, there are people just like that. Honest. I swear.), but you want to be there for your kids. You make that choice. If you pick the big screen TV, we call it "selling out." If you pick your kids, we call it "sacrifice."

Only, in theatre, it seems like the only choices are "suffer" or "sell out." The mere whiff of money is enough to suddenly turn any endeavour into selling out. Usually, when someone says a play has "commercial potential," it's an insult. How is this a sane way of building a field?

I'm a huge proponent of the arts as a public good, along with national safety and education, things that in a just country would be free and available to all, everywhere. We don't live in that country. We can try to make changes, and eventually we will, maybe, but before we do, we have to live here and stop wishing we lived in England, or Sweden or wherever it is that the government shits money in your mouth. We don't. We live in a country that views artistic endeavours as frivolous and quite possibly sinful. Get used to it.

So while we're here, we have to get used to this idea: being a theatre artist in this country is, in general, a piss-poor job. The hours suck, the pay is ridiculous, the inequality of wages, opportunity and access is off the charts, and, for a lot of us, this noble calling isn't particularly satisfying. Still we do it, because we have a drive, and we do love it. And, for most of us, it fits our skill set the best.

But even within that, there are various levels, jobs, aspects, and just because it's a place that makes money, that doesn't mean it's automatically a corruption. I say this because, as an artist, I'm acutely aware of where my skills lie: in accessible, mainstream comedies. It's true. I like writing plays about people in rooms talking about things, occasionally doing funny things, they learn something, sometimes they cry a little. That's what I do. So if I write a play that comes from my heart and soul and it winds up on Broadway and making me money, have I sold out? Honestly, I feel far more dishonest when I think about ways to "quirk" up my plays, make them more "downtown," more "theatre-y." That's not what I do. But when I write the way I feel most comfortable, theatres aren't interested. This isn't just me shaking my fist at the fools who are turning away a surefire hit, a hit I tell you! Seriously, it's a sober assessment of my skills, my work and the market for them.

Fine, you don't want to label "art" a "job." Okay. But it is a craft. We make things for people. We make experiences for people. No one tells a cabinet maker he's "prostituting" himself for making something out of oak because that's what his customers like. If you're making things your customers want, good for you. The problem comes in when we think we know better than the customers and they reject it. That's the arrogance of "it's a way of life." Everything is a way of life, but you don't see everyone else going on about it. People come to us for an experience and we send them away with the experience we think they should have. Some people like that. Many others less so. And they vote with their feet, as they say.

The greatest tragedy of the last twenty years or so is the major contraction of the market, especially here in New York. We're left with fewer and fewer voices, fewer and fewer outlets and more frustration on everyone's part. I went to see The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Atlantic the other night with a friend from work. My friend is smart, kind of hip, with a whole downtown thing going. She's a journalist, and in her late twenties and she's never seen a play she liked. She has cool artsy friends and has gone to plays, maybe 8 times, and despite not seeing one she liked, she's still trying. She's kind of the ideal audience member, right? We walked into the Atlantic, she saw the set for the opening scene, a very realistic shop in 1930s Ireland, and she sighed an audible gasp. Of relief. She actually said to me, "Oh, yeah, a set." People do like that kind of thing. Maybe not everyone, but they do. And it's getting harder and harder to find. The night we went was on the big half price promotion going around. Ordinarily, the tickets were $75. For Off-Broadway. And because she's not a theatregoer, my friend didn't even know about the promotion.

By limiting ourselves, we're missing out on a lot. Art is a concept. Act accordingly.

Okay, Don, Scott, have at...


Adam Szymkowicz said...

I agree that art is a job. If you don't treat it seriously as if it is a job and not a hobby, if you don't throw yourself in 100 percent, you will never make great art.

Likewise, if you only make art to make money, you will never make great art.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

Right now, I have two new plays I'm sending out that I hope will be done at large theatres and I think may have a chance to actually go somewhere, not because they are "commercial" whatever that means, but because they are my best work.

At the same time I'm also trying to make a living at this thing, which means, instead of writing 3 plays a year, writing one and then trying to get into TV and film so I can use my skills to make art that more people will see and so I will someday have savings.

Scott Walters said...

*suddenly the wind starts blowing, clouds scuttling across the horizon at breakneck speed. A HUGE crash of thunder and then:*

Hi, it's me. Your worst nightmare. Bwahahaha.

I'll not speak for Don. NOBODY dast speak for Don. But the point I was agreeing with was in the first paragraph: "I'm not saying that the mere presence of money mucks things up. It's when the primary motivation for the creation of the art is to make money. That's when that slippery slope that leads to rampant mediocrity and shallow horseshit theater gets all slidey."

So let's be clear: I'm all for artists making money. I'm just not for artists making the making of money the primary motivation.

That said, I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that we have made the arts a commodity -- a "product" that is "sold." I don't think it's working for us anymore. I think it has turned us into the minor leagues for the movies.

I think what needs to happen is a change in the relationship between the artist and society, one that would make the arts more of a gift than a commodity. Like in the old days of patrons, I think that artists themselves should be supported directly, rather than supporting them indirectly through buying their work. I want there to be a one-on-one relationship between artist and community.

Is that The Way It Is Now? Of course not. But part of the reason why I am focusing on the arts in smaller and rural communities is that the commodity relationship is not so strongly ingrained as it is in the metropolitan areas. There is still a chance of change.

Like you, I think the Talent Myth is BS. But I'd go even further: I am less interested in the virtuoso specialist than in the amateur (the lover of the arts) whose creative impulse was stolen by an artistic system that chooses a few Special People who do art and turns everyone else into customers who just buys what they do. I want the arts to return to Ellen Dissanayake's idea of "making special."

That is why I mention in the post you link to about artists doing service work in the community. That is why I think artists ought to do something in addition to making art.

In other words, I'm pushing the reset button and trying to get back to the original defaults.

Unknown said...

First, Scott Walters is right. And said it without a lot of "fucks" and "cocksuckers" so that is commendable as well (I suppose...)

I'm not entirely sold on the patronage concept but it's a shitload better than the current model of "Theater as Widget."

Second, I agree that the Talent Myth is a load of crap.

Third, I agree that theater (and art in general) utilizes skill and craft - that isn't the same as it being a job (narrowly defined as a thing you do for money on a regular basis to feed yourself.) Commercial theater is, by it's very nature, designed with making money as its core priority - that's why it's called "commercial" and as I've said before (and I think you agree) one has to choose whether making art is the priority or making money is the priority. One HAS to take the second seat to the other, even if their very close. To pretend otherwise is silly and self delusional.

Fourth, while theater is not my job, it is my calling and because I have a degree in Education and a job in public radio, my theater is free to be inspired and focused rather than feel the push to create in order to eat. Because of that circumstance (and in tandem with the fact that I have been a full-time Equity actor AND a 'starving artist' as well) I have nothing but freedom and joy that comes from my artistic life.

Fourth -

art is a job

If you don't treat it seriously as if it is a job and not a hobby, if you don't throw yourself in 100 percent, you will never make great art.

Those are two very different ideas. They do not necessarily link or equate each other. Treating art seriously is not the same as art being a job.

That wasn't so bad, was it?

99 said...

That wasn't so bad at all. And good points all the way around. I do think we're largely circling around the same ideas and just approaching it from slightly different angles.

I definitely agree that theatre artists have to re-evaluate their relationship between the audience and themselves, but I also come at it from a place of change from within and without. If that means having to speak a little of the "commodity" lingo, fine. We can't all be the rebels out in the hills.

My one quibble for Scott is about art as a gift. That's definitely one of those things that dings in my ear. Service, sure. But for me, the idea of giving a gift gets people thinking that the audience should be grateful for it. There might be the beginning of the trouble for me.

Scott Walters said...

Why shouldn't the audience be grateful, if the gift is given generously and with them in mind. I have a feeling I'm missing the point...

99 said...

It's the notion of a one-way transaction that sticks in my craw. I see where you're coming from, and what you say about making it with them in mind is good, but I think it can lead to the idea of this gift is what you "need" as opposed to what you want. Someone comes in a store and wants a chair, you sell them a good chair, and then expect them to be grateful for you fulfilling their need. I think we need to remember that we're grateful, too.

Scott Walters said...

I couldn't agree more. Gifts circulate. However, your analogy of the chairs is still within the commodity economy. I believe in a "flat" relationship between art-maker and community. I'm not much interested in art as a specialist activity.

99 said...

This may be the crux of our disagreement here: I don't think that "artist" is a specialist, but I do think that we produce something, something that has a value and that we should act accordingly and be treated accordingly. That, for me, doesn't cheapen the work (unless the artist cheapens the work). And it may be part of the commodity economy, but that's because...that's what we have. We have a commodity society. And that may change, we can work to change it, but, in the end, I think that we have to also be honest about that being where we are. The ideal relationship may be flat, but the current one is not. Shouldn't we deal with what we have, while working toward what we want?

Scott Walters said...

No. The more we figure out how to "deal with what we have," the more we reinforce the status quo. It is possible to just say no, step outside, and do something else.

Unknown said...

Shouldn't we deal with what we have, while working toward what we want?

For my money, that's simply playing the fence (which is the only way to go in politics but not individually and certainly not when it comes to art.)

As you stated in the initial post, this is ultimately about making choices.

You either choose to embrace the current paradigm or you choose to reject its basic tenets and forge another alternative.

Pragmatically, how do you propose we deal with what we have while still working to change what we have?

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