“…I understand what is important about our work – it isn’t fame, it isn’t glory, it’s simply the capacity to endure. To bear your cross, and, have faith. I have faith, and it doesn’t hurt so much – when I think of my profession, I’m no longer afraid of life.”
-Nina in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull
I know what I want to say and I immediately want to contradict it. Like the side effect warnings in a drug commercial I want to describe the scene of my experience with a more global, socioeconomic awareness to discredit my extreme proclamations of the artist as hero, the artist as tortured. So I will impart my impression as maker/dreamer in Richmond, VA, USA with a fat asterisk and warn you to read all legal “howevers” to decide if this truth, is right for you.
For a person in my position, for the the endurance of my heart, I practice fighting almost every day. I wont tell you, reader, what styles I practice because you never know when I will need to fight you and I don’t want you to be prepared. Nevertheless know I am versed in boxing, grappling, some internal conditioning, and weapons training. I started training in 2013 when I realized, working in a downtown bar, there could be 20 minutes before the cops showed up and I may need to defend myself or others from bigger, less humane bar patrons. I’ve left that dramatic bar scene but continue to fight train to improve, to meditate on my body and my strengths; to discover new weaknesses and to work on them.
I continue because to fight is always unpredictable; but the path to success very linear. Train hard, observe your enemy’s strengths and habits, know your self and you will succeed in not being pummeled. Conventional schools and jobs are similar. Study/work correctly to yield the results you need to live.
“I gotta tell you, the life of the mind…There’s no roadmap for that territory… And exploring it can be painful”
-Barton from Barton Fink
Creative work has no linear neatness. It is isolating. You need personal space and time to practice your techniques; and without supportive patronage you are both materially and emotionally alone. Making things you hope someone will want, not knowing how to get published, show in the gallery, play those good shows.
So you make things; and for me there is still this mysterious period where you drink cocktails with agents and elite and they mostly love it or hate it; more often roundly rejecting your “stuff” for reason you may or may not be told.
So you go back alone. Asking God, or the Muses to float the next good concept to you to begin again in evolving techniques and pray this one will birth your career. That one day you will be a household name at those smiling cocktail parties on the lips of strangers. But do those comfortable people seem happier, or are creatives always doubting their next step, always scribbling down ideas that feel like roulette spins to be a smash?
When I attempt to make an illustration of what it is to make art for consumption and purchase: I see a smokey jazz lounge with affluent crowds on dates at candlelit tables. I onstage silently sketching pictures and holding them up. People either clap or don’t, for reasons I don’t understand. Some give me money, and give me reasons other than liking the work for why they bought it. Some people steal the pictures and leave through the side door and I’m so busy working I can’t stop them. And they may kick me offstage any minute and everyone helpfully yells suggestions on what I could do to be better.
American culture prides itself on our “self made” people. It does not naturally support the arts or higher education of others. It romanticizes the struggle of those that “came up” from nothing but had the strength, talent, and vision to push their way to a top. Why is this a point of pride? When history describes the Renaissance as being the boldest time of art, science, and culture-making. Forging ahead for mankind; integral to culture’s success was a structure of benefactors, countries, and really general citizenry nurturing creative dreams as making life better; why is there a pride in being willfully culture-less?
To read Nina’s words in The Seagull bolstered my confidence; feeling a kinship to her in what I experience in art making. Alone and uncertain. Judged and simultaneously not cared about. ***
***Asterisk Time. Time for side effects of these feelings and their hyperbolic symptoms.
Chekhov is an amazing playwright. His characters are tragically narcissistic: rarely listening to each other and torturing themselves for what they can’t have. Chekhov’s main characters are usually from the Russian upper-class. Their relative awareness of life in their caste makes them dismally unhappy with hiccups in dinner, gardens, fashion. As all physical needs are met they can whine and moan: “poor me, no one understands my writing.”
Chekhov reminds us of our relative suffering by including dialogue from the servants: who interject to remind the main characters of appointments, prepare food, move furniture around for the next scene. One side effect of being creative is that your emotional reality may eclipse actual reality; which scores of people are working hard to maintain and provide.
I pray that if wealth should ever smile on me; that I remain of one humankind with the “best” people and the “lowest” people. I ask that I never forget the great cosmic causality that makes one of us Beyonce and one of us the guy that picks up Beyonce’s dog’s shit and we all deserve good food, warm homes, and love.
As to where I have been born: I must remember that while a fair amount of people may never care about what I make or feel, these same people will not imprison or kill me if they do not like what I say. I am grateful to know I could make the most hideous terrible things and will not conceivably die for it.
Thank you Founding Fathers, thank you Frank Zappa vs the FCC. The you anarchist confrontationists who draw clear lines of what individual liberties are in surprising minute yet profound ways. Even thank you to someone like Howard Stern, though you make men look like hormone dripping sleaze monsters. Your recent large scale fight to say whatever you want reminds us that freedom of speech, like democracy, is a constant fight.
Now this feels exactly like a drug commercial. An identified problem with a potential solution, convoluted by business interests and focus groups that may have terrible results. Rectal bleeding, compulsive gambling, or sensitivity to light. Do not be an artist while operating heavy machinery or eating grapefruit or you may make large conceptual pieces no one will buy or cut your own ear off. That will be a $20 Patreon copay, please.