I spent a good part of yesterday on the lonely and painstaking labor of re-vamping my novel. To decompress, I watched Mike Birbiglia’s new-ish film, “Don’t Think Twice”. The story centers around a tight-knit group of actors in a long-running Improv troupe called The Commune. They have a small but steady audience and seem to have built up a solid reputation. But when the ambitious, charismatic Jack gets plucked from the troupe to star in “This Weekend Live”, a Saturday Night Live-esque variety show, the group is thrown into turmoil. Seething professional jealousies are brought to the surface, and the actors are left to question their own artistic ambitions and life paths.
Interestingly, both Jack and his girlfriend Samantha are chosen to audition for the fame-making “This Weekend Live”, but Samantha never shows up for the audition. At first it’s difficult to understand why she blows this once-in-a-lifetime shot at fame, but later in film, it’s revealed that she simply doesn’t want it. She loves The Commune. She loves her troupe-mates. She’s happy performing for a small audience in a cozy venue. She doesn’t have any ambitions to become famous, or to fight for air time, or to compete in the cut-throat environment of “This Weekend Live”. As counter-intuitive as it is, I understood her decision. Why is what she chooses any less valuable artistically than Jack’s path? In fact, I would argue that in some ways, it’s more valuable, because Samantha retains her independence, while Jack quickly finds himself trapped in the corporate machinery of a big T.V. show.
Our society has a weird relationship with its artists. I’m not talking about big musical entertainers, famous movie stars, or that ilk. I’m talking about the working artists who quietly go about their business—the painters, actors, writers, illustrators, poets and sculptors who attend to their craft year after year, often around full-time jobs and other responsibilities. I’m also talking about the venues that support them--the scrappy community theaters, the hole-in-the-wall galleries that are barely keeping their heads above water, and the small publishers who are willing to take risks on unknown writers. None of these artists are likely to rise to fame, and they are certainly not going to get rich off of their work. But they carry on because they are deeply, passionately committed to the work that fulfills them.
Our culture does not trust or understand these artists. We diminish them, belittle them and even mock them on a regular basis. We tell them that they are childish, that they are wasting their time, and that if they’re not famous and wealthy, they’re obviously not talented. We shut them down, scorn their voices, and look upon them as freaks and outcasts. We openly wonder why they don’t move to L.A. where the “real” artists are. We claim to value the presence of artists in our cities, but at the same time we make sure that artists can’t afford to live in them. We claim to value the arts in education, but arts funding is always the first to get cut. We claim to love live theater, but aren’t willing to shell out money for tickets. And to bring it to a more local level, as much as Seattle loves to wrap itself in the vainglorious notion that we value art, no one in Seattle actually buys any of it.
It takes a huge amount of commitment and passion to continue these pursuits in a culture that only values art if it “rises” to the level of entertainment, or if an artist has been deemed to have “made it.” The rest of us are left to labor on in lonely exile and savor every tiny success that comes our way. And labor on we will, because that’s how the vast majority of artists do their art. Most of us will never “make it”, but we keep at it anyway, because we aren’t doing what we do for fame or money, which is anathema in America. We push on because we love and believe in our work. So if you’re out there right now, laboring away and doubting yourself, just know that you’re not alone. Your passion matters, and your work matters. Keep going. The world needs your voice.