Sunday, December 4, 2016

In Which The Good Typist Gets on Her High Horse About the Crap Treatment of Artists in This Society

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.

--Kristen McHenry 


Carolyn said...

Interesting, Kristen. I hear you!

I don't know about society at large, but I, for one, don't trust artists who are "in it for the money." And neither do many of my artist peers, calling any artist who can actually make a living at what they're doing a "sell out" or "commercial."

I think society is in love with the idea of the starving artist. I think many starving artists are in love with the idea of being a starving artist. The reality being what it is, most artists do their artistic work on the side and keep their day jobs, as well as attend the mundane tasks of maintaining their exercise regimen, changing the oil in their cars, raising a family, doing laundry, clipping coupons and planning their next trip to the SuperChunks Shop n Save.

As far as buying art, I don't understand why Seattleites are such tightwads. Certainly there's enough money floating around that town to buy it. Maybe there are too many artists per square foot? I know when I go to a shop I get freaked out if there is too much merchandise to choose from.

Is there an actual Seattle Artist's Guild? IF not, why not form one and make some demands from the City. All artists need a business-minded arts manager who has their back. So maybe the Guild could hire one? Maybe this has already happened, but if not, try it!

Kristen McHenry said...

Thanks for your comments, Carolyn! I think I am going to write a follow-up post on this soon. A lot of people have weighed in this via e-mail and Facebook with some really goods points, among them: Businesses charging artists fees to display and hang their work, "juried" shows with outlandish fees, writing contest entry fees, etc. And the expectation that artists are so desperate for exposure that they will just provide everything for free, and even go so far as to pay these fees. And artists are caving into this, so the cycle perpetuates. And the fact that there are, let's face it, a lot of bad, lazy artists out there who glut the system.And your point as well is very good, about the pervasive romantic myth of the starving artist. There's a lot to untangle here.

Jeannine Hall Gailey said...

I think a lot of money moves in art circles in Seattle, actually. You and I may not see it, but its happening. Roq La Rue (recently closed, much to my dismay) used to have fantastic crowded opening receptions, and almost every piece of its "Gothic Surrealist" art would sell - I mean, not just the 1-2 K pieces but the ones in the 8-12K range among them. The big galleries seem to do good business here, and of course local artists who tap into government and corporate money - sculptures, or large art works that hang in city halls or in MS buildings, for instance - can get huge paychecks, much bigger than one might expect. I still feel fortunate to have been paid - maybe a token amount for the amount of work, but still an amount - to have worked for Redmond as its Poet Laureate and I hope those kinds of programs proliferate, because they really do enrich local cultures. I know famous musicians who donate to local dance and choreo groups, that Paul Allen just keeps snagging houses and a bunch of art to go with them, that rich people here like to be seen at the right places - the symphony, or the opera.
The problem might be that MOST artists, actors, poets, etc just are beneath the radar for these big money things - and of course, yes, there's the problems of artists/writers/dancers who don't want to do the work to promote their art, or fear it sullies them, or some such.
Anyway, don't despair, the money is out there and there are plenty of people interested in supporting the arts in Seattle, Tacoma, the East side. I think a great community service would be served that linked people who want to give to organizations that help divvy up those funds to smaller, independent causes around the area and even into the poorer areas of Washington State, like the whole Eastern WA area.