Friday, July 27, 2012

The Price of Inequality

It's almost the end of July! August is shaping up to be one hell of a busy month, and one that I hope will be life changing in many ways.  My play, Under the Desert opens on August 17th at The Elephant Theatre in Los Angeles, and the band that I've put together, Out on Bail plays at Yucca Tap Room on August 26th. This week, the Embassy Suites hired me back to play five nights a week, and I was finally able to get my license plate sticker. So, it will be a busy, busy time for me, and hopefully, I'll be able to turn each opportunity into another one. Although I went through a rough patch of despair a couple of weeks ago, it didn't last long and thanks to my small support team, I was able to talk my way through it. This was the first summer in many years that I haven't been in Utah doing my festival thang, I think that was part of the despair. Despair is a strange feeling to have, because it's emotional rather than intellectual. In your mind you know things are okay and will pick up, but emotionally, that knowledge just doesn't matter. There are triggers with despair that are often unforeseen, even though as you are going through it if you are attempting to be insightful, you can identify what caused it.

For example, I watched the episode of Jon Stewart the other night, the one with Joseph Stiglitz discussing his new book,  The Price of Inequality. His thesis in the book is that inequality amongst the general population has spun America in just the opposite of achieving the American Dream. Class mobility is stagnant, and more than any time in recent history, where you come from and the wealth of your parents and family, (or lack of) will determine the direction and success of your life. I've often thought that, especially in the last several years, that if I had capital I could turn it into something very successful, but with a lack of support from those with real business skills and knowledge of marketing, I seem to be able to achieve success only in a critical sense. So, I keep garnering attention and astonishment in my field, but lack the skill to turn it into something sustaining. This also happens I think in families without a father, or in my case, a mother who was also a writer and artist with no real ambition to make money. As a result, it's reduced me to sometimes what I feel is a small time art hustler, with visions that are obtainable but I have limited practical skills to capitalize on the critical merit I receive from them. I was talking to Kurt yesterday, (a friend of mine who I've collaborated with for twenty years) and it occurred to us that out of the ten or so projects that we have done together, we have never critically failed. When I say critically, I'm talking about this process:  You declare yourself and artist. You take risks and forego a general path to create something original. You spent your youth and energy to become a master at your chosen art form. You attempt to garner the attention of the press, by which your work is given some form of validity. You take this validity and establish some sort of name for yourself, thus enabling you to keep creating, thus becoming successful. (This is the standard capital model). I was explaining to Kurt that in these projects, (most of them theatre), in NYC, in LA, and here in Phoenix we have always caught the attention of the press and have always been given stellar reviews. (I have a large handful of these), but as I was explaining to him, "Here we have done this in one of the hardest artistic professions to achieve success in, and yet, we seem unable to monetize these successes into something sustainable. So, what do we do?" We find the next small obtainable thing that enables us to eat. For years, Kurt and I have always kept in the moment, believing that each project or critical success we obtain will throw us over the top.

What you find, however, is that although you can build a support system amongst an artistic community, the amount of support you obtain from the general public (which sometimes include family) is contingent on the amount of success you have had lately, and, did it make you a living? This is the cruel reality of the profession. What is difficult to realize, (especially from the general public) is that LIFE is also happening. And as you age, energy is declining, health issues arise, and that feeling, that many of us feel as artists, have I spent all these years chasing after strange vanity? The irony is that while many of these life doubts are happening, if you are still working you are better at what you do than you ever were. And, even if vanity has not been your motive, the general public often sees it that way, for the universal audience can usually take art or leave art. (However, if you took it away, trust me, they would notice).

What I have noticed as I have pursued this life for most of my adult life, is that the order of support is: "We will support you if you are having some success, but we will punish you if you are not." And we will punish you because we have to work for what we have. Some will understand that what you do is work, (thank God for those) but many will not.

Reiterating the thesis of Joseph Stiglitz, and his Price of Inequality, for an artist, there is also the paradox that great artists have, to achieve against great odds, and that achieving any America Dream have elements of these odds in any profession, however, there are also those who have created great art without such a monumental struggle,  at least not financially. Can you imagine the staggering odds imposed on the artist if he is twenty dollars from being homeless and has to contend with great swaths of self-destruction as well?  I have realized that I have created a great fantasy in believing that I at least came from a place where their was great support for the artist, and, I think I created that fantasy myself. It's unfortunate, because at this stage in my life, unraveling that fantasy of support can become a bane of bitterness, which I've always believed was the enemy of art. I actually come from a very impatient lot, who believe that contributing a hundred dollars is a shameful act, and can you imagine how one is made to feel on the receiving end? And, if you feel no shame, we will still make you feel it. I realize that some of this rhetoric is esoteric, that every family is different, and that the support system is varied. I had a very long run with my family in terms of artistic support, (at least there was some excitement for many years, that I gave) until I ran into a swath of self-destruction which honestly? I had no control of. Now that I'm feeling better, I can also see it all a little better. Do I love these people? Yes, I do, for blood, connection and history run very deep. However, I will never trust the fantasy of support I created ever again. That, is a sorrowful act, but it is the only contrition that I can lend, for to take it further and make it all my responsibility I simply cannot do.

I remember teaching school, (an arts school) and seeing the horror on some parents faces when the declaration was made that their child wanted to pursue acting or painting as their lifetime pursuit. Although I would remind them that they were sending their child to an art school, for most, (even the ones who were artists themselves), it was not a great day in the household. And, granted, I always loved the school I taught at because of this very thing, that high school was a place where lofty dreams could be sought for months at a time, and could actually be practiced!  It was a wonderful time for myself as well, because I was getting paid to teach and create art at the same time. It was easy to teach that it could be done. (That was a great ten years). And sometimes, I think, that I wasn't thinking when I left that situation to create on a full time basis. I was getting older, however, and it was getting to the point where I could no longer put the energy into both professions, I had to pick one. Did I pick the right one? I think that I did, but the transition has been brutal. However, if you have had just one profession all of your life and was paid for it, its very difficult for you to understand what it must be like to be in a transformative place in your life, and one that has selected art to be the bread winner. I have to look at progress rather than perfection. It is a process, I remind myself of this when I go into a lounge and sing songs.

As for the students that I encouraged, that pursuing art as your lifetime work will be very difficult but rewarding for these last few years I put the accent on very difficult. The odds are very much against you, and sadly, your family and the general population will make it difficult as well, because they have made it into a vanity that is sometime void of substance.

So, The Price of Inequality? The price of inequality can be a real deal breaker. Unless you have the good fortune to be born with an unbreakable narcissistic appetite with a trust fund, or a family that will support you through very difficult times, if you choose to become an artist you are bound to fail over and over again. Is there an upside to failure? Of course there is, haven't you read the anecdotal story of the failure of Abraham Lincoln? Have you not read the story of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh? In my own family, I still believe that they have the capacity to re-visit history and find the inequality of reason and born stature, but I'm not so sure that our value system is anyway near in the same place anymore, and many in my family have lost the power of imagination.  In our society, there is a certain criteria that must be met as we reach the different stages of our lives. The paradox is that as we age, we are encouraged to be more comfortable, but the truth is, true comfort doesn't really exist. From time to time we are encouraged to find the child within us again, but no one really means that… when you get old, you are expected to act a certain way. I do believe, (and have to keep believing) that youth is a state of mind, and damn if you will take my imagination away from me… I would rather die than give up on my dreams. If you can't support them, however, that will have to be okay.

1 comment:

Gerry said...

I saw that Jon Stewart show with the writer of 'The Price of Inequality.' I don't know what to say except I think there is compensation in trying to do the right thing and combining effort to achieve artistic success together, and then being satisfied with how it turns out. Some seem to be very fortunate in how they are favored in life. But I think there is such a thing as divine justice, like if the odds don't favor you in this life, if great effort is made there will still be reward. I knew I was very unlikely to be able to make money with increasing disability, so I decided to find a way to be content with this slow progress and make the best of it. But the hardest work you have to do sometimes is not envying people close by who do much better for all kinds of reasons. It is hard to accept your own lot in life and have faith things will work out so you feel everything turned out all right.