Monday, July 16, 2007

Art & Materialism 1

My friend and fellow musician John Edmonds once asked the questions:

The devil's advocate says: Who do you artists think you are? Who told you that your products and efforts are worth money? After all, the market says otherwise. Anyone who is trying to sell anything is part of the capitalist machine. This machine is driven by supply, demand and competition. All of these things are in constant flux. What held value yesterday may not hold value today. There is no guarantee. Values change. Furthermore, what is more American than trying to get the best deal? Especially when the best deal is free? The market today says the best music is free music, so why are you artists complaining? Like it or lump it. If you want to make money selling something, sell something that people will pay for.

There is enough truth in this devil's advocate position that it deserves consideration. The truth is this: the above comments stand as a neat summary of the economic model for making art. Art as commodity. Art-object as sellable object (like everything else, including one's soul—although I only rent mine out anymore). Music as having no other personal or social function than as marketable entertainment. Poetry as something that bolsters sales of books. Books that are required to sell. CDs that are supposed to generate a profitable income for the record company and, as an afterthought, the artist.

This position represents the ultimate victory of the capitalist mindset: it's hardly questioned anymore, to the point that a desire to make art is always called into question by one's family and tribe as "no good way to make a living." We need our artists, but we relegate them to career misery by refusing to support them in their careers. We say we love the art they make, but we don't love their art-making as a respectable job or occupation. Somehow, the blue-collar factory-worker, that slave to the Puritan work ethic, always seems more genuine. As if art was always a luxury for leisure time, always a frill, an add-on, not really necessary—despite decades of psychological inquiry supporting the proposition that making art is good for one's overall mental health. When public school funding comes under fire, the arts programs always get cut before the sports programs do. Always.

But music, art, poetry, etc., have always been free. They have always been a birthright. The act of creation is where we touch the Divine spark in ourselves and the Universe. (In creation-centered theology, "imago Dei" means image of God, "made in the likeness of God," in the sense that we all participate in Creation as co-creators.) Some artists and musicians will always give-away everything they produce, because the reason they produce it has nothing to do with economics. You don't have to go to school and pay tuition to learn to become creative. (If you believe you do, then congratulations, you have accepted the social brainwashing that the academy wanted you to accept.) Creativity is your birthright. What you do with it—that is up to you. This involves taking on personal responsibility for our actions, a point often overlooked in the rush to economize our art.

The underlying assumption is that we all make art-objects, be they albums, poems, paintings, dance performances, whatever, in order to make a living from making art. Ignoring the tautological circularity of that argument, and with no disrespect intended towards the "arts professionals" among us—I am one myself, at least sometimes—there are many motivations for making art, or writing a poem, or releasing a recording of one's music, only some of which are economc. A simple motivation common to all of us is, Hey, look what I did!—the semi-altruistic, semi-egoistic desire to share. Having made a CD or a poem, of course one desires to have some control over how it is distributed, marketed; and one also desires to reap the rewards of the hard work of marketing. This tends to make one into a professional, which may or may not be a good thing. A professional artist is someone who makes their living from their art. (John Cage once said, humourously, Of course I am willing to prostitute my art, as long as anyone is willing to pay for it.) Perhaps we all need to remain amateurs, in our minds if not in our wallets, to preserve the mindset of sharing over the mindset of gimme. Even peer-to-peer Internet MP3 file-sharing is not always about greed, as the music industry would have you believe. Assuming it is always about greed is the same thing as assuming that all art is made for a profit: it is to assume that the profit motive is the only motive for making art. This is, as stated above, a purely economic model for creativity. Economic concerns certainly can be part of the creative process, but they have never been all of it, always. Such sweeping generalizations about the average ex-Napster downloader's motivations may serve for legalizing and moralizing rhetoric, but they rarely encompass the complete reality of intent.

Whenever this economic argument cycles around again, I sometimes feel like the fish who discovered water, which everyone else ignores. I think the issue itself has bought into the underlying assumptions about the value of making music that the devil's advocate position above has so aptly stated: namely, that the artist has no place in society except as a saleable "content provider." Perhaps the real reason to make music is simply to make music; the rest of it follows in its wake, but is not its engine.

I urge anyone who is interested in the complexities of artistic motivation to find a copy of Thomas Merton's book Disputed Questions, and read his long essay in that collection The Pasternak Affair. This essay is about the relationship between persons and social organizations. In pithy and often pointed prose, Merton points out the pitfalls of both totalitarianism and late-modern capitalism on the making of art; perhaps we need to resist both.

Perhaps none of what we do as musicians and artists are worth money. Rather than lamenting your inability to make a stable career as an artist, have you considered how freeing that might be? With no economic pressure on one to make income from one's creativity, one's creativity is perhaps free to roam where it will, discover what it does, and be beholden to no one. Any income made from artistic products after they are "fixed" in spacetime via the processes of recording, completion, or simple abandonment, is then gravy. The anxiety of income from one's art creates pressures that can kill the art. Of course I'd like to make income from the sales of my CDs and my visual artwork and writings—but I never expected it to pay my rent, and so far it never has. I've always looked elsewhere for that. Reading Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks on this topic is illuminating; in more than one place he complains bitterly of the hours wasted on what is essentially fundraising, rather than on the generation of ideas and art. This dilemma obviously still exists, for artists who currently live in a social organization driven by economic considerations. (It's called "the bottom line" for good reason, as it is the foundation assumption that our social organizations are built upon.) Even in Leonardo's time, patronage by a wealthy duke or prince was no certain source of stable income.

Perhaps the truth of the "gimme free music" situation we find ourselves in is not that anyone wants to rip off the musicians (content providers) but that everyone already knows that the established economic model (as embodied in the RIAA-protected music-distribution and sales industry) is already dead and past. Perhaps what we are really seeing is a protest movement against the record companies who rip off both consumer and artist alike; that little fish (indie musicians with their self-made CDs) get caught in this fray is an unfortunate side-effect, as the real target is the Big Five. Perhaps what we are truly witnessing here is the transitional turbulence phase between paradigms, with no clear idea what the new paradigm will become.

The devil's advocate continues: I've often realized this about what I do; music is not necessary for survival. Some might argue it's necessary for a well balanced existence, but it's not needed just to live in the way food and water are. And even if it "is" needed for a pleasant existence, commercial music certainly is not.

Neither is poetry, or any other artistic product. Neither is making art, or music.

On the other hand, I would be one of those who would argue that making art is necessary for life, because quality of life means more than mere survival. But here is that clash of paradigms in a nutshell: the mere statement that "music is not necessary for survival" comes from the economic/consumer/product-oriented paradigm. Which of course is the only one we got, right?

Except, of course, that we, in this extant post-modern post-Judeo-Christian post-scientific-rationalist Euro-Amerian (Western) culture, are the only culture who has ever believed this, or put it into regular practice. (In Bali, for example, everyone is an artist. Everyone makes art, whether that be sculpture, gamelan, or flower-arranging, or whatever. Everyone. In fact, until Western artists, Walter Spies at the forefront, came to live in Bali in the 1930s, there was no common word in the Balinese language for "art"—meaning, art objects, referring to the products of the creative process as we do in the West.) Nor has the West always believed this about the products of art. We have only had this belief since, you guessed it, the Enlightenment era, 300 or so years ago, which coincided with the rise of the economic models of mercantilism and capitalism. Prior to that, even during the Renaissance, even the basest peasant would have said that going to the cathedral to look at the beautiful stained glass, and the stories displayed therein, was an uplifting experience essential to life.

But since we live in this culture that is currently driven by late-modern capitalism, this is the unfortunate reality that we have to deal with. I am reminded of a common tactic undertaken by many teachers of music, art, and poetry, one I have used myself with my own students: the attempt to dissuade the budding musician from choosing this very difficult and often unrewarding career. More than once have I heard in my life, and have repeated it myself: "If you don't have to write, don't. If it isn't as necessary to you as breathing, then don't do it. If you don't lie awake at night thinking about poetry, don't write it." This imparted wisdom usually comes from a place of repeated experience of the frustration of trying to survive as an artist in this culture that does not support the arts. So, if you can live without it, be good to yourself, and take an easier path. To the extent that making art is viewed as a specialized "job" or career, rather than a divine process available to all as a birthright; to the extent that artworks (the products of the creative process) are commodifed: to this extent, it will remain a difficult life-path.

But again, this is thinking from within the consumer/economic paradigm. Such thinking always assumes a lack. Consumerist ad-marketing is designed to appeal to lack, to make the consumer feel like they're missing something, and that the product being offered will fill that void. Of course, you can never fill that void, or there would be no need to buy anything; so, we have to create new lacks (new voids) all the time, in order to push the market.

An example: Look at the disturbing and blatant advertising rhetoric that spilled out from the US car companies after 9/11: be a good American, buy a new SUV. The underlying message was that consumerism is The American Way, and the way to get over our emotional pain over the World Trade Center falling was to spend, spend, spend, and boost our economy. I was astounded at how blatantly this was repeated in the media, even on the local news!, and not one commentator ever questioned its inherent absurdity. It was a stunning display of consensual agitprop. (Of course, the attack on the WTC was a brilliantly Symbolic attack, and an effective one, because it got us where it could us most: in our economy.)

The truth is, though, that the increasing decentralization of the technology of musical recording and production will force a paradigm shift in music sales of some kind, eventually, whether the RIAA wants it or not. The RIAA would be wise to pursue a policy of figuring out how to best use the new means of distribution, rather than keep fighting to preserve their priveleged leverage of the old means of selling music recordings.

In fact, one of the mixed blessings of the new computer technology, with regard to desktop publishing and the Internet, is that it now so easy to put the technology of production into the hands of the masses, that literally anyone can publish a book, or a CD, a website, a poem, a magazine, a photograph, and muc more. This is the root of egalitarian democracy, and is perceived as a blessing by many—and it will, I believe, be the source of whatever music distribution paradigm eventually replaces the RIAA and its ilk. However, it also means that anybody can publish anything—so most of what gets published nowadays is dreck. The plus side of internet website sales is that the artist and buyer have a more direct personal connection, and there's a lot available to fulfill any taste.

For myself, though, It is true: I am not sure what else I can or could do but to make art, make music, write. I'm not sure I'm suited for anything else, struggle as I might. I've worked a lot in the corporate world, but after several years of marginal self-employment, I'm not at all sure I could go back to the corporate realm, should a position magically materialize.

The question is then asked: So why have professional musicians in a society at all if indeed what we do doesn't deserve a price tag? Because generally speaking a professional anything will be better at their craft than a hobbyist will be and anyone who chooses to can enjoy the results of their labors.

Yes, but this does not give the professional any advantage over the amateur. In many instances, the professional musician spends as much time each day doing non-musical activities to promote one's career, such as self-marketing, etc., as does the non-pro-musician spend each day at the office. In some cases, amateurs are just as practiced and well-crafted as any profesional, and invest the same amount of time in their craft.

So for my part, I continue to pursue my creative work as much as I can, and keep hoping the world will continue to support me in my needs and desires.

In the past couple of years, I've given up a great deal of professional certainty, in order to follow my bliss, and then to care for my aging and ailing parents; I even moved back home to be my father's primary caregiver during the last year of his life. One of the most important lessons I have learned from this extended, difficult period in life, is how to live with uncertainty. I have no idea what's going to happen from week to week, or even day to day. I discover I am often okay with that; the "worst" has happened more than once already, and I survived, so it no longer scares me the way it used to. Perseverance has become the art of getting through the day uncrushed by whatever I have had to deal with. I find that hope, as it's traditionally formulated, is not helpful to me, because hope is too bound up with fear. Hopelessness, being detached from desired outcomes, has become a source of liberation. Uncertainty, not having any solid ground to stand on, is the way to learn how to keep your balance throughout any change that comes.

Another musician says: I think it is because musical performance builds community, and community support is what the striking workers need. Live music is egalitarian, or can be; it crosses race and class boundaries, or can.

Community, or its lack, lies somewhere near the root of the original question about whether or not music is necessary to life. (If we don't like the word "necessary," if it seems too absolute, we could substitute "useful.")

One of the things that the economic paradigm promotes, and contains as an underlying assumption that may be hard for some to see past, is the idea that all persons are individuals; further, individuals are assumed to act primarily out of self-interest. Economic theory in capitalism since Adam Smith has been based on that assumption; sidelining such things as altruism as unnecessary to economic health, most of capitalist economic theory has been founded on the ideal of the self-serving individual standing apart from the tribe and competing his way to the top. This has become such a creation myth in Western culture after 300 years that we take it for granted; remember, in the academic field of folklore and mythology, it is a truism that myths are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our assumptions about the nature of reality become part of our creation myths.

So where is community in all this? Relegated to the sidelines, along with altruism, music, etc. The economic mindset prefers to ignore things such as church-based charities, because they present a viable alternative. Such alternative economic paradigms call the very foundation assumptions of competitive capitalism into question, because they demonstrate that not all persons are self-serving individuals. Thus, since an individual has no responsibility to the community, we get situations like the Enron scandal and all its cousins: self-serving individualism at its extreme.

Thomas Merton, writing in 1960, in the Preface to Disputed Questions, had this to say about community, persons, and individuals:

The problem of the person and the social organization is certainly one of the most important, if not the most important problem of our century. Every ethical problem of our day—especially the problem of war—is to be traced back to this root question. We meet it everywhere, but since we tend to be more and more "organization men" (in the west) or "new-mass-men" (in the east) we are getting so conditioned that we fail to see that it is a problem. . . .

"When I say that I am concerned with the person, I do not mean that I am interested primarily in the individual. There is a great difference. Individualism is nothing but the social atomism that has led to our present inertia, passivism and social decay. Yet it is individualism which has really been the apparent ideal of our western society for the past two or three hundred years. This individualism, primarily an economic concept with a pseudospiritual and moral facade, is in fact mere irresponsibility. It is, and has always been not an affirmation of genuine human values but a flight from the obligations from which these values are inseparable. And first of all a flight from the obligation to love. . . . The individual, in fact, is nothing but a negation: he is "not someone else." He is not everybody, he is not the other individual. He is a unit divided off from the other units. His freedom may not seem like an illusion, when he is surrounded by the social mirage of comfort and ample opportunity. But as soon as the structure of his society begins to collapse, the individual collapses with it and he who seemed to be a person soon becomes nothing but a number. Yet he is still an "individual." Hence it is clear that mass society is constructed out of disconnected individuals—out of empty and alienated human beings who have lost their center and extinguished their own inner light in order to depend in abject passivity upon the mass in which they cohere without affectivity or intelligent purpose.

"The vocation of the person is to construct his own solitude . . . for a valid encounter with other persons, for intelligent cooperation and for communion in love. From this cooperation and communion—which is anything but the ludicrous pantomime called "togetherness"—there grows the structure of a living, fruitful and genuinely human society.
(pp. ix-xi)

Music is a totally "useless" activity that makes us more human—that makes us persons in communion.

Perhaps that's enough of a justification for msuic's existence. As if we must justify it at all.

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