Performing Artists, Kill Your Guilty Conscience

My amazing and talented wife Jessica recently did some voice work to help another actress prepare for a film, for which she was paid. She was told today, however, that the film project had been canceled. This, of course, happens sometimes, and it’s not has though Jess was going to be in the thing, so no harm, no foul for her.
But then she admitted to me that she felt a twinge of guilt for accepting payment for her work now that the film won’t actually go into production. When she said this to me, I think my eyes bugged out of my head, and I may have dropped whatever I was holding. Had I been sipping a beverage, I probably would have done a spit take over my laptop keyboard, necessitating a puppy-dog-eyed trip to the Genius Bar.

Guilty? For being paid for your work? I made the comparison to someone who might have built an object: If someone had constructed a set piece for the film, and the film was canceled, no one would think that the builder shouldn’t be paid. Work done is work done.

But somehow with artists, I think particularly performing artists, there is a feeling that what we do doesn’t really count as work, and that if we happen to get paid for it, it’s just icing. A happy coincidence.

Part of this is fueled by raw economics. The supply of performers (actors, singers, dancers, etc.) is far, far, far greater than the demand for them, which leads to performers doing ungodly amounts of work for nothing, and in many cases, actually paying to work in order to get “experience,” get “exposure,” and really, get “exploited.” (Say the word “showcase” to an actor and see if you can detect them dying inside.)

There’s also something about the evanescence of performance work, particularly live performance. You do it, and the work then flitters off into the ether, perhaps captured in recordings or memory, but now passed.

Finally, there’s the trope that’s related to the idea that one must “do what you love,” which can easily be misinterpreted as “since you love doing it, doing it is payment in itself.” Actors and other performers are made to feel that they are privileged just to be allowed to ply their craft at all, and that it is only a rarified few who should deign to feel entitled to compensation for it. It can feel to some as almost impolite to expect to be paid for performance-art work.

And I get it. I have been there. As someone who is usually drenched in self-loathing, I know what it is not to value one’s own labor. Adulthood and the oppression of debt and expenses has changed me a great deal, however, plus I’ve been out of the performing arts workforce for several years now. Raw necessity has hardened me somewhat when it comes to expecting fair compensation, even for work that I might do on my own time for nothing anyway. (Music, for example.)

Here’s the key difference: If I choose to do creative work on my own (and on my own terms) for no payment, all for me, that’s my decision. If you want me to do similar work for you, on your terms, you must pay me. The two are not related, but we sensitive artists types are primed to conflate them.

Back to Jess. Her work in this case was not even “performance” per se, but using her talents to help another performer with their vocal work. It was a kind of training. So it’s not even as though she got the chance to spread her creative wings and practice her craft at its fullest for the sheer joy of it. She did contract training work. And yet she still felt bad for accepting her compensation.

It makes me more than a little angry that our culture has been set up this way, so that my brilliantly talented and already overworked wife would feel bad for being paid for her services, done in her extremely scarce spare time. And it happens to all manner of creative professionals, not just performers but writers and designers too. Because it’s “creative,” it doesn’t count as real work.

Get paid. If you also happen to enjoy that work? That’s the icing. And it’s irrelevant. Get paid fairly for your work and treat it like the business transaction it is. Everyone else does.

Stretching Awake on the Rooftops of Tarbean

If you have ever slept the whole night without moving, then awoke in the morning, your body stiff with inaction. If you can remember how that first terrific stretch feels, pleasant and painful, then you may understand how my mind felt after all these years, stretching awake on the rooftops of Tarbean.

I spent the rest of that night opening the doors of my mind. Inside I found things long forgotten: my mother fitting words together for a song, diction for the stage, three recipes for tea to calm nerves and promote sleep, finger scales for the lute.

My music. Had it really been years since I held a lute?

Words by Patrick Rothfuss, art by Matt Rhodes

Straw Man Attacked by Manufacturer of Scarecrows! Or, Crimes against Humanities

No one is happier than I to see good takedowns of rhetorical straw men, particularly when those straw men are in the shape of folks whose non-straw brains are think are pretty admirable. So on the one hand, I’m pleased with Mark O’Connell’s review of Curtis White’s The Science Delusion, which appears to be a kind of polemic against “scientism.” O’Connell very rightly takes White to task for ad hominem attacks against those with whom he disagrees (for example, attacking Richard Feynman for attending strip clubs).

But the problem is that O’Connell only dislikes White’s approach because he wants to see a better, more substantive attack on “scientism,” a worldview, I have to say, I don’t even really believe exists. Here’s O’Connell:

There’s certainly a very real need to march on that citadel [of scientism], because the idea that there can be only one kind of truth has to be deeply damaging to the intellectual development of a culture. You don’t have to devalue empiricism to believe that there are kinds of understanding that can’t be accessed in a controlled, peer-reviewed experiment. The problem, obviously, isn’t science; it’s the arrogance with which many scientists, and popularizers of science, dismiss the value of other ways of thinking about questions of meaning, about the world and our place in it. Lehrer, say, wants us to believe that, because neurologists can demonstrate how Observable Phenomenon X was happening in Part Y of Bob Dylan’s brain when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone,” science can therefore “explain” the human capacity for creativity or imagination. This is like saying that the song itself is best appreciated by putting it on your stereo and then mapping the sound waves it creates. It doesn’t really tell us anything useful, or usefully true. But this is the kind of truth in which scientism, and the culture that accommodates it, puts most stock.

Is there anyone, I mean literally anyone who feels this way? Does anyone, Dawkins, et. al., included, really think that music and art and all of humanity’s numinous experiences are pointless if not understood merely as bits, atoms, and electrical currents?

Of course not. So why must we march on this citadel that is guarded by an army of zero? My marshal our forces to topple a citadel of cards?

Why would anyone, atheists in particular, fear a deeper scientific understanding of mind, of why we feel the way we feel, of what makes the numinous meaningful? Their significance is not diluted by having knowledge of their workings. As a professional actor, for example, I know the tricks, techniques, and artifice behind a work of theatre, and I know that it is a wet glob of meat encased in my skull, accepting electrical currents to process the performance’s stimuli, whose churnings encompass my experiencing of it. But these things in no way rob me of the appreciation of a wonderful show.

Why must we war on that which does not exist? Nonbelievers in particular should know better.

Oh, and as a side note, this made me roll my eyes. And as you witness me rotating my ocular orbs, remember that I am an artist, a humanist in the academic sense: an actor, a musician, a writer, etc. Okay, get ready:

I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life in the academic study of English literature and, for me, there is no more painful—and painfully obvious—proof of the intellectual hegemony of science than how the disciplines of the humanities have been forced to adopt a language of empiricism in order to talk about their own value. If you want to do a Ph.D. on, say, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, you will need to be able to talk about what you’re doing as though it were a kind of science. What you’re doing is “research,” and that research has to be pursued through the use of some or other “methodology.” In order to get funding for that research, you’ll need to establish how it will advance the existing body of knowledge on Bishop’s poetry, and how it will “impact” upon the wider public sphere. The study of the humanities, in other words, very often has to present itself as a kind of minor subsidiary of science.

Whoa, you’re saying that academic work about literature has to actually contribute something to existing thought? It must be at least somewhat novel? A crime of the highest order.

Music. Boy, I Don’t Know.

There are times (and these times grow ever more frequent) that I begin to worry about how little I know about contemporary music. I don’t just mean the crappy teeny bopper nonsense that, like some viruses, die as soon as they’re exposed to the air (although I partly mean that, as ignorance of them removes for me a common subject of derision). I’m mainly talking about quality stuff made in the past handful of years.

I’m not an old guy per se at 34, but I feel like my knowledge of new music essentially ended around the time the New Pornographers showed up. Just about every subsequent trend, fad, movement, or wave has since flown right by me.

On its own, this has not bothered me. I have so much to think about and do, that I don’t miss keeping up with popular music like I once did. In these recent years, I’ve been broadening my tastes to the more abstract (that last album I bought in full is the soundtrack to the movie Hanna by the Chemical Brothers), as I’ve begun to find the convention of verse-chorus-verse rock songs to be a kind of tired form (though it’s the form I still traffic in). I don’t mean to presume that this has just happened to the art form at this point in history, indeed I have to guess that many folks when they reach my age come to similar conclusions; that the music that might have moved them if they were 15 simply doesn’t mean as much. Somehow, it feels smaller, less, well, important.

Importance, or some sense of “meaningfulness” is probably the key for me. Life is so unbearably short, and there is so much music out there, that it can seem absurd and wasteful to chase after what might be happening in the music industry this very minute, especially when I don’t have any real understanding of jazz or Beethoven or what have you. What do I know about Eastern music forms? Opera? Almost nothing.

So, if in the sturm and drang of everyday life, with parenting, work, and all the rest, a) how can I be expected to give a damn about yet another edgy, acclaimed act or b) learn to appreciate the vast array of music forms that I’ve never been fully exposed to? I feel similarly about books: who cares what’s on the best seller list, when I haven’t read Dostoyevsky!

When I am asked if I am familiar with a current radio hit, I admit, I’m almost proud to say no. But that pride is laced with shame, shame that I’m not familiar with much else either.

The Tech Press and the Truth

I was rather angered by how the tech press handled the Mike Daisey affair. They seemed to me to be dancing with glee at the prospect of having their consciences somehow cleared because the man delivering the message of the treatment of workers at Foxconn had turned out to be something of a fabulist. Daisey certainly erred when he implied that his theatrical story was documentary truth. But the tech press was way too happy that Daisey had been caught fibbing about details, which of course allowed them to entirely forget what the whole point of Daisey’s crusade was to begin with.

I couldn’t quite see why they would be so blind to such an important distinction. Daisey’s mischaracterization of his theatrical play as journalism aside, surely the tech journos would understand that in the context of theatre, of storytelling, one relays a truth without necessarily telling The Whole Truth. That’s what art does. I found it hard to believe so many in the tech press couldn’t — or wouldn’t — understand this. (Let alone Ira Glass, but that’s another thing.)

Then today I read a piece at PandoDaily by Farhad Manjoo, whose work I normally very much enjoy and find refreshing for its clarity and boldness. Manjoo has decided, long before any dialogue has been written, that the Steve Jobs biopic by Aaron Sorkin will suck. He has pre-reviewed the nonexistent film, and found it to be offensive.

Manjoo first complains that one need only look to The Social Network to see how Sorkin apparently didn’t understand what Facebook really is (a “product” and not an “idea,” which I suppose is a fair point), and took too many liberties with relationships and portrayals.

I would presume that most of you would think, well, it’s just a movie. Let him take whatever liberty he wants! You’d think that, right?

But Manjoo truly opened my eyes to the blind spot of the tech press with this section (emphasis mine):

… Sorkin has said that he was glad Mark Zucker­berg didn’t coop­er­ate with The Social Net­work, because then he’d have to had to make the char­ac­ter more life­like: “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a cer­tain oblig­a­tion to make the char­ac­ter sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things,” he told New York mag­a­zine.

Sorkin also said: “I don’t want my fideli­ty to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” Seri­ous­ly. Sorkin actu­al­ly said that. He doesn’t care about the truth.

Hold on, this is supposed to be some kind of scoop? Is Manjoo really, seriously under the impression that he’s somehow nailed Sorkin as a fraud with this quote?

I’m appalled to think so, but it seems to be the case.

I’m almost embarrassed to have to spell this out, but perhaps it’s necessary. Movies, theatre, television, what have you; even when these things are produced with actual historical occurrences as their bases, their end goal will almost never, ever be to merely report the facts as they happened. Rather, the prime objective of artists will always be to make the best possible art, to tell the best possible story. Sometimes that will mean sticking closely to historical fact, sometimes it will mean veering sharply away from reality. But Sorkin is 100 percent correct. His fidelity is not, and should not be, to the “truth,” the facts, but to realizing something special with that particular work, a something from which its own truth emerges.

This is perhaps part of why the Daisey episode drove the tech press into a frenzy of schadenfreude. Not only were they free to use their iPhones without guilt, but they were also completely confused about what it means to tell a story versus reporting on an event. I admit it’s unfair to paint the entire tech press with this brush, but Manjoo’s piece is awfully revelatory and I think this is at least a pretty strong hypothesis.

That said, Mike Daisey did cross a line by implying his story was genuine reportage, but the truth of his play is not therefore diminished. And whatever Sorkin does with the story of Steve Jobs, it will rise or fall on its own merits. Not as a documentary about the man, but as a film with a script and actors to speak the lines.

The Food of Art

On last week’s Thinking Unenslaved podcast, we considered raising for discussion the topic of religion in the arts, and what might become of the arts if religion were not the force it is in our society and culture. We wound up not getting around to it, though I expect we probably will. Regardless, I had written up a few paragraphs to get the conversation started, and I thought I’d post them here. Remember, it’s intended to be the beginning of a conversation, not a complete thesis. But here you go.

A common form of fretting done by theists and atheists alike concerns anxiety over whether a religion-free society would be capable of producing great works of art, music, poetry, etc. Would we have Bach or Michelangelo without Christianity?

The question posed by our host before we began tonight was, “How would future societies replace the creative energies of religion in the Arts?” It presumes that a large enough percentage of quality art today is inspired by or derived from religious belief, and that its absence, in a vacuum, would leave a significant hole in our society’s cultural life, which I think it almost certainly not the case. Particularly if we’re talking not about less trite or less propagandistic art and media, but rather the kind of art that makes lives richer in the broadest sense. My confident guess would be that the vast majority of quality art and culture is produced without religion ever coming into the picture.

There were almost certainly times in human history when religion was a driving force behind wonderful visual art and music that will weather the centuries. But I don’t think this is so today.

But even if we grant the premise, that a lack of religious influence and inspiration would leave a great vacuum in our artistic and cultural life, I believe that vacuum is easily filled.

What we’re really talking about when we worry over this question is; what could possibly move the human heart to the degree that the wonder over the supernatural does? My answer: Plenty. First, consider the things that are already in place that move the human heart: love in all its forms (romantic, familial, etc.), idealism and deep belief in a cause, and despair, just to name a few.

But of course, these are not necessarily based on awe over something greater than oneself (but can be, I suppose), so the hole left by hypothetically-absent religion must be filled by something that satisfies that need. Well, lucky for the arts, humans are very small in the grand scheme of things. Earth is, too, as is our sun, our galaxy, and possibly even our universe. There is so much to ponder, so much to imagine when it comes to the workings of the cosmos and our place within it — and that encompasses the positive connotations of “wonder” as well as the feelings of insignificance or alienation. Even with no religion, the human heart cannot help but be stirred by such images, concepts, and questions.

And we need not even be so lofty: why not be awed by the ecosystem of our planet, the fact that civilization lumbers on despite our species’ missteps and greed, the potential for us as individuals and as a global society, the bonds of family and community. This just scratches the surface, but the point is, how can the artistic soul NOT be moved by such thoughts? How can the creative person NOT weigh in or react? If you ask me, these ideas are more full of wonder than any stories about fictional celestial superheroes and their meddlings in our lives.

So would we have Bach or Michelangelo without Christianity? Of course. Because artistic genius will not stay hungry. It will find its food of awe and wonder wherever it lies.