Going Down the Rabbit Hole

Now that the sun’s out, I’m going to attempt to analyze this further: 

I exist in a constant struggle between trying to, on one hand, understand how labels work, and not wanting to be labelled myself. But, communication/relevancy/connection with people require labels. In our society, we have: words and images to describe what we mean. These are both, by definition, limited. Even now, as I use words to describe what I mean, you’re at most- getting about 60% of what I mean. Not because I’m profound, but because of what these words fail to convey. 

We go around in life, trying to make sense of ourselves and how others perceive us through these labels because that’s the only way we communicate and make sense of the world. Some people fall into Angst here, because these limitations are frustrating. As an artist, I find that awareness and understanding of this dichotomy is interesting because that’s how I can ultimately and hopefully– transcend/break these limitations. On the other hand, trying to understand perception and how labels limit this is already going down the rabbit hole… beyond what others want, or care to think about. You’re already becoming less relevant to most people and to society.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think it’s because “most people” are shallow, or don’t care because they don’t understand. I think it’s because, for them, the ways things work (rife with limitations) works just fine. I like to think about these things because I think they matter, and awareness elevates people to think past its limitations and break the cycle.

I’m also apparently a masochist. <– Label.

 


The Seed of Elitism.

So much to say these days, I don’t even know what will come out as I write this. All I know is that these are the times I need to sit down and write, because I have no idea what I’m thinking until it comes out on the page.

Updates on Me, in case you care: the “underCurrents” show ended, I got into another one called “Shifting the Body,” opening in Pacifica, in July (hooray!).  Spring semester classes just ended, I’m got some fun live painting and teaching gigs, I’m continuing to consult with artists and work in social media, and I’m selling work and commissions. With all this, I sat alone last week and thought to myself, “This is fucking amazing. I’m doing the art that I care about, I’ve grown to the point emotionally, that I can finally not be embarrassed to call myself an Artist. I’m an Artist. (Holy shit!)”

Then I thought: this is exactly what I wanted, and I’m about a hundred times happier now that I ever was, sitting in meetings and responding to emails for the purported, Best Company to Work For. But, um, what now?

Sidebar: I’ve never been one to congratulate myself. But here, in the Art universe, you have to learn to pat yourself on the back– because that’s all you’re gonna get. No one is going to hand you a check for showing up every day, or give you a bonus because you put in 20 more hours of work a week. That’s expected. And for better or worse, you’re gonna have to be your own cheerleader and your own critic.

That said, I knew I had to figure out a way to pat myself on the back for coming this far, and simultaneously kick myself in the ass to keep going. I recognize that having only spent a year doing this full-time, getting into seven juried shows, seeing my work evolve and get better, and making some money doing it isn’t anything to shrug at. All that is good and dandy, but what now? I need to keep doing this, and the reality is, I’ll need money to do it.

So, I’m standing at the crossroads– on one hand, I see the need for the funds to do more art, but the defensive, egotistic side of me refuses to see money as a reward for all the accomplishments I’ve made. Putting a monetary value on my personal growth as an artist just doesn’t seem right. It cheapens all the gain I thought I achieved. But that– that, right there is the seed of Elitism. I see it, I acknowledge it, but I can’t keep myself from preventing it from happening.

Image

I hear it all the time, Art is inherently elitist and exclusionary. Yes, but the irony of it all is that Art is also the only thing that unites us all as humans. (Sidebar: read that article by Leon Wieseltier, it’s provocative and important.) We need art because our society is quickly starting to confuse money with wealth, and information/data with knowledge.

We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work.

But I digress.

In a lot of ways, I see that Elitism comes from the artist’s need for self-preservation. Observing the artist trajectory, I see this happening a lot (sorry for the shitty flowchart):

I’m good at painting/drawing/sculpture/writing/etc, and I want to do this more, but I don’t know if I can be called an artist. —-> Fuck what people think anymore, I’m an Artist. —->  Oh, crap, this is vulnerable and not always fun. Plus dumb people don’t like/understand my work…

This is where the fork splits for the first time in an artist’s career. We all want credibility above all else, and when we don’t get the reward we want, it goes in two directions:

1. Everyone is stupid. I’m an artist, I do what I want. Or,

2. OK, I’m missing something. How do I get through to people? (Does that mean I’m compromising the integrity of my work? What else do you have but integrity?)

At this point, Elitism is born. It’s not that artists don’t want to put in the work– artists are far from shy when it comes to doing the work, but here’s where self-preservation starts to limit you, and limits who you share your work with. And isn’t sharing your art the whole point? Furthermore, if it’s not, why would you expect anyone would pay you to do it?

I suppose at this point I should say that I don’t believe democratization equals monetary reward, because that’s more of a secondary result… but the thing I have to remember, is Money is our society’s way of rewarding for value, and value is determined by others. Sure, I can quote Patti Smith and say that with enough integrity and good work, “your name becomes Currency,” but what about making a living so that you can even get to that point (if you ever get there)? 

Believe me, if I had it my way, I would never have to think/talk/worry about money, and I spend most of my life avoiding it like the plague, but don’t we all secretly wish people would throw handfuls of money at us for just doing anything we want? Patti Smith might be there now, but she could have just as easily faded to complete obscurity– or worse, Quit. Nothing wrong with that, but when artists quit, they become jaded, and they retreat to being the victim.

At this moment, I’m aware of my own talent–enough to keep trying, and naive enough to believe that I can do more. But the more I progress, the more detached I become, and the more I want to retreat into the little, isolated, “elitist” bubble I feel comfortable with, so I don’t have to explain myself in anyone else’s terms, or worry about money. This is much easier to do. But Guess What? Not having to worry about money is inherently elitist, even if you don’t HAVE any of it! But this is precisely when I have to remind myself of something I wrote a bit over a year ago:

“Congratulating yourself for talent is like congratulating yourself for being tall, or having eyes on your head. What I do with it, and if I have lasting power is what time will tell.”

I need to make this last.


On Being an “Normal” Artist.

You have to take some risks when you’re a kid to find out who you are. You just have to learn which risks are safe and which are self-destructive. Everybody does weird stuff. As you get older, I believe if you’ve never been allowed to do all that weird shit, then you make it into some kind of obsession that you’re too old to have!

~John Waters

There’s actually a whole collection of priceless quotes from that guy, but that one was relevant to how I’ve been feeling these days. A couple of affirming, yet unrelated events happened this past month:

  1. The opening for the AAWAA group show my artwork was featured in
  2. Helping an artist friend (Eva) digitalize and re-make her old punk band records from 31 years ago
  3. My parents wanting to know my future “plans”… “As an Artist.”

Related or not, all these things made me slow down and consider where my life has been, and where it’s headed. I’ve always considered myself to be a simple person. Like, I’ve never wanted to be a rich, and whenever people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d always say “happy.” When that wasn’t satisfactory, I’d make up a title or a position they’d be happy with, or to fuck with them, like, “Oh, I’d want to be a paralegal.” I remember one time I told a teacher that, and she said, “Why a paralegal? Why not shoot to be a lawyer?” I said, “Nah, I hate public speaking.” I think I was 12 years old at the time.

As I grew older, I started to realize that being a simple person was actually quite complicated to everyone else. Wanting to be a simple person meant having to answer a lot of questions about “where you want to be in 5 years,” and “what do you want to with your life?” I found that I got really good at answering these inane questions, even though I had absolutely no interest in them whatsoever. 

But here’s the thing: I also thought (and still think) angst is trite and pointless. Even when I was 13, I never thought raging against the establishment was anything to be proud of. I felt like it was worthless and frankly kind of overdone. Or maybe that’s just in hindsight. Maybe I subconsciously just wanted to fit in, like everyone else… and I did. Actually, I found I did amazingly well fitting in, even in Kindergarten, when i didn’t speak English. My grandma asked me how I wanted to tell the teacher when I needed to go to the bathroom, and I told her I’d hold up a peace sign. Yeah, a peace sign meant I had to go to the bathroom. (Consider this when I you see people throwing up peace signs in pictures.)

Anyway, I realized that’s who I’ve grown to be. I’ve gotten REALLY good at looking normal. I even confuse myself sometimes… until I’m reminded what “normal” is. I don’t even mean to say that in a condescending way, I say it to remind myself that it’s okay not to be what everyone else wants you to be. Sometimes, in conversation with my artist friends, they’ll look at me wide eyed and say,

“Holy shit, you look so normal, but you’re actually really weird!” I smile and say, “How do you think I got a job at Google?”

So here what I’ve learned about me, that may or may not apply to you: Sometimes you have to input your life into these little Facebook profile fields, like “School,” “Company,” “Relationship Status,” just so other people can make sense of you. I’m fine with that. I’m also fine playing the part of a complicated “Artist” but I’d rather just be a simple person, wearing a plain, non-crazy, non “artist” clothes and haircut, living my life happily floating along. You can make sense of that as you will, but I’ll call it my own way of rebelling against normalcy. I call it “Art.”