The following is the first installment of a two-part series.
Too many people think the only path for an artist is to be “huge” or to wait to be huge—i.e., create in obscurity until they catch their big break. But when it has come to my own experience in the art scene, there has been a basic rule of thumb I learned in my undergrad education: if no one invites you to their party, start your own. If nobody lets you climb their ladder, either a) throw a rope over the side and climb in, or better yet, b) build your own.
One would imagine that artists would especially chafe under a system that involves paying dues to “the man,” but it is a fact of life that to be successful in an existing scene you always have to pay dues to some man. There is always a gatekeeper you have to bribe along the way or a party you have to sneak into. But this gets tiring after a while. And the fact is, it doesn’t usually lead you anywhere significant. Kurt Vonnegut once said of his writing class (which was no doubt filled with extremely talented writers), that at least five or six in the class were phenomenally talented, but out of those, only two or three would ever actually make it as writers.
That is a disheartening figure. It forces one to ask: what’s the difference between those who make it and those who don’t? Adam Smith tells us that the best qualified survive. Or perhaps Darwin would say the “fittest.” Unfortunately, this isn’t always true of the art scene, unless one considers the ability to brownnose and capitulate while still retaining the veneer of artistic integrity to be the characteristics of a successful artist. When an artist “makes it,” clearly there are other things going on that involve more than just art. As a result, bitterness and envy are the names of the game in many art scenes.
But why is this worth talking about? Why does it matter that most artists are bitter and envious of each other? What does it actually do to the art? The first problem is that the art suffers. Those who spend time playing politics inevitably bring those politics into their art. And this isn’t the good kind of politics in art, either. It is in fact the opposite of good political art. Rather than challenging political assumptions, it capitulates to them for the sake of temporary success. The irony is this: it helps perpetuate the very system with which they’re frustrated. When B, C, and D get angry about A’s success, the first thing they’re saying is that A’s success is the only kind to be had. That is, spending time worrying about not having A’s book deal denies B, C, and D of their own successful reading series. It becomes a game of leap frog in which only one can be considered the winner. If having a corporate record/publishing deal is the only thing that satisfies the envy of another artist, then the power of that system is reaffirmed, paving the way, in fact, for those who better politicians than they are. It is the job of the artist, however, to create a new space for their art to exist.
In the last year or two, I’ve embarked on an adventure of sorts. At the urging of a professor, I decided to start my own literary magazine, and with the help of friends, we started a reading series that has grown and become the premiere reading around town. What started out as something fun between my friends and I has grown into something we never could have imagined. It did come at a cost, however, or rather, at the cost of envy and bitterness— of exclusively working for the praise my own art. In the end, I’ve found it’s not only worth it for the sake of one’s own sanity, but a better environment for creating art. It allows me to focus on what actually matters in my art, rather than worrying about beating the guy next to me.
I would like to pass some of these lessons on to any artistically inclined reader hungry for a creative community. So, in the vein of all great self-help books, I’ve compiled a list of alliterative words (and helpful alliterative qualifying words) you can memorize and use as a sort of loose field guide, which must be adapted to every individual environment. The idea behind this is not so much to give you the tools to create art, but give permission to do so. Not that you need my permission of course. But most of us artists need somebody to look at us and just say, “Hey, it’s ok to do that. Go ahead and do that.”
One of the author’s poetry readings in Binghamton, New York.
1. Credit (Disperse)
A lot of things can get done when you don’t care who gets the credit.
This can be difficult for artists, because it seems that what they are doing is an intensely individual labor. I will address some of this in the fourth “C” (community), but in the meantime it is important to remember you’re creating a scene. And an art scene requires more than one person.
Some art scenes form around a single person who happen to start them and then run them without sharing the power. This is a problem. This art scene would likely perish— or at least completely change— if something happened to that person (e.g., pushed into traffic by another jealous artist). Or, if it turns out the person is an asshole, there might be a mass exodus. I recently found out that a person running the art scene a few towns down the highway has been pocketing cash from readings instead of paying readers. Not only is this just plain tacky, it shows an appalling lack of respect for the readers who contribute to the scene as much as any organizer. And ultimately, this is a lack of respect for those who support the scene. Let me say it again: an art scene is comprised of more than one person. If you create an art scene for your own sake and never share it, you will not have an art scene. You will have a cult.
When I ran a reading series in Binghamton, New York, the bar owner used to give me fifty bucks for bringing in such a huge crowd. The first thing I did was give twenty to the bartenders, since poets can be notoriously cheap. Then, since splitting thirty dollars between several readers would be more offensive than not paying them at all, I would buy them drinks. This did several things: first, it kept the bartenders happy. In a scene that happens primarily in a bar, this is of first importance. Always appreciate those who are willing to take a risk on your venture by opening up their space to you. Second, buying drinks for the readers showed them that while we didn’t really have the money to pay them, we still appreciated them. Thirdly, it set the tone of generosity, as opposed to one of self-interest.
But a scene must, of course, have some sort of leadership. Without it, the scene would never be organized enough to do anything. Leadership is, however, something each scene must work through on its own. I have found, though, that the rise of leaders is typically organic, and that many in the local art scene are grateful when someone else voluntarily accepts a leadership role. But a leader is becoming power hungry or a scene just sucks, you can always start your own party, and remember the lesson: no party is ever truly “yours.”
My leadership style was extremely loose. Sometimes I would host, sometimes one of the other guys who helped me start the scene would host, sometimes we’d ask a professor from the university to host. The general idea was not to let the attention focus too much on one person. In doing this, not only did we keep the flow of generosity, it helped diversify taste. If I alone were choosing the readers, a very specific aesthetic taste would be perpetuated: mine. Nothing will limit or kill a scene faster than the perception that it’s for a certain aesthetic taste. From the standpoint of an artist, it is always important to be exposing yourself to new styles and methods. This is elemental to the education of a young (or old) artist. It helps keep things fresh and sparks innovation.
2. Cheap (Devalue)
Wilco says “you have to learn how to die if you want to be alive.” William Carlos Williams says, “by defective means.”
I think these are both essential to the understanding the origins of great art. Consider hip-hop. The artistic African-American population had been marginalized for years, excepting those who were lucky enough to make it in Motown, or, in the case of writers, popularized amongst themselves. In the 1980s, though, taking the only tools that were available—a few record players and the Motown records that went with them (oppressive tools of placation, one might even argue)—mostly poor African-Americans birthed a style of music that is unparalleled today in terms of its potential for creativity and social comment. Like jazz, the birth of hip-hop is a completely unique response to the social conditions in which it was created. Hip-hop is truly the folk music of today, melding the idiom of our hypercommercialized society with the impulse to create at almost any cost.
How does this translate to the local art scene? What can possibly be gained from a devaluation of the very medium one is trying to work through? There is one answer to this: innovation. A system thrives on stability. The most successful systems are able to co-opt that which challenges it initially, to incorporate criticism into a stable environment. Criticism, in fact, can serve to perpetuate the very system it attacks. It was not long ago that “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” poetry was being written by up-and-coming poets as an attack on the very nature of language itself. Now, these poets are themselves teaching in the very universities their attack was supposed to be against. Let’s face it: the 1960s are over and all the hippies got jobs. They now drive (environmentally-friendly) Lexuses and listen to NPR. The march of capitalism seems inevitable. If there is money to be made, somebody will figure it out and make that money.
Artists should be grateful for the freedom that exists in a true free market, of course, but that doesn’t mean they have to live with the way that a free market can dehumanize those who participate in it. It is the artist’s job to re-humanize people in the face of dehumanizing elements of that freedom, to give a face to those who might not be seen in the shuffle. One could say art is the means of the conscience in culture (I am reticent to call art the conscience of culture, since many artists I know have very little conscience; but even art created by a conscienceless artist can shock us into some moral realizations). More generally speaking, it is the job of the artist to exalt that which is being lost in any system. Some have called poetry a power invoked against one’s own vanishing. This seems too self-centered to me. I do believe, however, it genuinely is a power that can be invoked against the vanishing of any image. In the Binghamton scene there is a lot of trash talk about the whole area of Binghamton, which is in a state of serious economic depression. And yet, this trash talk preserves the image of Binghamton in a meaningful way. This is why Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are so fantastic. What Keats called “negative capability” is really the preservation of an image (the characters, the action, the social milieu) that is so real and accessible, any reader can be drawn into the story and its characters.
But how can a tiny little art scene stand against the inevitable forces of capitalism, the politics of mindless duplication? Well, it can’t on its own, but it certainly can play a small role in the excavation of the ugly and the preservation of an image. It is the job of the local art scene to give a platform to those who are not typically given platforms, to those would have to be a significant part of the system to even have a voice. This does not just mean marginalized people groups necessarily, but as a general rule, any one that has the perspective to innovate should be give the power to do so.
I should clarify here that I am not suggesting a postmodern apathy towards anything that has traditionally held power or been revered. Postmoderns can learn much from the example of Ezra Pound, who was a fascist but had one of the best poetic ears in the English language. Great art is not found in resistance nor in traditional power structures alone. It can easily reside in both, and should be honored wherever it is. An art scene, however, is on the resistance end of this equation. And in that sense, it is the job of these artists not to be posh and trendy or perpetuate what is posh and trendy, but to reside where art must fight to survive— not as a paternalistic presence, but rather as an example of the space that is being created for art to exist where space did not exist before (I’ll explain this more in the third “C” ).
How does this play out practically? The most obvious way is for an art scene to be started some place where it is literally cheap. This place, for me, was a small city in upstate New York. Anyone who has ever traveled through Binghamton would recognize the economically depressed, rainy sod of dirt that it is. This means, however, that there is a lot of empty space, and a lot of people who would rather see it used than go to waste. In New York City, you have to know the right people and probably be willing to pay money to get any amount of space for a reading. But in Binghamton, people will pay you and get excited about it. Binghamton is especially lucky because it has some fantastic writers over at its University to help bolster the scene. But these talents are not the essence of the scene. The community is.
Art that comes from places where it is least expected is always more surprising and interesting than art that comes from the standard-bearers. What comes from the latter is exactly that: standard. What comes from the former is cheap; it can only go up in value. Art scenes can sometimes completely change an economic scene. Consider the complete process of gentrification: a place starts out completely poor, addled with addicts and many people who have capacity to help themselves. Typically attracted by cheap living space, artists move in, kick out the addicts, and help establish a place where they can be productive. The artists themselves then get kicked out by yuppies who want to live in the artsy part of town (this irony is often lost on them, of course). At this point, artists get angry, sign petitions, hold rallies and sit-ins, but the effort is often in vain. The march of capitalism goes on.
This should not surprise the artists. In the end, it is possibly what’s best for them anyhow. Any art that does not struggle to survive rarely deserves a place of honor. Again, consider hip-hop: the most creative of solutions often comes from economic hardship. This means the motivation behind the art is so overwhelming, the artist will do almost anything to survive. This has led to some of the greatest art ever created (e.g., Van Gogh, Rothko, Caravaggio all created their greatest works in their moments of direst desperation). In the end, when the artist gets kicked out, it is their job, however inconvenient, to continue creating the space in which their art exists. Creativity is the essence of art. In part two of this series, we will examine the next two Cs of scene: creativity and community.
Micah Towery is working on his master of fine arts degree at Hunter College in Manhattan. He is the founder and co-editor of The Cartographer Electric.
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