A confessional sermon delivered at A.A.
…and no, this is not just another midnight ramble.
I come to you, my brothers and sisters, with nothing but love and understanding.
I am, by no means, greater, better, more talented, or more important than any other artist. I’m not. And I never will be. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t know my own “worth,” that I am not aware of where I am at and what I could still create or achieve. The life of the true artist is one of turmoil, daily struggle, anxiety, and sweat — peppered with overwhelming moments of bliss, pride, recognition, camaraderie, and success. No one forces us to create, no one actually chooses to be an artist. It chooses you. “It” is something we give in to. We follow it. Like a sixth sense, a pied piper, a “formless hunch” as Peter Brook might call it. So we do what we must, what we feel we are born to, and we hope we do it well. The real artist, those concerned with the eternal murmuring of humanity and the spirit, are aware from day one that the game is rigged. That the odds are stacked against us. We know, innately, that our life’s work may not resolve itself in some pleasant happy ending or an armful of awards or endowments. The artist hopes for a happy ending, but does not live his life — nor create his fictitious one — according to it or any sense of mainstream acceptance.
I’m not sure what I’m getting at here. Sorry, there’s sleep still in my eye — and I’m trying to shake off the last two phone calls we received this morning, asking us for money. I told this person, not exactly a friend – but a stable acquaintance, that my wife and I did not have any money. In fact, I told him we were just getting caught up on rent and were just getting acclimated to new day jobs that would enable us to continue developing and finishing some projects that would require some concentrated money and time. This man scoffed, “What do you mean? You’re a writer…You’re working a survival job!?”
“No, ” I said, “I’m working a job so I can do my art which will allow me…to survive.”
“Well, why don’t you borrow?”
“What planet are you on? Borrow what from whom? I don’t have parents, none of my friends are rich, and the one or two jerks I know with money would rather see my die before they would ever cut me a check.”
“Tsk, tsk…When are you going to learn? Crowd-funding is the answer. Kickstarter: that’s the way of the future.”
I forgot what I said, I know I shouted, belched, cursed, nearly strangled my phone (I wished I still had our old home phone — I could have engaged in that most righteous act of — literally — cutting the cord of the phone. I did this over ten years ago, when Chase Bank took over the theater I was directing in Harlem. I was young and manic then, but that one act — cutting the telephone cord — was like a holy ritual; to sever the negativity, the “non-believers,” the satanic offerings…Sorry, I am losing myself here, bear with me as I be-bop back into my brain and get back to that original thought.
Artists, who are we?
There is nothing pretentious or self-important or pompous about reveling in that majestic title that describes our lot. Somewhere, at some point in the eighties I think (this is all conjecture, I was just a kid in the 80’s) — the idea of the “artist” became fodder for fashion and news media, I suppose Warhol had a lot to do with this. In fact, he himself was the motivating force behind all this, he was the gross pimp-charlatan of actual ideas and feelings and concepts. Remember, it was not that he gave us Heinz soup — but that he coerced the rest of the country (the world) into regarding ADVERTISEMENT AS ART.
A step further now in the 21st century: art is supposedly in the hands of everyone; the internet and the establishment media have pawned this idea that “everyone is an artist” without admitting the fact that 90 percent of us have nothing interesting or honest to say. Hell, it doesn’t have to be original — but it should at least be honest.
And who should we blame for this?
Ourselves, of course. The artists who have accepted their curse, their stigma, those of us who wear our disease like a badge of honor: we screwed up here, folks. We betrayed each other.
Instead of us taking pride in the ten-year creation of a damned good novel NO ONE MAY EVER READ or appreciating our own skill in the pains we took to choreograph a ballet or record our own music, we have allowed Pop Culture “madmen” to tell us who we are, what we do, and how to do it.
I was a theater director here in NYC, when the last crumb of social freedom and artistic urgency still burned brightly, and anybody in the theater will tell you: it’s about many things, but it ain’t about the money. I left the theater for too many reasons to get into, but even at the tender age of 24 I was directing, producing, developing plays and actors…and PAYING EVERYONE INVOLVED.
How? By working whatever job I could, even if it had nothing to do with the arts. In fact, I got more money and support for my revivals of Jean Genet and James Baldwin in the “corporate” sector than I did from the so-called “Arts funding” community. Sure, I could have used Kickstarter had it existed then and it would have helped, but the bottom line is that if you’re going to talk the talk, you must walk the walk. At least half the cash I raised for the plays I produced uptown came from other people in the area; at one point in my life all of my construction co-workers were throwing me money so I could keep my theater company alive. That was gangsta. That was hard. That… was romantic.
No one wants to work and save their money for their own projects anymore. Everyone expects other people to drop a dime as soon as they say they are producing a movie or writing a book. What?? There are people starving and you want me to give film school brats money so they can do what exactly? NOT pay their actors or crew…so they can get into some absurd film festival? You want me to give you a $50 donation so you can adapt Moby Dick for the digital age? Kiss my ass, I rather give that money to a poet who is destitute but can make 4 sentences on a napkin rival Rilke!
Who are we kidding? (And to top it off, I’ve seen more Kickstarter campaigns that were interesting than the actual project itself!!)
It takes a lot of guts to ask people for money and to show them exactly what you are going to do with that money. I don’t mean to make them feel “cool” about giving you money, I mean honestly try to explain and defend your vision of life. It builds character looking into someone’s eyes and just talking about your work, not “pitching” – but simply…explaining. Now, it’s all about selling yourself to an internet site so you can raise money. Imagine Picasso or Miles Davis or Phyllis Hyman or Bill Hicks doing a “campaign” for their project. Exactly.
The idea of Kickstarter was a tremendous resource for artists – despite the fact that Big Names and Hollyweird babies like Zach Braff and now Spike Lee are usurping the tiny corners of the world once inhabited by independent artists. And when I say independent artist – I mean literally an “independent” vision. It has nothing to do with how much money you have or spend. But in 2013 MONEY has now become synonymous with art, quality, etc. It is pathological and it is becoming more and more dangerous.
I don’t care that Steven Speilberg or George Lucas are fearful that the Hollywood system will be dismantled soon. Who gives a damn? It should be dismantled, I can’t wait! But…will that mean that the future is some bloated Hollywood director standing on the corner of Beverly Hills with his hat in his hands asking for a hand-out? These people don’t need money to make their movies..they have all the money they need. They’ve all lost their minds.
Real artists will find a way to make their art, regardless of how much money they have. Money ain’t everything. Even a junkie will find a way to get high without a dime in his pocket.
I say help the needy, not the greedy. Take all that money and make something worthwhile: homes, healing centers, health systems, habitats…for all. Just to start.
In this corrupted world of “Reality TV” and sampled music and shadows of real expression, artists should not feel ashamed or embarrassed by their positions but should speak out and demand that we as creators take back some of the power we have freely given to Businessmen, Advertising freaks, media spin doctors, and hollow, shallow, meretricious celebrities.
Artists and Activists have let the ball drop. It is the Businessman’s job to screw over the artist. It is the Artist’s job to reveal that the Businessman has no soul.
No scratch that: Everyone has a soul.
But it is the Fascistic-Greedy-Money-Grubbers that resent that twitch inside…and it is the Artist’s job to express some of that shame for them.
Be proud to be who you are and seek to truly say something in this lifetime.
Be more interested in ten living poets than ten dead ones.
Stop giving your money to film schools and take that money and just make your own movie.
Support artists in your own neighborhood or start with artists in need who may be of a similar ancestral or cultural background.
If possible, collaborate, trade ideas, have arguments, and make love to other artists. Understand that the time is now, the seeds must be planted now. And it doesn’t matter how old you are. In fact, if you’re as nuts as I am and you’ve read this far: try to cross-pollinate and if you’re older and wiser, lend some of our time or energy to a younger artist’s enterprise. Or maybe just offer to provide honest constructive criticism.
If you have no money, barter. Trade and help each other. In fact, maybe this is where we should start. I’ll write for you, you paint for me, Aliyah can cook, Curt can drive, etc. Find the naturalness, the “real-ness,” the folk art within any medium – all over again.
Try – very conscientiously – to disown any influence from pop culture, school, the established mores of art, etc. — and develop your own ideas and put them forth like a strong handshake, a bright smile, or a passionate bear hug. We must rid ourselves of the hateful, hollow, dangerous, and miraculously socio-pathic tendencies of the establishment’s corporate media. Whether it’s Fox 5 or MTV or Harper Collins. At this point, I suspect they are all the same. So for the independent-minded writer who self publishes but salivates at Hollywood movies — I have to take the time to make him understand he is part of the problem, not the solution.
There is no reason why the arts and the artists have to feel abused, overwhelmed, or irrelevant because they are not on Page Six or at some awards show or being groomed by MOMA.
Politicians stick together, so should Artists. Things are only “bad” because they have divided and conquered us. We are the new colonized, oppressed, and forsaken. And we hail from all walks of life, all races, all countries. Even the ones that don’t exist yet.
Remember who you are, why you do what you do, what means most to you…and what keeps you honest. Remember that if money were an indication of talent, insight, or importance than everyone on the top ten right now would be more important or special than Billy Strayhorn, Janis Joplin, Emily Dickinson, John Cassavetes, and Van Gogh. And that’s just for starters.
Get your priorities straight: we need money, obviously. But we don’t need to pander and humiliate ourselves consistently for money in order to embark on projects not worthy…
I think the challenge here is for artists to take the arts and all that it implies into their own hands and start figuring out new ways of seeing, feeling, and sensing again.
The arts, frankly, needs…art.
And so I say once again: A shot in the dark, a mark on the cave wall – that’s all we are.
And that itself is precious enough.
Support living artists or you will see no visions or receive any prophecies.