ART AND SOUL
a series published in 1988 in my column called "Tales," which appeared in the In Pittsburgh weekly.
I The Arts of Marketing
We all know about censorship of art and thought in totalitarian countries. How it limits the information people have; strangles free expression; how it's a tool those in power use to stay in power. But what does censorship mean in America?
In a symposium sponsored by Triquarterly literary magazine (and presented in the book, The Writer in Our World) novelist Mary Lee Settle defines three kinds of censorship in contemporary America: self-censorship, commercial censorship and aesthetic censorship. All three are directly related to the domination of the arts by business, marketing and demographics. These have the same effects as the more familiar forms of book-banning and book burning and control of art and thought we righteously condemn in other nations.
Self-censorship means that you think of something and immediately decide, "I can't write that." Perhaps because you are afraid the CIA won't like it and they'll get the IRS after you. Or because the Church won't like it, or the School, or your boss. But more often because you think: "publishers won't buy it. They won't think it will sell. So I shouldn't waste my time. I'll write something they will like."
And pretty soon, self-censorship becomes so automatic that you don't think of those objectionable and uncommercial things at all.
Commercial censorship means that because a few publishers in league with a few huge bookstore chains decide that your work is not commercial, few if any people will get the opportunity to see your work in print. This is censorship, Settle says, "because they are literally keeping you from reading, keeping you from finding out what you want."
Aesthetic censorship is when literary-minded people tell you that it's not respectable to read science fiction novels or other popular stuff. But as Settle says, the source of this reaction isn't so much snobbery as fear: every book Judith Krantz sells confirms the opinions of mass-minded publishers, and further dooms other writers. It's a kind of protective reaction to commercial censorship.
Settles' points about books are easily applied to movies and TV, and in slightly altered form, to the visual and performing arts. Publishing is no different from Hollywood anymore, and Hollywood is not what it was either. It, too, is in the hands of people who know nothing and care less about the content or even the form of what they sell. They've made their money playing financial games and selling shoes, cigarettes and guided missiles; art is just another product or another investment. Some are in it for the power and the glamour, but that doesn't change the basic game. They're selling, and the guiding principles remain: marketing. Demographics.
These days demography in America means profiling people by age, location and so on, matched with what they buy (or say they buy, or are said to buy) to predict what they will buy in the future. These demographic numbers are used in "target" and "niche" marketing, which aims products at the people they figure are the most likely to buy them. If they can't figure out who will buy a product, or if they don't think there are enough of these folks, or especially if they don't spend enough money, that product just won't get into the marketplace.
The idea seems to make sense---you don't make money selling snow shoes in Florida---but it's taken to extremes: it pretends to know what it cannot know, and in the arts, it is applied to something it should never get close to: information from, by and for the souls of individuals, the culture and the human race.
I object to demographic marketing in general because it says everybody is predictable, and therefore it is helping to make people predictable, and divided on the basis of what we buy. Linked to advertising it is a powerful engine of self-fulfilling prophesy, separating us into income cults, lifestyle tribes and zip code clans. That's bad enough in general. But when it's applied to art and thought, it's a crime.
One question that makes me apopletic with anger just happens to be the first one that every publisher, agent, editor or person who's trying to sound professional will ask about the book you're trying to get commissioned or published: "What's your market?" The first time an editor asked me that I felt deeply embarrassed---for the editor. Defining markets, I thought, is not the writer's job. It's not really the editor's job either. Publishers have people on the payroll whose job it is to sell the books that writers write and editors edit. Isn't it the writer's job to write the book?
By now I have learned this is a rhetorical question.
Mary Lee Settle says that writers must recover their arrogance, and by that I think she means that for a start they must refuse to let themselves be defined by marketing. Figuring out a market is not only not my job, it's contrary to what my job is. Which is to get ideas and explore them, to investigate the subject and the outer world and the corresponding areas of my inner world, and to write.
Which is damn hard enough, thank you, and it does require a certain concentration, enthusiasm, attentiveness, not to mention integrity and yes yes yes---innocence. Trying to dummy up a market at the same time is not conducive. It is soul destroying.
Which is not to say that writers don't care about readers. But our relationship to readers is on a way different level than demographics. We write words, readers read words. Maybe they say or write words back. But that's the deal of our art. We don't prejudge them, and we hope they don't prejudge us. Sure, we may have some reader or readers in mind, and readers will have some image of the writer, but it's way more complicated, and has way more to do with the words and what we're writing about and why they're reading it---which are all very individual---than with some set of averages and statistics nobody really understands (let alone writers), which describe little and predict nothing.
Target marketing may work to some degree for specialized books of one kind or another. Books by specialists, like egronomists or celebrities, on specialty subjects. But this doesn't necessarily work for people whose specialty is writing, or reading. Even long-term business strategy might suggest that publishers nurture writers who will gradually build an audience and perhaps sell books over many years, adding up to many books perhaps. But short term rules today. Niche marketing says you can manufacture stars and formulas for genre audiences and keep the masses happy with a tome or two from the hot face of the moment.
I know what I'm talking about, because I have written a book that got semi-published. As a result I've met and heard from actual readers, and guess what? THERE IS NO DEMOGRAPHIC PATTERN. Students in the South, TV producers in London, bigwigs with well-known names and six figure incomes, and an assistant police chief in rural Oklahoma. And a guy in prison in California. To name but a few.
Demographic marketing probably works fine for a lot of products, practically all of which I don't have the slightest interest in. But especially for that which is profaned by being called "product," it is laziness in the guise of being scientific. Why is it that ground-breaking books, the most important (and often popular) movies, almost always have this long history of rejection? You hear it every year at the Academy Awards---"We had to struggle for ten years to make this movie, every studio in town turned it down," etc. Don't these people ever get the point?
An agent once told me that publishers would not think my book idea was commercial. And when I looked a little nonplussed, he tried to soften the blow by saying: more than half the books publishers publish fail anyway. But he never for a moment put those two observations together.
Instead of hiding behind demographics and marketing voodoo talk, these folks might try developing some taste, honing their intelligence and building up confidence in their own curiosity. If that's not too radical a suggestion.
Marketing gets some pseudo-scientific basis (otherwise known as justifying your title and covering your ass) from ever more detailed surveys and testing of audiences, including sticking electrodes on them and monitoring their skin twitches. But how do you survey opinion on an art work that hasn't yet been created? Or one that won't be close to fully understood for years? Or that twitches the synapses and the heart months from now, instead of the skin this second?
Right now publishers and bookstores and purveyors of fine art and music use famous artists of the past as instant advertising, as recognizable figures that suggest credibility. But they don't for a moment consider that many of these famous artists would never get past their marketing departments if only their once-scary work was the criteria.
Even in promotion it seems to me that niche marketing does a certain amount of damage to the integrity and value of the work or even the art form itself. I can understand how a symphony for example needs to broaden its audience, but why can't it sell itself on the basis of what it does, which is play the music of the best composers? Educating the audience is what the arts need, not pandering.
Once the pandering starts, and there is some image being sold to audiences of what they are supposed to like, then the artists will be expected to provide it. Aren't the whims of fashion enough? Self-censorship follows logically, as an internalization of commercial censorship.
Marketing talks in audience. Writers only know readers. Marketing is about quantities. Art is about individuals. Marketing and promotion stimulate the hand to reach into the pocket. Art lights the mind, caresses the soul, and jabs a finger in the heart.
2. Arts of Survival
The sun lit the cobblestones and my friend Brenda's hair as we stood and talked in the cold outside the Birmingham Lofts. I told her I'd been reading statements and interviews with contemporary artists in various fields, about the state of the arts in the 1980s. Since she's been around the arts in Pittsburgh for awhile, I thought she'd be interested.
"What do they say?" she asked.
"The playwrights are very, very depressed. The performance artists are feisty and political and the most optimistic. The painters and writers are somewhere in between."
"We don't have performance artists in Pittsburgh that I know of," Brenda said, sighing. "What if you are a performance artist in your heart, and you're in Pittsburgh? Do you have to leave?"
"Or a revue writer or director."
"Or a cutting-edge multi-media playwright."
"Or a cutting-edge anything."
"No," she said finally. "You can stay. As long as you also do PR for Westinghouse."
"Or you're a lawyer for USX."
"Or a radio personality."
"Or a wait-person."
"What do wait-persons wait for?" she mused, dancing out of the way of a passing car.
"Someone to let them be artists."
We thought we'd switch to a happier subject, like rock & roll. But it didn't turn out to be much better.
"Did you see Ronda Z's debut at the Grafitti?" Brenda asked. "Yeah. Wow. Great band, great voice, great stage presence."
"And her eyes. And the way she moves. A post-modern Betty Boop," I suggested.
"You know when you see her on stage you're really seeing her," Brenda said. "I can't imagine how she does anything else. But of course, she does. Most of the time. She has a job."
"A part-time rocker."
"How many of them do you know?"
"Rock & roll graphic designer. Rock & roll accountant. Rock & roll cab drivers. All of them."
So we talked about some we knew, as well as some of the others who used to be, or used to want to be, full-time rockers. By day they develop other people's photographs, nurse other people's children, count other people's money. And by night, they're...
"Tired," Brenda said.
"Hassling to get the band together on no money. Hassling to keep the band together with almost no money. Taking care of business. And yeah, now and again, the music."
Sure, we agreed, real life experience is invaluable for an artist of any kind. Locked away in your own world produces hermetic, self-absorbed and usually self-pitying work, warped and wilted. On the other hand, you only had so much energy, and art demands a lot.
And it isn't just the jobs you have to do, but the kind of jobs. Maybe as a young single person you can get by waiting tables, but as you get older and you still haven't "made it" (which means being able to do your art full time) and you've been dumb enough to fall in love and have some kids, it takes more money to get by. And that means a bigger job, the kind that takes up your time and energy and concentration. The kind that usually means you have to become this other person, this emotionally guarded, outward-directed, always-on-time and never-daydreaming person who is fixated on office politics, money management, client relationships, delivery schedules and corporate strategy---not to mention day care and tax returns. Truth and beauty? They'll have to wait.
"It gets you down," Brenda said. "It messes you up."
I told her about this 20 year old who said he had friends who wanted to be writers and actors, but didn't want to live in closets in New York for five years, or watch their friends in Pittsburgh buying cars and houses while they starved.
"Yeah, it's not like it used to be," Brenda said. "Rags aren't in. Being a Bohemian, a hippie even----that's being a chump. And it's more expensive anyway. There are always trade-offs. But now the price is pretty high."
So we talked about that strange and shifting line between part-time art and no art, and how people cross it. Like from being an actor who waits tables to someone in the restaurant business who used to audition. Some do it so gradually they don't even notice. Some even do it on the brink of success. Some don't regret the time they gave and the growth they experienced trying to be an artist. But some are haunted and even destroyed by their "failure." In giving it up, they gave up a major part of themselves.
Brenda mentioned a friend. "He was a musician for all those years but he had to quit. He has a family to feed. But now he gets up and he doesn't recognize himself. It isn't him, going out to work in the morning. He's in torment, every single day."
Despite the gloomy subject, I always feel great after talking with Brenda. But I had a lot to think about as I walked home. About middle class expectations, and people who want it all, including money, status, family and the freedom to pursue their art. Maybe some of them aren't willing to make legitimate sacrifices, and they are weeded out because their desire and their insistence on protecting and using their talent isn't strong enough. And maybe their talent isn't strong enough either. Or maybe their timing is wrong, and not their fault.
But I don't think that's the main story. Artists are in some ways privileged, but in most ways they are exploited. This country devotes less of its resources to supporting culture, and especially directly supporting artists, than just about any civilized country on this planet.
Sure, all artists have battles to fight in their own time and place, and as Goethe writes, "A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world's torments." But contrary to popular belief, artists don't need society to heap suffering on them; there's enough in their own souls and in the nature of what they do, thank you very much.
Artists don't need poverty; they may need simplicity, but basically they need the conditions that allow them integrity and concentration. To be poor in this society especially is to be generally treated like shit. It means continual humiliation. No one needs that. There is no mystery in its encouragement of drug and alcohol addiction and violence. Besides the anxiety of living on the edge, there's the humiliation of the regular rejection most artists not only get, but must practically invite.
Yet even in Pittsburgh, think of how many people make a good living off the arts, and who wouldn't be doing those jobs unless they were well paid. What was it that guy said, the theatre artist who had just come back from Europe and was touring with his new show? "I've heard of starving artists," he told me. "But I've never heard of starving arts administrators."
Studying the social circumstances that encourage or inhibit creativity, a Brandeis University psychologist came up with this conclusion: "Creativity is a fragile phenomenon, easily crushed." There are enough reasons not to create, enough barriers. It's hard, it's disruptive, it almost always hurts or offends someone. It's wrenching and exhausting, and it opens the deepest part of you to cutting criticism and misunderstanding. The fulfillment is seldom fully shared, the "high" and the effort leave you vulnerable, unprotected. Acceptance or understanding, if it comes at all, often comes too late.
But even without the pressures of New York or L.A. (and also without their energy and cutting-edge arts) those in Pittsburgh born with a talent and the inborn desire to express it, who don't feel fully alive or fully themselves, or fully contributing what they have that's most valuable to others unless they are expressing it---also face the daily question: how do you work a full-time job and be a part-time artist, and be any good? And maybe others ought to think about that, too.
All of these issues are societal issues, affecting more than artists. But what they do to artists, along with the artists' special concerns, continue to produce more tragedies in life than they do in art. "You need encouragement and opportunities," says playwright David Rabe, and those are the artist's bottom lines.
Then I remembered something else Brenda said as we stood in the sunshine, talking about Ronda Z's performance. "I loved when they did that Sly Stone song, 'Thank You for letting me be my self---again,'" Brenda said smiling. "That's what it's all about, isn't it? For Ronda. For a lot of us."
3. Art of Darkness(Libretto for Philip Glass, in town this week, and in honor of James Joyce's birthday on February 2.)
Lean sun, dot moon still visible as he idles outside the Hilton. Trying to shake the last blanketing dream (William Shakespeare, Herman Melville and Wallace Stevens dressed and dancing like the Temptations singing to him, "If words are our special bliss/ you will die of freakishness/ dah dah do-wah.") He turns on the radio, WYES doing an all day concert of artist's voices: painters, performance artists, writers, dancers, with occasional commentary. The voices fade in and out. It might be this old radio, this odd distance, or not.
...that we are passing through a Dark Age, it has been going on for hundreds of years and may well...
First fare of the day: sweaty man with stolid face, brown suit, brown briefcase. "Airport," the man says. "USAir." The driver thinks: blue of Magritte sky is either twilight or dawn; that's the mystery.
Baryshnikov's is above all the career of a true artist, who works not for his own glory but in service of a vision...There he was amidst the rest of the company in the same saggy exercise suit as the others, pouring radiance on each sculpted reach and lunge. He was the image of the soul of honor.
Driver looks in the rear view mirror, catching a glimpse of his forgotten manuscripts, the ones of which he thought first, this is not nothing, this is something, this is not polished but it is very much of me. And of which he thought second, no one on earth I know of will give this a life outside the room of its making.
You can really see it when a writer's work is part of a continuing dialogue. It's really a shame that the audience is no longer in touch with the dialogue.
Driver thinks: Virgil Thompson knew Stravinsky who knew Satie and Diaghilev, Balanchine and Danilova, Utrillo and Cocteau, who knew Apollonaire and Severini, who knew Braque and Picasso, who knew Joyce and Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who knew Pound and Eliot, who knew Groucho Marx. Who the fuck do I know?
Fare is reading the Wall Street Journal. Driver remembers the Doonesbury line, Duke says to Trump, "I just love that you call dealmaking an art. It really puts painting and literature in their place.."
...very little energy in the art community these days. Energy has been replaced by cynicism.
Fare gone, driver doses outside USAir baggage claim. I have great fear of the moral will of Americans to do anything that requires more than a week, okay? Anger's a much more socially and historically useful emotion than despair. But if the guiding principle is producing sellable objects, being a businessman, then the reasons for which most artists originally became interested in art have been lost.
"Hey dream guy, a fare's waiting."
Driver opens an outer eye: long gangler, loaded grin, face of peace and tangerine hair. Tommy Popper, climbing in.
"Nice to see a friendly face." Popper says. "I return from the grant wars."
"Arts Council?" driver asks, engining into the flow.
"Endowment," Tommy says, "as in National. You shoulda been there. We have star power this year---bigtime Hollywood producer, right? Charters a plane to Washington to participate in the grant selection. Our grantees get $5,000 or $15,000 for a year, tops. His plane trip cost $30,000."
...the total resistance of the system to being used for any ends other than its own, and the resultant domestication of the artist as decorative parakeet.
"Can't you get music on that thing?" Tommy says. "But she's right. I hear artists talking fondly of the days when Jasper Johns or somebody could punch out an obnoxious dealer. No artist would dare do that now. The dealers and the money folks are the flakes, the artists wear the timid clothes. It's bad enough for middle class whites but for those that ain't...well, Like those black grafitti artists in New York, remember them? Some got out of hand and threw some rich patron's color TV in the swimming pool of her Long Island estate, and they were history. Drop me at the Vista---I've got to attend some conference where they'll be discussing the role of the arts in reviving downtown. How to niche market afternoon mime, how to get big stars to your arts festival, apart from paying them. If they thought to invite any artists, they'll be immediately recognizeable. They're the ones looking angry and confused. Can you pick me up at five? I'll need a friendly face even more."
Perhaps the most difficult thing for us artists is to recognize in our place and time...
Driver sighs: time. Is all I ever think about.
Driver thinks: sure, she, a new movie, a publicity tour, the Vista: I see. He, no longer bearded, hair longer, it was long ago. Badly directed in an oddly written scene, in a small bare rehearsal room, she had been impossible not to watch. Then a coincidence, like this, both alone at a Truffaut double feature, meeting again after The Man Who Loved Women, sitting together for Mississippi Mermaid. Cognacs and candles at a Casablanca bar, dancing cheek to cheek. Long walk through winter cold to her apartment; she riding a ways on his back, he on hers. Talk of their aspirations. Tunes on her guitar, he one of his songs, she sang "You've Got a Friend." He left in the silence around her sleeping. It was his last night in that city, which was the other part of that night's fate.
They wrote, then not, a long time, and he did not see her again, until now. Except of course on the big screen, seeing her body again floating before him 40 feet high. In other romantic bars with Harrison Ford, across other candlelight with Al Pacino, singing songs with Jeff Bridges.
Driver looks at her in the rearview mirror and thinks: now when we are in a movie theatre together, I'm the only one of us out there in the seats.
The movement is towards the control of a meaningful context, creating environments not just to support art, but that create the possibility for new scales of creativity across all disciplines and boundaries...
Driver thinks: well, New York. Put it off and put it off. Wanted to be someone when he arrived, not just another punk on the make. And the years went by, and that became even more important. Clarissa, always there, beckoning him, but she stuck with that unsuccessful rock singer. She knew his heart for her, but kept him at a distance, until his heart grew wary, and making his move might mean losing her crucial friendship. He could wait, for her, for his time. Until the first day of his answering machine (so no important agent calls would be missed), getting home from his shift, seeing the green message light, eager to hear his first message. Which was: cousin of Clarissa...hard to say this...after a short illness...Clarissa passed away. Can you speak at the memorial?
Promptly at five outside the Vista, Tommy folds himself in. "Jeez, I'm tired. Take me home, pal."
Silence for awhile. I would like to keep writing for the theatre. I have no illusions about what good can come to me as a result of it, I'm not counting on it to bring me anything. What I hope is that it doesn't kill me. Driver looks in the rear view mirror: surprised to see Tommy looking at him, looking away.
"So, how old are you now, Dick?"
Driver pauses. "Forty."
"Right. It's forty until forty-five," Tommy says. "Then it's forty-five until fifty. I know a director in New York, his last show was Timon of Athens, went on at 4 a.m. in some kind of marathon of all Shakespeare's plays. He's also a waiter. He's mainly a waiter, same restaurant for years. Cast the whole show out of that restaurant. He's fifty. God help us all. So---you should either be famous, or dead from drink and drugs, right? How come you ain't?"
"You make a good living? Driving a cab? Or did you say good liver. My hearing's going, and I'm only...thirty. Till I'm thirty-five."
Driver thinks: that John Donne fragment, so romantic in college. Now hovers around me, a wraith, a beacon, a question: I am rebegot/of absense, darkness, death/things which are not.
I am seizing the opportunity to grant myself the right to hope...The next college art generation will be activist, antiracist, antisexist, and antimaterialist with a vengeance and will reinvigorate the art world with its energy. By the end of the century we''' see the death of the myth of artists as drunken bohemians, irresponsible children who live in poverty and die broke; they will begin to be seen as strong, reliable individuals deeply involved in public life, with a sense of personal responsibility for their own lives and health and that of their fellow humans.
Tommy rouses by the cab's sudden stillness, peers at his home: his blond wife inside, his blond children. "Well, these days anything can happen, right? Philip Glass drove a cab till he was forty-two, didn't he?"he says. "That's it, Dick---you could be the next Philip Glass."