Scribbling in the Margins

I went to hear Richard Dawkins speak Wednesday night. It wasn’t bad, but I’m not sure that the people with whom I attended the lecture were quite Dawkins’ target audience. As we stood around afterward dissecting it, we got on the topic of behavior being optimized for its environment. Lynn Fellman, an artist, commented on some of the trade-offs involved, “For example, I’m rewarded for being a perfectionist in my work, but in other parts of my life…,” and suddenly, I needed to write.

Perfectionism is only one behavior that’s encouraged in art but needs to be set aside if the artist wants to be fully accepted in “polite society.” Artists need the obsessiveness to see a project through with little feedback (or despite feedback). They need enough pride to believe that their ideas are worth executing. They need to be mercurial enough to suit their thinking to a new and very different project from their last. They need to ask uncomfortable questions and set aside polite fictions. They need to be willing to upset people. They need to be willing to manipulate their audience.

In many ways, art is antisocial behavior.

That last sentence isn’t anything like a new thought. For centuries, going on the stage has been something respectable people ran away to do. Being able to dabble in drawing has been an accomplishment, but taking it seriously has been suspect. Singing has been acceptable only in a church or as part of another community festival. Dancing…well, just ask the Methodists. Acting, painting, dancing and writing have all been associated with “alternate” sexuality and drug use–acting and dancing with prostitution. Art students and musicians have long had a reputation for licentiousness that is only slightly exaggerated (they have to practice some time, after all).

What I think has been missed is that this isn’t a function of the poverty of artists. It isn’t a reflection of the undependable nature of their income or the seductiveness of their work. It isn’t a question of the neighborhoods in which they can afford studio or stage space.

Art is fundamentally antisocial. That’s one thing the Methodists did get right. You can’t create art without stepping back just a little bit and seeing glimpses, here and there, of the things that societies agree to pretend don’t exist. Ironies, hypocrisies, inequalities, lies, elided truths, all of them are made manifest by the artist.

Selling out, that widely recognized death of artistic integrity, doesn’t have nearly as much to do with work for money as the name might suggest. In this case, taking money is a proxy for failing to piss off the people the money comes from. It’s an accusation, right or wrong, that the artist has stopped making people uncomfortable.

Here lies one of the great paradoxes of our culture, the one that was on the tip of Lynn’s tongue after the lecture. Civilization needs its artists. They are its mirror, its conscience, its goad. Art provides the glimpse into the heart of the “other” that keeps us all from being strangers to one another. Nothing but education, perhaps, signals a healthy neighborhood, city or country better than its population of artists.

However, at the same time, civilization also believes that it needs all those politenesses that keep us from bumping up against each other too closely. It needs everything that the artists strip away.

So society pushes artists to the margins. It accepts the work produced, but the artist is left with fewer protections than the more polite members of society. Income is uneven and rarely guaranteed, since the satisfaction of a contract is a much harder thing to define in art. Insurance is often unobtainable. Housing comes without amenities like privacy. Privacy is, in general, nonexistent, since the artist is considered to be part of the product. Ask anyone who’s suddenly found themselves a celebrity.

Then there is the vilification. Even those who support art often don’t understand why artists can be so…difficult, why art isn’t just a job that’s left in the studio or theater at the end of the day. And there are plenty of people who are terrified of art’s role in civilization. They are, shall we say, less kind in their assessment of why artists aren’t like “normal” folks. To them, artists are parasites at best, demons at worst and insane somewhere in the middle.

And so we sit, we artists, and feed civilization from its edges. We sing and dance and paint and draw and write and act and toot our own horns out here in the margins, pushed here by the very things that make us indispensable. Our flexible brains have been shaped by what we do in ways that make us strangers in the core of the culture we support.

Ultimately, though, that’s just fine. Margins aren’t such a bad place to be. There’s so much more white space for us to fill up out here.

6 Responses to “Scribbling in the Margins”

  1. March 6th, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    In the BIG picture, over the LONG term, one could argue that if the practice of art is anti-social, it is because society has moved to a different place. Throughout the world and in many cultures, things we could call art (not craft or practice or something else mundane, but the skilled transformative performance or expression, as “art” as any modern Western art) is in many cases among the most social activity one can find.

  2. March 6th, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    Having grown up Methodist, and immersing myself in the church throughout my teenage years, I was always told it was the Baptists who didn’t dance (or play cards or anything else we thought was fun). We did.
    What we Methodists weren’t allowed was drinking, smoking, or other behaviors which showed we weren’t being good stewards of the body we were given.
    Favorite joke on the subject from back when: Why don’t Baptists make love standing up? Because somebody might think they were dancing!

  3. March 6th, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Mankel says:

    The idea of the artist as antisocial has less than a century. To set a date and a place: Paris, 1920’s. I agree the current mystic of modern art requires “breaking the social rules” but I think it just expresses the necessity to call attention and create a brand. The prize is very tempting if you are able to do that.
    Art also has been a way out to people that didn’t fit the standards. From there came the stereotypes.

  4. March 6th, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    How do you keep a Baptist from drinking your beer when you bring him fishing with you?

    Bring two Baptists.

  5. March 9th, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Kelly McCullough says:

    I’m not sure I’m entirely in agreement with you here because of this bit:
    Art is fundamentally antisocial. That’s one thing the Methodists did get right. You can’t create art without stepping back just a little bit and seeing glimpses, here and there, of the things that societies agree to pretend don’t exist. Ironies, hypocrisies, inequalities, lies, elided truths, all of them are made manifest by the artist.

    There is something of an underlying assumption about the purposes of art here that is one to which I’m basically allergic, that of art’s purpose being to hold up a mirror to society–though I do agree that one has to step back. I’m fine with that as the purpose of some art and artists, or as one of the purposes of some art and artists, but I have real problems any time it look like the purpose. Now, I’m suspecting that’s not what you’re claiming as you tend not to let yourself get caught in simple descriptions of complex phenomena, but it’s close enough to arguments I’ve often seen claiming that as sole purpose that I feel the need to note that there are a lot of reasons to make art, including simply making people happy or entertaining them and that those purportedly (or often so) less weighty purposes are not in my mind even the slightest bit less important. More on that here for those who haven’t heard me talk about this one before.

  6. March 14th, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Silver Fox says:

    I’ve never thought of art as antisocial per se, but you have presented some good arguments for the case. When I do most forms of art that I get involved in (painting, writing), it seems like an a-social or antisocial activity because – except when trying to sell things – I am not involved with other people. But a lot of the work I do is like that.

    And maybe I’m not a great artist because I do it for myself first, and for others second. (Is that antisocial?!)

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