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.
This entry was posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 9:57 am and is filed under Art, Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.