First, let me say that if I could, I would spend my days writing. I wouldn’t blog, I wouldn’t tweet, I wouldn’t spend time marketing or promoting myself other than to participate in readings.
And if I could afford to publish Tahoma Literary Review and produce a professional publication (including paying contributors decent rates) without charging submission fees, I would do that too.
There are few people rich or successful enough to do those things. There are others who receive university or government funding, or patronage to make it possible. As much as I might like to, I don’t live in those worlds.
For better or worse, I live in mainstream America in 2014, a society that has changed over time from a system based on capitalism to one of consumerism. It’s no longer about the acquisition of wealth, but the acquisition of material goods. Therefore, everything is assigned a value, even if there is little or no basis for that value. Everything has a price. Everything can be bought and sold. Or can it?
The creation of art, almost by definition, is the antithesis of this idea. To write, or paint, or create music (in my experience at least) involves removing oneself for long stretches of uninterrupted time, and as far as possible, from the cesspool of daily commerce. Only then can the artist place his ideas about the world in perspective to it, and create a unique and profound statement. Only then does the art have value.
But here, I’m talking about the emotional, psychological value of the work. The finished art, if it is art, must speak to the recipient on some level other than the monetary. Unfortunately, it appears many in our society have forgotten how to assess that quality. Value, in 2014 mainstream America, is based almost solely on sales. How much can we charge; how many can we sell? Everything must have a market niche. In the writing biz, agents and publishers, who used to take chances on writing that was different from the mainstream (the search for emotional value), don’t do that so much any more. They are hamstrung by their corporate overlords and the mantra of commerce uber alles. Personally, nearly every agent I’ve talked to or communicated with has repeated this belief. In fact, my most frequent query rejection is, “I love your writing, but I can’t sell it.”
But none of this is new.
Some people, some artists, believe the artist’s life means nearly complete separation from the considerations of the markets, an unfettered, Thoreau-like existence of streams and dreams, writing and wildlife. But most artists of note throughout history have spent lives buffeted between their passion to create and the need to make enough money to support that desire. Think of the artists of the Renaissance, in thrall to royalty or the church, spending as much of their time butting heads with patrons and marketing themselves (in the fashion of the day, that is), as any artist today. Remember those like Van Gogh, whose struggles with sales were a chief concern as he tried to establish himself. Read of James Joyce’s lifelong problems with making enough to live on. There have been millions like them.
Most artists in America today have day jobs. For them, life becomes a constant compromise, a schizophrenia in which we must be able to separate, as much as possible, our competing existences in order to create. When possible, we throw ourselves into our art, but unlike regular jobs, there’s no guarantee of a paycheck at the end of the week, which is the consumer culture’s way of saying the pursuit of art, the work of making art has no value. The completed artwork is assigned an arbitrary value, but the work to create it, nada. Whether a book took ten years or ten weeks to write doesn’t factor into that equation. But if a person spends an hour to create a widget, or ten seconds to dish out an order of fries, that, in this culture, has value, and is compensated accordingly. Of course, those occupations have little emotional value.
So what, if anything, constitutes the bridge that connects these two value systems?
More next week. See ya then.