Monday, October 11, 2010

The Artist's Work

From my essay "The Artist As Worker," out now in the summer 2010 "Work" issue of Oregon Humanities Magazine:

... In America it has always been the spiritual task of the artist to defend his art to a private self who wished it to be more notable or remunerative; today’s task increasingly means defending one’s art to a culture that expects it to be those things and more.

Whether you come to the desk as a writer in secondhand clothes or a CEO in clover, your prescribed oracle is now the same: the dollar. You have before you, like everybody else, the great playing field of the competitive marketplace. You must put your shoulder to the fray and reap a respectable yearly income—or, failing that, at least amass conspicuous honors, appointments, grants, awards—else admit that what you do is not really work. A hobby, maybe, this words-on-paper business. A spinsterish diversion that is quaint and slightly embarrassing in its Victorian echoes. Not work. Artists of late, enthusiastically subscribing to the “career track,” offer collusion with and reinforcement of the new pragmatism. As Eric Larsen notes in his fulminating treatise A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit, “Inner and outer, public and private, artwork and ad, conscience and collaboration” have never been so interchangeable. What is your mission statement? What are your credentials? Art-making, we’re all led to understand, is not a way of life, a calling, a sacrificial act—we’ve grown up since the age of Rilke’s Europe, of mollycoddling “the imagination”; we’ve learned self-respect. Red-eyed, brain-sore, hunchbacked novelist, ask thy bank account whether you’re wasting your time; ask thy “reputation;” heed their replies. Doth they whisper: “Earn thy MFA!” “Get thee a teaching job!” “Network more!” Then jump to it or jump ship.

Says critic Lee Siegel in his book Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination, “The general anxiety now is that if you don’t have a gallery, a movie about to be released, or a six-figure advance for a book soon after college, you have bungled opportunities previously unknown to humankind…. Instead of the artist patiently surrendering his ego to the work, he uses his ego to rapidly direct the work … toward the success that seems to be diffused all around him like sunshine.” Siegel’s bright-eyed hankerer, to continue an admittedly hyperbolic tone, is a capitalist stand-in for the spirited artist of old—a kind of new literary forty-niner, brain ablaze with Fifth Avenue rumors of the latest Big Deal, the who’s who of agents, bestseller lists and film options, eager to demonstrate the skills of self-promotion, of being interesting—or even better, incendiary—in interviews. I find it hard to imagine the injunction of John Keats, one of literary history’s great unprivileged, having any relevance in such a racket: “The genius of Poetry [read: art] must work out its own salvation in a man; it cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself—that which is creative must create itself.” ...