A Call to Arms (In the War Between Art and Survival)

Posted by Carl King on

This is not an article revealing The Three Secrets To Financing Your Independent Film or How To Network With Hollywood Big-Shots or How To Write A Hit Movie In Four Hours. There are plenty of books, DVDs, and classes for that, and they have their place. I'm skipping all of it and speaking directly to The Artist in you.

If you haven't noticed, there is an ancient and ongoing war between Art and Survival.

And yes, I'm serious. It is a War -- and Art has been losing. Whether we are writers, painters, directors, actors, poets, dancers, or musicians, the artists of the world face a fundamental problem: we live in a society in which Art has little value. No amount of ambitious self-hypnotism or L.A.-style positive affirmation can change that. Since we were children, our behavior has been modified by rewards and punishments. And in modern society, we primarily respond to a form of social conditioning called Money.

Money is a number that measures our Value to Society. It's abstract and absurd. It could just as easily be called Points or Health or Mana. (And if you think our economy isn't as imaginary as a video game, read the work of John Maynard Keynes or Irving Fisher.) So… if our Value to Society is measured as a number… a bigger number is better, right? Right. As a result, we lose sight of all else, and stare at that number. All day. Concentrating. Subconsciously and consciously. Gotta make it bigger. When I do this, what happens? Hmm. How about this? Ooh! That worked. I'm gonna do that again!

And that tends to be doing other stuff -- stuff we'd never do otherwise. For days, months, years of our lives. We end up with a Surrogate Career.

I'm reminded of a recent interview with writer Chris Higgins, in which he said:

"Regarding art and pragmatism, I’m a strong pragmatist. I don’t create art so I can admire it by myself or achieve an ideal of perfection. It is my goal to communicate a narrative to a large number of people, to affect those people at an emotional level, and to get paid for doing so (such that I can continue to do meaningful work). I have lots of friends who do great work that is more internal, less pragmatic, and less commercially viable — and that’s genuinely great. I just don’t know any of them who make a living doing it."

He's right. I don't personally know anyone. Do you? If you investigate, there always seems to be some form of "day job" that is "kind of related." Whether that's "also running a label" or "also acting in movies" or "also doing seminars" or "also teaching at a college" or "also having rich / famous parents" or "also having been in a famous band, just by coincidence." Who out there is truly a self-sufficient, self-made genius that never needed to play the game?

I've found that art is typically not allowed to survive unless it's re-packaged as some form of Popular Entertainment. For example: Musicians, no matter how talented, need a thing called Showmanship. Since the average person can't tell the difference between the sound of Jeremy Colson and the sound of Virgil Donati, there needs to be an overt visual display. Face-making, arm-swinging, some kind of show. "Look at me, I really am hitting the drums!" Because somehow, the music isn't enough when it's only sound.

And if you won't put on that little show, you won't get the gig. Period.

This is why so many people who move to L.A. lose their own artistic voice. The pressure to survive in such an expensive and competitive environment is oppressive. There are so many tempting offers to get paid for Surrogate Work, that we lose our way. We trick ourselves into believing all this freelance and sideman work is better than living in Ohio. What we thought of as Art becomes Work. We forget why we originally started doing all of this. (For those of you outside of L.A., this must seem like a truly bizarre concept -- but I assure you, it is real.) The other phenomenon that ruins the magic is the importance of being liked by the right people. Because without them, you're evicted next month. Of course, that has nothing at all to do with being creative, which is quite confusing.

And that's why the primal threat of homelessness and starvation will always defeat the desire to write a song.

I believe it was Frank Zappa who said: "The problem with musicians is that they like to eat."

For hundreds of thousands of years, we Homo sapiens lived in the wilderness. We'd eat what we could hunt or grow or grab off a tree. But in society, we eat other people. (Sounds crazy, doesn't it?) It's because as a species, we have to cooperate. Most of us aren't self-sufficient organisms. To build up our "Value to Society" and be rewarded with food, we have to do many strange things: shuffle papers around between the hours of 9 and 5, carry boxes on and off a truck in the rain, play someone else's boring music.

The path to putting food in our mouths is no longer intuitive. We must perform all of these confounding social gymnastics. Meet the right people. Stand in the right place at the right time. All of that Hollywood fairy-tale stuff. Some call it Compromise. Some call it Kissing Butt. Some call it Selling Out. Whatever you call it, the process has become so complex and non-creative that few are able to turn their art into food, much less have any art left over once they've done all the hand-shaking and "buddy-bro-pal."

But what is Art? What are we fighting this War for?

My own, personal definition of Art is still under development.

So far, I have three criteria:

  1. It Is Self-Expression. It makes a statement, from the artist's own unique camera pointed at the world. 
  2. It Is Rooted In The Subconscious. If it's only analytical and contrived, it's not alive. 
  3. It Is Non-Commercial. Meaning, it has nothing to do with making money. (Although making money from it is certainly desirable in this society.)

That's all I've got to go on. By the time you read this, it may have changed.

Even Ani DiFranco, a successful folk artist and self-made millionaire, couldn't figure it out. She sang: "Art is why I get up in the morning, but my definition ends there. And it doesn't seem fair to live my life for something I can't even define."

The first form of art I committed myself to was music. But I always felt its form was limited. When experiencing my favorite albums as a teenager, I have to admit that the liner notes and cover art were every bit as powerful. As a confused kid with no friends, a painting of Steve Vai surrounded by aliens and demons in some otherworldly realm was more exciting to me than his guitar playing.

After 20 years, I discovered that music is not made up of sounds and notes. Music is made of an internal experience, and it just happens to be transmitted via sounds and notes. Listening to the individual notes might be as silly as looking at the pixels on your monitor, or the serifs on your typeface while reading American Psycho. It's missing the big picture. The meaning.

I also discovered the reason I performed was this: I wanted the audience to feel the way I did.

It didn't matter what form of art I used, as long as I achieved that. This freed me up to incorporate writing, music, graphic design, and even large-scale pranks to get my message across.

In my early twenties, I recruited a group of friends and performed three "shows" in which we alienated, confused, and angered the audience. We called ourselves Ed Furniture, which was the fictitious business name I registered. We were never sure if we were a performance art group or a band or a record label. But it didn't matter.

Our first real gig was in Atlanta, at Dragon*Con 1999, North America's Largest Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention. The Grand Ballroom capacity was 5,000. By the end of our "show" it was packed. We were opening for one of the biggest attractions that weekend, a lip-synching live-action Anime girl named Apollo Smile. I've always liked surprise endings, so after my boring 3-piece rock band played 10 songs or so, the real show began.

A pair of robots attacked me, choked me, and dragged me off stage. A mad scientist named Dr. Plutonium and his team of technicians in lab coats wheeled a numerical countdown tower and rocket-powered couch onto the stage. Our idea was that we would Launch a "Couch-Into-Space!" It made no sense, even to us. But we loved it.

To create enough "suction" to launch the couch, we would need audience participation. My actor friend, Will Maier, dressed as a bearded hillbilly named Jim (who looked like he got lost on his way to a Creedence festival). He sang campfire songs and slapped his knees, encouraging the audience to sing along.

The countdown to launch began, and the audience was not at all into it. We were already going overtime. They yelled at us. We kept going, determined to complete the show (whatever that meant). Claudia Christian, star of the TV show Babylon 5, got on stage and tried to wrestle the mic away from our mad scientist, who was loudly counting the numbers, out of sync with the control tower. Ten. Nine. Eight. The countdown reversed. Nine. Ten. The audience got more uncomfortable. Jim asked the audience to stand up and sit down, repeatedly. Most of them ignored him, shouted profanities, or booed. Claudia Christian led them in a chant of "Apollo! Apollo! Apollo!"

I then experienced one of the most powerful moments of my artistic career. Jim told the audience, "OK, we'll be out of here in five minutes if everybody stands up right now." WHOOSH! The entire audience jumped to their feet. Thousands of people. The countdown ended. The couch did not launch. Claudia Christian mocked us. I sat at the back of the hall as my friends left the stage in what looked like defeat. I could not have been more proud of what I did.

Our second gig was at Zappaween 5, in October of 1999. It was an annual Halloween celebration in St. Petersburg, FL, which featured a rotating cast of original Zappa band members. For that show, we dressed as three versions of The Unabomber (College Ted, Captured Ted, and Police Sketch Ted). Our set ended with us fleeing the venue, after having spilled buckets of paint, anti-freeze, wood chips, and hundreds of torn up phone book pages all over the floor. Record time: 6 minutes.

For our next "performance" in March 2000, we spent $3000 on business suits, blueprints, and an exhibitor's booth at a technology convention in New York City. We called ourselves Digital Electronic Media Incorporated, and promoted a new music compression technology that didn't exist. Derek Sivers was in on the joke, and even put our "prototype unit" up on the CDBaby site for (if I remember the amount) a million dollars. He joked that no credit card had that high of a limit, so we didn't have to worry about anyone buying it. What terrified me: the convention attendees could not distinguish between our nonsense company and the rest of the nonsense companies. Foreign businessmen wanted to invest. NY Times wanted to interview us. I was in heaven, watching my friends mess with people's minds, deadpan, explaining to them how our new technology worked. It taught me how gullible people can be if you understand marketing and advertising.

Through those three events, I believe we had accomplished my mission: to make the audience feel the way I did at a "normal" concert or in everyday life. Alienated, confused, and angered. I made them experience the world through my eyes -- which is the primary goal of my artistic career. Whether they liked it or not, I had succeeded.

I believe that in this War (which is a more asymmetrical form like Guerilla Warfare or Terrorism) we need to get away with making as much Art we can. We might not have the financial and technological resources that our enemies have, but we have creativity on our side.

As Howard Roark said: "The point is, who will stop me?"

We must steal our time and energy back from the bad guys (imaginary or real) who are trying to make our lives boring. Our friends, our parents, our boss -- whoever stands in the way. A creative career has always been a struggle, and always will be. The opposing forces battle in the soul of every artist -- and we need to put them to use. Fit in, camouflage yourself when you need to. Infiltrate their game. Do whatever gives your message the best chance of survival.

We can't all be Joseph Campbell. So get back to it. Make the world better. Make some art.

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