Shut Up and Make Some Art

 

 

By Don Hall

I'm surrounded by artists. I've been in the company of fellow artists of nearly every stripe since I was prepubescent, and the refrain, "I should be paid for this work!" is as common as half-baked songs and poems about romance gone wrong. Combined with the rhetoric of the 99% and the botched lack of oversight of corporations plus the demise of the American union, this demand to be paid a living wage to be an artist sounds silly.

Lose the entitled attitude and become amazing. 

Before the days of radio and recorded music and movies, family members were required to learn to play instruments and recite poetry and create art.  Both for self-edification as well as entertainment for the family (picture the Norman Rockwell-esque vision of a home piano recital and family sing-a-long). The amateur creation of art and the learning of an artistic skill used to hold a great deal of importance in the average American household. Art was less a commodity to be bought and sold and more a way of life.

Eventually came the idea of the specialist.

Like the difference between the old family doctor and the plastic surgeon, there was more money in specialization. Why be an MD when you could make a lot more money being an eye doctor or dermatologist? Old school (meaning pre-film days) performers could do it all—Charlie Chaplin could sing, play several instruments, dance, act scripts, write scripts, direct and perform sleight of hand as well as show proficiency at acrobatics and sword swallowing. Most vaudevillians could perform on the stage, in the orchestra or backstage—whatever was necessary. That show must go on.

Like with politics a bit later (which wasn't heavily affected by film and television until the 1940s) the movies changed the craft of acting. Early films captured the skills of these renaissance performing Jacks of All Trades—the work of the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, of course, Chaplin were often simply screen versions of the schtick they had performed on stages for years. With later film, however, it became apparent that skill was overshadowed by looks and the vaudevillians of old became cameos in the films of the very good-looking movie stars.

Even then, actors like Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Fanny Brice could hold their own in nearly any performing medium. There was a well-rounded quality to their skills and, when attached to natural camera friendly charisma, stars were born. But they were born after years of practice on stages.

Jump Cut to today and we have movie stars that can only look pretty on film and go to learn skills and craft on Broadway as gimmicks. The idea of winning that lottery and becoming a star has overtaken all aspects of the industry, and students spend thousands of dollars learning how to speak lines of dialogue from commercials selling bullshit for their On Camera classes, and get meaningless degrees in specializations that are far too common.

Instead of getting your voice attuned, learn to sing brilliantly. Did Leonard Cohen have a conventionally beautiful voice? Not on your life. His voice, however, was amazing, and the fact that you just wrote a song out in the Uber ride home is contrasted by Cohen taking NINE YEARS to write Hallelujah. Be better. Be worthy of money rather than entitled to it.

Imagine how much money a brain surgeon would make if every other medical student became a brain surgeon.

As the open source technology begins to unfold, industries like the publishing giants and the film production houses are fighting desperately against the tide of participatory art. With Kindle and digital books, anyone who can type can publish their work for immediate distribution; with iMovie, any idiot with a digital camera can make a movie and post it on YouTube. The writer doesn't need the publisher anymore; the filmmaker doesn't need the studio any longer. Sure, if you want to make JK Rowling or James Cameron dough you need the publicity and distribution of a major publisher or studio, but if all you're looking to do is get enough notice to fuel the next one, now is the Golden Age.

This isn't new for the actor or musician or poet or storyteller. Artists get paid so little on the middle to the bottom of the pile because any asshole can say he's an artist. A degree means dick unless you're going to go into Arts Administration and, even then, grad school isn't about what you learn but who you impress and befriend. If everyone who felt a need to help his fellow man could simply declare that he was a doctor could be, in fact, a doctor, then being a doctor would have very little employable value.

Why do technicians get paid when actors and playwrights and even directors do not? Because they have a necessary and demonstrable skill that has immediate pragmatic value. Working with technology gives it a whiff of legitimacy and something concrete to produce. Why does a group of actors feel the need to become an NFP corporation? Because it makes the theatre company they started smack of some sort of grownup legitimacy. The degree and NFP 501(c)(3) make the work seem suddenly more adult and business-like. Like charity for themselves. Having a Board of Directors comprised of people with real jobs makes us feel that we are somehow not just defrauding the public by putting on our shows.

The attitude that in order to be a successful artist one must be a savvy businessman is like telling a poet he isn't a real poet until he can sell 50 books of his poetry. The sale doesn't change the work; it just makes the poet spend time selling it rather than making it. And face it, most poets we still read are amateurs that became famous because someone else sold it. Most died broke.

Now, here is where it gets sticky—the NFP institutions are built for distribution. Like publishing houses and film studios, they make their dime on providing a building to do shows in and a place for artists to gather. The artists almost always rotate in and out—the revolving door of the journey. Even an ensemble theater like Steppenwolf rarely has the same actors floating around from show to show. Similar to the publishing house, a good 85 percent of the dough per book sold goes to overhead. In the publishing institution, that means paying publicists and accountants and sales reps and the administrative costs. The guys who print the actual books? Probably not getting a big cut of that $24.95 ($25.95 in Canada). The authors? Not unless they're Dan Brown.

Institutions operate exactly the same way.

You don't need a degree to be an artist.

You don't need an institution with a Board of Directors to make art.

All you need is the desire to be a craftsperson. Learn how sing, dance, orate, write, do magic, direct, hang lights, design and build a set, record some cool SFX, paint. Make it your business to be good at everything. Make art. Make your art. Make it anywhere, any time. Don't listen to those screaming in your face, "Be a professional specialist! Grow up! Be a better corporation! And buy my book that tells you how!"

Here's a reprint of something a very smart fucker once wrote to me. I posted it originally on my old blog in 2005.

Patrick Jacobi was in Postmortem and is one of the smartest people I've known. Moved to Vermont decades ago to study law. He then emailed me. Here's a piece of his correspondence:

"SHUT UP AND WORK. Law school has made me realize what a lazy person I was when I worked a 9–5. If you haven't exhausted yourself by the time you go to bed, you have wasted your day. You want to be an artist and get paid—PROVE THAT YOU CAN GENERATE REVENUE SUFFICIENT TO BENEFIT SOMEONE WHO HAS THE MEANS TO PAY YOU or perish. If I had it to do again, I would have stayed up until 3 or 4 every night writing scripts, getting in shape, sending out headshots, etc. If you are sleeping comfortably when you are trying to make art that someone will pay you to make, you are going about it the wrong way. If law school requires that I work this hard just to become a lame-ass lawyer, then that means becoming an artist requires 10 times as much work.
I have alienated a few with this rant, but I know you well enough that you will heed it or ignore it to your heart's delight. But feel free to pass it on to others: YOU ARE ENTITLED TO NOTHING. WORK UNTIL YOU DROP AND THEN GET UP AND WORK SOME MORE AND THEN MAYBE THE WORLD WILL GIVE YOU A PENNY. When you can truly say that you are blind with the fatigue of trying to make art, then I will feel for the PERSON WHO CHOSE TO BE AN ARTIST, when so many other easier roads were available. IT IS THE HARDEST of roads, so SHUT UP AND MAKE SOME ART!"

There you go.