It Has to Mean Something

It Has to Mean Something

One of the devices to keep things interactive at The Moth is the slips of paper that encourage audience members to submit “tweets” (which I’m pretty sure just means “Write something in a sentence”) of their own personal connections to the theme. The host then reads these in between stories while the judges confer.

Around four years ago, at the Haymarket Moth in Chicago, the theme was “Discovery” and I read one of the tweets. It went something like this:

“After writing for 20 years I finally realized that I was a WRITER…and believed it.”

It occurred to me at the time that we have elevated artistry onto a strange pedestal that requires a belief in oneself to declare legitimacy in the job title. No one (sane) would say “I’ve been fixing toilets for 20 years and I finally realized that I was a PLUMBER…and believed it.” I’ve never heard of a garbage collector needing to believe he was, indeed, a garbage collector in order to feel good about collecting your trash at 4AM.

Mind you, there is a difference between a commercially successful artist, a talented artist, a brilliant artist and a bad artist. Maybe the writer in question is just a bad writer. So what? That, in and of itself, does not mean he or she is not a WRITER. It just means he or she isn’t particularly good at it after 20 years. Or MAYBE…It took he or she 20 years to become a confident writer. It’s that belief thing that sticks out. Only an artist feels the need to believe in his or herself in order to feel validated in the label. A pig farmer doesn’t need to believe in his title — he raises pigs. That is the proof in the pudding.

A few nights later. Poetry. Inspiring, intelligent, moving poetry. On a stage. A post-show discussion. “For poetry to be meaningful it has to mean something.” — Haki Madhubuti

A young cat gets up to the mic. He spells out his situation — inspired by calls for the youth to avoid aggression and violence in their lives, he discovers poetry and delves into it head first. He then discovers that there’s no money in the field. That he has found his passion but cannot make a living doing it.

And I thought, “So?”

Anyone can be an artist. Art — an awful lot of it — can be created and displayed or performed for virtually no money up front. A poet writes poetry. It costs nothing to write poetry but the time. A playwright can sit down and write a play and spend no money down except for the coffee and cigarettes.

The Big Question is “Are you an artist or are you only an artist when it pays to be one?”

Because if you’re only an artist when there’s a carrot on the end of that stick, you’re a tourist.

And perhaps that’s the difference. A plumber plumbs for money because it is work that, by itself, does not edify his life. A garbageman would almost never just collect trash for free. But an artist?

A writer WRITES.
A poet WRITES.
A playwright WRITES.
A painter PAINTS.
An actor ACTS.
A dancer DANCES.
A mime is DESPISED.

For art to be meaningful it has to mean something. If the art is truly just a job you do for money, it is no different than fixing a toilet or collecting trash.

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