Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's Not About You

I'm a fan of Daniel H. Pink. I think his book A Whole New Mind was inspiring and fascinating, and created a vocabulary that could be used in discussions from education to business to the arts.

Later, I was invited to listen in on a webcast with Pink about his latest book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need, a book done in Manga comic book style that gives six principles for young people trying to find their way in the post-college world of work. As someone who teaches said young people, my curiosity was piqued, so I grabbed a copy when it came into our university library.

It is Rule Number 3 that I'd like to discuss tonight, because it applies to our previous discussion about how to garner legislative support for increased arts funding. But I also would propose that it is a rule, if embraced by the arts community, that would change the face of the arts in significant ways and raise them in the esteem of their fellow citizens. It might even lead to a New Renaissance. Rule #3 is: It's Not About You.

Our hero, Johnny Bunko, is stuck in a boring job he took because he followed his father's advice to major in something secure in college rather than following what he was most passionate about. One night, wallowing in despair as he works an all-nighter, he cracks open a pair of chopsticks which releases a savvy and sarcastic genie named Diana who says she is here to teach him how not to screw up his life. The first two principles -- "There is no plan" and "Focus on strengths, not weaknesses," have led our hero to make a mess of things by arrogantly focusing so much on his own "special genius" that he is about to screw up a big opportunity. Diana bursts on the scene to set him straight. The dialogue in the comic reads as follows:
Diana: It's not about you.
Johnny: But last week you said...
Diana: Read my lips, numb-nuts! It's not about you. It's about your customer, it's about your client. Use your strengths, yes, but remember... You're here to serve -- not to self-actualize...
Johnny: So I don't matter at all?
Diana: Of course you matter, but the most succesful people improve their own lives by impriving others' lives. They help their customer solve its problem. They give their client something it didn't know it was missing. That's where they focus their energy, talent, and brainpower.
Johnny: Outward, not inward.
Diana: Exactly...Sp pull your head out of your...ego.
Artists are not admired in our culture. Oh, sure, if you're a celebrity, you get oohed and aahed over, and even allowed to comment on political issues every once in a while if you'll help a politican draw a crowd, but for the most part the average Joe thinks artists are self-absorbed, arrogant con men who try to pass off incomprehensible nonsense as profound works of art. They don't buy the idea, so common in discussions about the nonsensical question "What is art?," that it's art if the artist says its art. They don't know why they should work at a job while artists spend all their time daydreaming and farting around.

Now, you know that that image isn't true, and I know that that image isn't true, but the reason that they don't know is two-fold: 1) they don't know any artists, because artists huddle together in what amounts to spiritually gated communities populated only by other artists, and 2) because whenever artists are asked why public money ought to be used to support art, artists talk only about themselves -- about their self-expression, their oh-so-personal vision, the purity of their integrity. And then they offer a few kumbaya generalities about how the arts are "good for" everybody everywhere and ask for a check. Once they get the check, they use it to create art that thumbs its nose at those who gave the money in the first place. It's a performance that wears thin real quickly, and after about three decades our elected leaders decided, in the 1990s, to stop taking it anymore. We've been trying to recover ever since.

It's not about you. That doesn't mean "You're here to take orders." Rather, it means you are a conduit, a limen like a doorway between the imaginative realm and the concrete realm. Artists are like shamans or mediums who, through long training and painful experience, have learned to open themselves to the ineffable and are able to part the curtain that separates the unseen from the day-to-day.

Over time, life develops through repeated exposure a film that dulls experience. It is like a scrim slowly falls between us and those things in life that we see on a daily basis. Artists raise that scrim, so that we see it once again in all its vividness. That's what Shklovsky meant when he said that art "helps us recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony." That is an amazing gift, a wonderful thing to be able to do. But it is something that is done for others. As an artist, you must experience that stones stoniness yourself, but you must also be focused on transferring that experience to others. Otherwise, you become the same as somebody who is on a really cool LSD trip in the middle of a roomful of stone cold sober people; we don't really care about all the revelations you've found in your thumbprint -- unless you figure out a way to communicate it.

For much of art history, artists considered themselves to be craftsmen doing a job; many didn't sign their work. They knew it wasn't about them. Artistically, as Pink writes, they "give their client something it didn't know it was missing." They give a gift. Which brings us back to Lewis Hyde again, and the difference between a gift economy and a transaction economy. One of the many subtitles Hyde seems to have used for different editions of this book is "How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World." The artist is the conduit, the vessel for the creative spirit. The artist is a midwife that brings into existence a new life.

I am a teacher, and one of the hardest things for a teacher to realize is that it's not about me. It's not about my brilliance, it's not about my insight, it's not about my rhetorical skills or my ability to create really scary tests. It's about the student, and what the student learns to care about. Once I learned that lesson, teaching became much, much harder because I had to pay attention to what my students were saying, thinking, observing. I had to interact, not just expound. It's not about me.

If artists could adopt this attitude of humbleness and humility before their art and before their audience; if they could give gifts rather than participate in exchange; if they could allow themselves to be transparent to trascendence, as Joseph Campbell was fonding of saying. Well, I suspect that the artist wouldn't be regarded with so much suspicion and disdain, but rather would be embraced by the community.

Everyone loves to receive a gift, and gifts are about the receiver, not the giver.


Adam said...

Excellent post.

Scott Walters said...

From Laura (who for some reason couldn't leave this comment):

"This is truly beautiful. What the audience picks up from artists who are not gift-givers is that those artists have nothing but disdain for the audience. Why, as one of those audience members, should I then listen to, attend, view your work? Because you think I ought to? And why, pray tell, shouldn't you be listening to me? There is no communication when there is only disdain--on either or both sides of the equation.
Oh, and my scrambled word before publishing my comment is "prefur." Scott should find that amusing.

Jonathan Jovel said...

This post is simply a breath of philosophically charged theatrical fresh air. It is truly great to hear the focus being put back on the audience. I completely agree with your view of theatre as a gift to the audience. In my training as an actor I have unfortunately seen that far too few people in the field carry this humble perspective, and as a result the creation of truthful art on stage becomes severely underscored with ego.

I must thank you for the beautiful analogy of the artist lifting the scrim that has fallen between the audience and life. It is a wonderful visual metaphor that truly captures what I have felt in my heart to be my role as an artist. In considering art as an act of generosity, I have come to recognize the nobility of the artist's mission. It is a great shame that the quest is not better respected in society, but as you stated in your post, we have a plethora of egotistical "artists" to blame for the reputation. I look forward to doing everything in my power to fuel the New Renaissance that this artistic credo, if embraced, might inspire.

I am curious to how you believe this perspective applies to the world of avant-garde theatre. I understand the importance you place on risk taking and failure in the theatre, but, as I am sure you are aware, the attempts at abstract and experimental theatre often leave the audience behind in a spectacle of self-indulgent shapes and talking lamps. Do you believe it is possible to include the audience in an abstract theatrical journey - to give the gift of art through abstraction - or is it by nature a self indulgent form? If you believe it can be done, what stipulations would you place on a production to ensure its success?

Scott Walters said...

Jonathan -- Thank you for your kind comments. I am glad that there are people out there who have their ego well placed.

As far as the avant-garde is concerned, I guess it depends. I think that, if an artist creates an abstract and experimental piece, it is possible to do so in a way that allows the audience to enter into the world being created. That requires a desire on the part of the artist to create a connection. Unfortunately, this is often not the case with avant-garde artists who are more interested in confusing the audience or attacking them than in connecting to them. Those artists I have no use for.

I also think that an truly "experimental" theatre would be valuable. By that I mean experimental in the scientific sense of doing an experiment that has a hypothesis and creates an experiment to gather data that either support or contradict the hypothesis. "Experimental" is not an end in itself. Rather, it should be work that is done to push the boundaries of the art form, and then pass what is learned into the general theatre scene. I find much avant-garde theatre to be insular -- no attempt is made to think through what has been learned or communicate it in any way to the field in general.

Enki said...

Thank you for this post. There's always been something in a lot of modern art movements that rubbed me the wrong way, but I was never able to put my finger on it. You've managed to express it perfectly!