That and Seventy-Five Cents…

March 18th, 2006

My wife and I went to the Paradise City Arts Festival the other day. It’s one of those high-end craft shows, like CraftBoston – juried, most likely, and more than a hundred artisans from all over the country, each more talented than the last. Fabric, glass, metal, pottery, wood, photography, paint – the best that American crafts has to offer. Almost every booth staffed by the craftperson him/herself, smiling that fixed, open smile that says, “I’ve been standing here for a day and a half now and my feet are sore and I haven’t picked up my brush/chisel/blowtorch/camera since Thursday morning, and I’d better damn well make the booth fee.” And I look into their eyes, and I see art in America.

We, the artists, are a luxury item. We get the dollars, the eyes, the ears, the time, that remains after the kids are fed, the house is repaired, the parents are visited, the gas tank is filled. I’m one of the lucky ones; I don’t have to pay my bills this way. Others, the less fortunate ones, can’t put it down, or (heaven help them) don’t have any more marketable skill. For all of us, it’s a battle to win those slivers of recognition. For a rare few, the sliver will expand and grow, but talent isn’t nearly enough; it takes luck, unbelievably hard work, and the political savvy to make the right sort of connections, and, most frustratingly of all, no one can see us sweat.

Some of those open smiles are real. Some artists love to sell themselves, have no doubts or worries about it, welcome the challenge. But a good number of those open smiles are masks for panic, misery, anger. And it’s not just the visual arts. In my limited journeys around the Internet, I’ve encountered a blogger whose work I admire and respect, who writes occasionally about his frustration that no one seems to be reading. I’ve corresponded with him briefly, and his circumstances are remarkably close to mine: he has about 300 regular readers. And when you think about it, he’s a performer, just like me.

His complaints are the same as my musical colleagues’ complaints: there aren’t enough eyes/ears, the system is gated by people with inordinate influence over what gets read/heard, the vast majority of attention goes to a relative few. But no matter what your medium, if you meet your public, the same rules apply: never, ever, ever complain. The audience hates it. You’ve devalued their experience, because they’ve lent you their precious time and eyes and ears, and you’ve rewarded them by whining that there aren’t more of them. If there’s a better way of shooting yourself in the foot, no one’s thought of it yet.

To his credit, my blogger friend knows this. He’s not sure whether he should be blogging at all – he knows he’s not helping himself, but he also feels constitutionally incapable of not complaining. Again, the dilemma of the performing world looms: your success depends, in part, on the genuineness of your interaction with your audience/public, and some people simply lack the ability to censor themselves in that context. It feels fake, dishonest. And yet, not one of us who’s successful on stage brings our entire life with us: the unpaid bills, the fight with our partner, the unsavory gastrointestinal incident after trying Burmese food for the first time. Like Erving Goffman says, every interaction is a performance, and every face we wear is different depending on who the audience is. A life on stage is simply the ability to harness that skill in a different way, and one of those ways is to excise all the dimensions which might detract from the audience’s enjoyment. It’s just the nature of the beast.

This world is laden with people with talent. Some of us are happy in our living room, our den, our basement; some of us yearn for more. Some of us want a small cadre of admirers; some of us want the Kenny Chesney audiences, the retrospective at the Met, the Oprah’s Book Club selection. Every choice involves a compromise. You can leave yourself uncensored and stay in your home, or climb the stage and learn about the face you present to the audience. You can keep your day job and give up your dreams of stardom, or take the plunge, with its attendant risk, trauma, and abuse. The odds are stacked against you, of course; most of us will never have any audience at all. But I’m talented, you protest; well, as the saying goes, that and seventy-five cents will buy you a cup of coffee.

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