Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Buyer's Satisfaction; This American Life

Remember Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century)? Well, it's fantastic. Like, unspeakably excellent and inspiring, affinity-wise. Example: remember back in January, when I was thrilled to learn about minor keys, or, more specifically sustained chords resolving in minor? No? Well, that happened. Anyway, in this brilliant jewel of a book, there is an essay by Raqs Media Collective called "How to Be An Artist By Night". Now, every essay in this book is brilliant, but this one in particular has a layout that directly relates the methodology behind art-making to musical practice, locating fundamental steps on a kind of scale. One such step (number 5 on the scale), is titled "Minor Media". Quote time:
"Minor media are practices in a minor key. They introduce tonal alterations that rearrange the regularities made familiar by the repetition of major practices. They alter the mood or setting or emotional tenor of a practice by insisting on attention to irregular variations. They are ways of remembering, imagining, and accounting for things that do not get remembered, imagined, or accounted for in ordinary course...Minor media are the practices that can be stitched into the folds of everyday [methodological pursuits]--observation, recording, alteration, restoration, arrangement, rearrangement, ordering, disordering--one step at a time.

Minor media are not master strokes and do not seek to produce masterpieces, and they are not necessarily worked on by great masters. What they do allow is a dense layering (by one person or by many over lengths of time) of the work of art with a multitude of surfaces that produce a context, rhythm, and texture of accumulative annotations. It is this accumulation that occasionally yields the sharp significance that is the unique property of a work done in a minor key."
My knee-jerk response to this is a resounding FUCK YES!!! This passage completely encapsulates everything that I want to do. As I was finally able to explain in January, songs that resolve in minor keys are always the most resonant (to me, and apparently also to Raqs Media Collective). They are tinged with melancholy or thoughtfulness--they change your mood; they make you feel something you hadn't anticipated, which makes the experience you're having all the more powerful. I want to make art that does that! I want to be a minor media artist! And that's just one of multiple such revelations and affinities that have been bursting off the pages of this book, through my eyes, into my brain, then back out onto the pages of my scetchbook, which are scrawled with barely legible rants, made evermore vehement now that I have a whole book full of people who feel exactly as I do about the legion of issues discussed in this book!

One of the major thematic issues, which carries throughout most if not all of the essays, is the entwined relationship between institutions, the market, and the increasing professionalization of artists. Which brings me to the second section of the title of this post! The other day, on my way back to Boston from Philly, I decided to hunker down and finally commit to listening to a few episodes of This American Life. I'd been meaning to do this for a while--tons of people have been talking it up to me (in that annoying way that friends do), and it is definitely as awesome as everyone told me it would be (in that annoying way that things that friends are correct about are). But this blog isn't about confirming the awesomeness of public radio programs that my friends recommend to me. No, what makes this development blog-worthy is a particular phrase spoken in one of the episodes, a phrase that led me to actually pause, rewind, and replay so that I could write down the exact wording in my sketchbook. The episode was #339, Break-Up, and the phrase was spoken by Betsy Allison Walter when she was an 8 year-old guest on All Things Considered in 1987. This little girl was on the program because she'd written a letter to the then mayor of New York (Koch) about her parent's divorce, asking him for advice/ an explanation (I know, heart-breaking and adorable). Anyway, at the end of the interview, she reads a short book she'd written for other kids whose parents were getting divorced. Noah Adams jokingly asks her if she wants to be a famous writer and make lots of money, and her response is the phrase: "No, not money; just famous".

So why did I pause, rewind, replay, and write it down? Because that pretty much sums up my ideal art-making scenario. Money (the market, institutionalized hierarchies that determine funding, the pursuit of economic success) is, in my mind, fundamentally different from, and less desirable than, fame (the kind of well-known status that enables a broad, far-reaching scope; the ability to affect change and inspire people). This 8 year-old has her priorities in the right place, and I personally sympathize with those priorities.
However, as a young adult who's beginning to gain an increasing understanding of how the world works, I'm constantly wondering if it's possible to have one without the other (Is it possible to gain that level of influence without money?). It doesn't seem to be, at least not within our (capitalistic) system in which everything is monetarily valued. Things are only considered worthwhile if they yield money--that goes for ideas and activities as well as objects. Even if you disagree with that value system (which I do, in case you still had any doubt), the power structure and the corresponding distribution of "success" is still based on it. Right now, it seems that in order to attract attention from the institutions that determine and dispense culture, one needs a certain set of credentials, all of which require money. Money is the thing that validates what we do or make--probably because it's easier to measure worth in dollars than in concepts as nebulous as meaning, fulfillment or affect. This seems wrong to me, but is there any realistic way to escape it? I mean, the reality of this society is that we all need money to survive--food, shelter, clothing, transportation, all cost money. Without those most basic things, a person will eventually cease to physically exist, making any and all "higher pursuits" ineffectual by default (you can't make good, empowering art if you're dead). But at the same time, doesn't the ceaseless need for money leech time and energy that could otherwise be put toward the "higher pursuits" of truth, beauty, free thought/ expression etc. that should ideally be within everyone's grasp (that ideally enrich life)? Is it possible to have enough money to do whatever one wants without having to fundamentally compromise one's integrity/ fulfillment somewhere along the way? Is it possible to fully throw oneself into the pursuit of fulfillment without starving? Is it better to sacrifice meaning in order to "afford" freedom (monetarily), or to pursue idealistic meaning/ freedom without really being able to afford it (and if "affording it" means prostrating oneself at the feet of the culture makers, is the meaning you're after ultimately subconsciously or explicitly fit to the directives of those with the funding to help you afford some compromised version of whatever 'it' used to be)? Does anyone ever really afford both? Does anyone ever really get what they want? Does freedom (the kind of freedom we're all really after in one form or another) actually even exist?

Now, I'm sure that 8 year-old wasn't thinking all of those things, but what she said pretty succinctly got me there (and all of the essays in Art School effectively keep me there, but with some hope thrown in for good measure)