Monday, October 10, 2016

Beyond the Chalkboard

How do you offer an education of indisputable practical value in a field as nebulous and inconsistent as the arts?

There are plenty of technical skills most ambitious people in the arts wouldn’t turn down, that would be helpful to know, to navigate the increasingly byzantine system of information funneling and social media promotion that has been set into motion by the appropriately titled world wide web.  It seems that no matter how high an echelon on the intellectual heavyweight ladder, very few are above Twitter, and the vast majority know how to get their voices disseminated to the right recipients.
There are tips and tricks to pick up online for this realm, but perhaps of greater significance for a successful career in an industry always having to argue for its own value to society are psychological fortitude, pragmatic self-reliance, and a core sense of self-worth (or at least a moderately inoffensive egotism).  The greatest visionaries are the ones who can impose a structure where there was nothing, or upend a preexisting structure and replace it with a superior one.  How can school, which is in practice a highly structured program of input and output, teach the very thing that stands opposite to it?

I remember the first time Broadway producing was explained to me – something, for sure, I had never fashioned as a future for myself in college or high school, but which fell upon me through social interactions in my first year in New York – I was dumbfounded by the wild west aspect of it, even compared to the rest of the notoriously disorderly entertainment sector.  Even sitting encased in the security and shelter of an apartment, there is an irrational sense of imminent terror sometimes just staring at a computer screen, having no meetings in a day, having no office, and feeling – real or imagined – the glaring eyes of elders wondering what you’re wasting your time with.  Why was there a pit of nagging insecurity and fear in my stomach as I was calling people to pitch them on Book of Mormon?

This, mind you, was for a show being developed by two of the most popular comedic minds of their generation (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and being produced by one of the greatest living producers in the world (Scott Rudin).  So, for the nameless young person sitting down to write a poem, or a play, or maybe even something beyond the strictures of our current genres, this must either be time stolen from the spare hours outside the demands of a day job (which increasingly means an all-consuming job tied to a smartphone) and outside the commitments of a meaningful social and romantic life – if there’s much of that time to be found in the week.  It’s easiest to just keep this feeling like an avocation, that, in a world of flukes, might just eventually mean something to a lot of people, or, second best, mean a lot to some people.   (Hey, I love Sony, and I love my friends, but I can’t pretend there weren’t sacrifices made even in writing this humble blog.)  For the ones who have achieved some modicum of success, or others who are just going for broke (most commonly the actor running around town to auditions, usually with a part-time service gig), the specter of failure and the suffocating pressure of converting emotions and ideas into dollars and cents can feel like just too frigging much to handle.

This is part of why so many accomplished artists bemoan producers and businesspeople who work behind the scenes – there is a deep-seated sense that many of the latter sully a noble craft by altering heartfelt art in the name of primal commerce.  There’s a particular disconnect when writers or others critiquing the political structures and corporate or financial levers of society are forced to submit those very personal and humane reflections to the very system they are trying to alter.

But I’ve also heard equally emotional denunciations of the scholastic sector, both higher and, uh, less than higher education, from accomplished writers who felt that the culture of extreme critique suffocated the actual endeavor itself to the point of nullifying it.  In this sense it’s an extension of the repressive money machine that boxes them in, another transactional phase (“a mantra of ‘pay for everything’ unifying every part of the life cycle in a consumerist society, from the hospital to the hole you’re buried in”).

Further, the very lack of structure outside companies, schools, or other large organizations, may be the very thing that facilitates art in the first place.  Look at how few great filmmakers, writers, visual artists, or musicians are professors at universities.  Some of them do adjunct work on the side, though if you ask them about it they may secretly tell you it’s to get good health insurance, or to supplement some money.  So much of the critical culture of academia is inimical to whatever circumstances create something of strong and open emotion.

Heck, look how many living greats dropped out of academic programs: whether Cormac McCarthy or Tom Stoppard as writers, Bob Dylan and John Lennon in music, Al Pacino and so many other actors.  Hardly people one would peg as “uneducated” or unsophisticated, and yet they did forego what for so many is a non-negotiable rite of passage.

There aren’t a ton of “job jobs” out there in the arts.  Some require internships or apprenticeships with no pay or so little pay that a cash-strapped debt-ridden college graduate (or double-debt-ridden higher degree graduate) may find prohibitive in his or her financial situation.  Even trying to get one of those unglamorous corporate-side jobs out of business school at Stanford, my career counselor explained to me that this industry refused to behave like any other, that these jobs were “hard to come by” and that most of the few students who did attain them “knew someone.”  One movie producer I found through this network explained to me that I needed to “go through the top of the organization rather than the bottom.”  Would you care to introduce me?

Well, I found my way somewhere good, but I’m humbled for sure next to the imagination and audacity of the real greats, whose work I’m trying to promote.  Making something out of nothing – seeing a vision that none of the billions of other souls on the planet are privy to, or expression that vision in a fashion none of them is capable of, with a resonance that prompts a meaningful mass of people to carve time of their busy day for something that is under any pragmatic calculation non-essential.  How can you train someone for that?

I do think it’s important for the benefactors and patrons behind the arts to place emphasis on and resources behind programs that give artists structure and a meaningful social milieu when they are done with school.  And I do think there are many ways that school can foster imagination and cultural expression, and emphasize their value.  But the central work of a visionary must still chart a lonelier road.

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