Warning: Extended Metaphor Ahead
In the hill country of Kentucky and West Virginia, they mine coal. Frequently, this extraction - in the interests of expediency and cost-cutting - entails dynamiting the top of a mountain off and accepting as collateral damage the clogging of creeks with the silt of these pulverized mountaintops. The men sent down into the bowels of these blown-open mountains are stricken with lung-blackening sickness, and crushed in cave-ins - these men are economic grist for this mill. And it is a brutal and dirty mill. A greedy and rapacious mill.
Recently, I had two experiences as a cultural cog in a comparable mill, albeit a more eggheaded and, on the face of it, more benign varietal. The first was as host of one of the Chicago Community Trust's On the Table discussions. These were meant to as a chance for every-day Chicagoans to brainstorm about making the city better. As goals go, a good one, to be sure - a good, if formless and non-urgent, open-ended and theoretical one. The second was presenting WRITE CLUB as part of the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Lit Fest, which is an annual convening of authors and booksellers in the south Loop. Again, in theory a good and worthy gathering of the kindred to celebrate the written word, but it practice a heaving mass of directionless and slow-footed humanity that seems to have as much affinity and regard for the craft and practice of writing as the average sweat-streaked attendee at Taste of Chicago (which as anyone who has ever been can tell you could well be featured HERE) has for fine food.
Exploitation is a strong word.
Which is why I use it. I believe in strong words. They make your meaning known.
The owners of coal mines are exploiters - both of the natural world they pierce and plunder, and of the human beings they send into their pits to wield shovels and dynamite on their behalf.
I believe that the largest cultural institutions are exploiters of a different and more sly sort. Where the owners of mines exploit people using purely economic leverage, cultural institutions exploit artists using leverage internal to the artist, namely the fallacy of "exposure," the need to "put yourself out there." And, killingly, the need - the bottomless, unquenchable need - for validation. If we were not flattered to be invited, if we we did not succumb to the long-ago urge to eat at the cool kids' table in the junior cafeteria we - let's face it - never leave, then we would have the requisite clarity and self-respect to say to such invitations "Thank you, no. The 'getting my name out there' that this would get me is nominal at best, and is more than likely a fiction. I wish you well in your venture, but I have too much of my own work to do to devote any of my limited time to it." In short: I vounteer for enough shit of my own, I'm not gonna volunteer for your thing.
The prospect that THIS - this gig or panel discussion or special appearance or whatever - THIS will be the thing that brings me to the attention of the PHANTOM PATRON WHO WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING FOR ME. Given the starry-eyed idiocy of this conceit, the Power Ball-hitting astronomical length of these odds, it becomes plain that for the artist participating in the Large Scale Cultural Happening/Street Fair/Festival, there is little to no benefit to be had. Whereas the cultural institutions get to demonstrate their capacity/willingness to engage in "outreach" (to the margins of culture, i.e. the hard-working poor), or their interest in "staying current" (i.e. co-opting what vestigial coolness can be got by glomming onto the small-scale, the authentic, the homespun), or in hopping on some bandwagon or other, or in merely providing their massive audience with buffet-style variety - the aristists/producers/makers get to spend their finite time on a gig that with a dubious/ambiguous payoff.
If it sounds like I'm being petulant or ungrateful, I don't believe I am, and here's why:
- The time I must devote to such a gig (booking, coordinate with event producers, etc.) is not comparable to the time I must devote to my own shows/events, in this respect: it is not targeted; it is scattershot, by which I mean the the audience I'm likely to reach in such a setting is entirely random. They have no context/intro for what my collegaues and I do, they therefore are better able and more likely not to engage with it fully/wander along to the next booth/tent/juggler/food truck.
- Each time I accept such an engagement, I tacitly endorse and ultimately reinforce this climate of exploitation. As an experienced artist and show producer - when those newer to the field witness me accepting such gigs, they themselves grow more likely to accept such gigs in future. And the large cultural institution is both absolved of its reliance upon the uncompensated skill and time of artists, and is granted greater license to do so in future. From both sides - it becomes a feedback loop that consists, for artists of "I can't even ask for a fee/stipend - there's people lined up behind me for the prestige/exposure of this opportunity. Plus - who knows where it might lead?" and for cultural institutions of "We are doing good by showcasing the work of small organizations/local artists and may remain secure in our virtue."
- Audiences, for their part, get a randomized collection of the willing - a too-frequently uncurated collage made by committee. It therefore takes the highly intrepid and discerning audience member to make out and appreciate the aims and achievements of any one performer/producer/artist, and to do the requisite followup to find more of their work in future.
For my show WRITE CLUB, for instance, there is a demand implicit in the experience of the show that you pay your full attention, as you are required to assess and pass judgment on the merits of the writer/performers you see. It therefore does not lend itself to the festival setting "poke your head into a tent and keep wandering" model of consumption, like you'd nosh on items from a passed hors d'ouerves tray. I recognize that the principle at play is "given the chance to check out your stuff, they might track you down at your regular venue," but in practice, it's far more likely that people attending such things will regard attendance as an end in itself, not as some scouting mission to augment their upcoming cultural calendar. It is WAY more likely that a festival attendee will end their association with WRITE CLUB where it began - "Saw this neat/weird thing at Printers Row where they kind of argue with each other."
And there is nothing wrong with this. As a consumer of culture myself, I recognize that it is extraordinarily tough to get me up/off my ass/out of my routine to engage with your work/project. I am very busy, and I am very lazy, which creates a high hurdle to clear. So I don't begrudge audiences. I almost never do. But I DO begrudge institutions who offer vague/likely fictional deferred modes of payment - "exposure," "audience development," "higher profile" or however they frame it - in lieu of some modest fee or stipend.
Mine is an economically tenuous life. There are weeks, it sucks to say, when fifty bucks would make a substantive difference in our house. In exchange for pursuing work I believe in, I concede stability and prosperity. ABOUT WHICH I AM NOT COMPLAINING. I will get bulldozed into a pauper's grave. I know this. I mostly accept this. There is the impulse to respond to any such sentiment with some variation of "Fuck you pal, because capitalism."
I know. Capitalism. Fully aware.
But - accepting capitalism on its face - which large cultural institutions must, as they pay their staffs and operating expenses, etc. Then some voice within the marketplace has assigned value to my work. Some curator/booker has become somehow aware of me and has determined that my presence adds value to the experience of their audience. Yet these cultural institutions - in contravention of capitalist principle - expect me and scores of others to accept a wholly ephemeral and theoretical form of compensation. If you sat across from the HR person at your job and they said "We really dig your stuff, and we're prepared to get your name out there if you'll carry on working for free," you would not go "Thank you so much - I will DEFINITELY hype the company to my networks," you'd scald him with your coffee and flip his desk.
Why am I naming names, here? Because exploiters - however good-hearted or well-intentioned they may be - never change course unless compelled to do so.
And I'm not biting the hand that feeds. Because the hand fails to feed.
And I also am naming good names: when WRITE CLUB has been invited to gig at MCA, or the Poetry Foundation, or the Chicago Humanities Festival, or the Smart Museum - all these places have paid us for our trouble. And WRITE CLUB, in turn, pays the artists we invite along.
And don't hand me the "but we're a non-profit" or the "but our company/industry is hurting" argument, either - all the institutions in the above paragraph are non-profits. I've worked in and around the non-profit world for over a decade, and know that it's as much about the values you espouse and priorities you advance as it is about the size of your bank account. And if the Tribune is hurting so bad, then maybe a conspicuous dog and pony show is maybe not mission-critical. And Chicago Community Trust - as neat an idea as your On the Table might be - is it honestly anything more than a PR blitz for you? Are you seriously intent on making manifest any of the strategies that arose from the hundreds of events you had no hand in creating?
And, no WRITE CLUB does not pay its artists. MYSELF INCLUDED. There is equity from top to bottom - shitty, stress-inducing equity, yes, but equity nonetheless.
To continue torturing the metaphor:
I'm not even a cultural coal miner. I'm not sent down into a lightless shaft and told where to swing my pickaxe. As an individual artist, I'm at best a cultural prospector - knee deep in an icy river, peering into my dented pan in search of the stray nugget among the pebbles and grit that is of greatest interest to me. Nobody directs my gaze. Nobody guides my calloused hand. But when the exploiters up the mountain throw a fair as a cheap way of keeping their miners docile and they ask me to play my fiddle, I will expect them to pay me to do so. If they attempt in vain to dazzle me with the fantasy that my fiddle-playing at their coal-country fair will put me before the footlights of vaudeville or get me in the moving pictures, I'll offer them my back and turn my attention back to my dented pan.
And I hope that the rest of you sunbaked prospectors will do the same.