I knew nothing about improvisation until a few days ago, but for some time I’ve latched onto the idea that the philosophical conversations in my philosophy practice have been shading into territory laid open by improv. So when I spoke with Alex Fradera, a friend of Dougald’s who finished his Ph.D. in psychology and who now performs as an improv artist, about the style of improv and the nature of philosophical dialogue, I could feel that we were both winging it. In improv, Alex said, the actors must be attuned to the moment when “something is needed,” when “something different needs to happen.”
He mentioned the influential improv artist Keith Johnstone whose works I afterward foraged through. Early on in his book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Johnstone stresses the importance of one improv technique he calls “contrariness.” One who acts contrary to common sense “reverses every statement to see if the opposite was also true.” (Johnstone as Socrates perhaps?) Johnstone invites us to see whether we can not just perceive the truth of the contrary but also live out a view that contravenes common sense.
And so begins my philosophical journey: a life lived in contravention of doxa. In the modern world which is typified on the one hand by the bonds of love in the intimate sphere and on the other by the commercial transactions effectuated by strangers in the marketplace, doxa enjoins us “never to mix business with pleasure.” Nonsense! Here comes my life in improv: my philosophy practice is actually grounded on the interlocking set of premises that good business is pleasurable, that business ought to be mixed with pleasure, that friendliness needn’t be hived off entirely from the cash nexus, that gift exchange may be a viable form of business, and so forth. Yes, it is true: I’m mad.
In this time of economic collapse, I grant there is no time for jesting. So then what relevance does this prologue have for our inquiry into how to sustain a creative life? Can I be flip and say: plenty?
On Monday, I argued that we are undergoing a sea change in our understanding of how to support creative lives. I stated that we cannot count on self-bifurcation (read: freelancing), institutional patronage, or self-promotion in the long-term. In the short term, perhaps, but in the long term, no. Despite marketers, social media experts, and advertisers imploring young creative types to self-promote and “develop their brands,” such cannot be a winning strategy for sustaining one’s life or for nourishing one’s soul. “Out out damn spot”!
Yesterday, I insisted that we had more intellectual brush clearing to do before we could move forward because, I said, part of our hang-up is of a conceptual nature. We have inherited three misconceptions about the place of art in the modern world. Art is an amateur activity that anyone can do (so why support it?), art is mere adornment (hence, it contains no moral or aesthetic truths; it merely frames practical, scientific, or social content), or art is a special gift bequeathed only to a golden few (a conception out of which emerges the upscale art markets in Chelsea, Paris, and Basil). Amateurism reduces the value of art to a non-serious, unweighted endeavor; adornment to an extra perk for booming times when money flows at a good rate; and upscalism to a “winner takes all” approach that might as well be called Hobbesian (that is to say, it is a war of all against all).
Today I want to examine what other possibilities may be available to us if we let go of our reliance upon old funding models and if we toss out our popular misconceptions (doxa).
Let’s imagine, contrary to the spirit of modernity, that the artist does not stand apart from but is deeply enmeshed in the social order. And instead of believing that “all art is inherently useless” (Oscar Wilde’s premise, one, incidentally, that is immediately contradicted by the moral concerns represented in The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windmere’s Fan, and Dorian Gray), let’s ask what art is good for.
Then we can say that the artist/craftsman is one of us, and he makes things or puts on performances or brings us together in ways that are good for something or other; above all, good for us. Sounds good already. How might this look?
1. Art as Festival. While I was speaking with John Mitchinson at Unbound Books about the “texture of letters,” about the desire for tactile, face-to-face experiences, I was put in my mind of festivals. Unbound is a recently launched crowdsourcing model. A writer pitches his idea to the curators at Unbound and then, if they find his proposal suitable, he pitches it directly to would-be readers. Then the readers contribute directly to the funding of the book. If the project reaches its funding requirements, then the book will be written. If it does not, then it will die on the vine.
I was left with the impression that this experiment was not about getting books published per se but about generating a different kind of book experience. I imagine more public events, more roaming artists, more festival-like experiences, more subscription models (Dickens made this work), more face-to-face exchanges–in short, intensive personal contact, convivial experiences, growing comraderie. In this convivial marketplace, money would change hands–hopefully it would flow freely–but in the form of gratitude and in the spirit of good cheer. The book, as a concrete “product,” would be no more and no less than a cherry blossom in April. It would be the languid morning kiss after the rollicking night dance.
2. Art as Needful Craft. “Needful” was the word that @InKyDo used when we spoke over Skype this past weekend. What I like about “needful” is that, among the suite of options (necessary, important, relevant, useful, etc.) from which I can choose it has the most bite. “Needful” means that such and such is indispenable and requisite; it is something that one cannot do without. In addition, it carries the moral sense of poverty. Without this, our lives would be less rich. Something deep would be missing. Finally, the word has notes of prescience: we are now in need of such and such.
And, yes, we are now in need of good craftsmanship. A craftsman builds something that a community needs. She makes useful, beautiful things. The beauty can be seen in the thing’s reaching its perfection. A well-built home is beautiful. (A pre-fab home is not.) My friend Antonio Dias is currently at work on a boat that may be needful during these unsettled times.
We pay for needful things. Dike (justice) dictates that we give to each his due. Thus if we fail to pay for needful things, we are the poorer for it and we should feel that we ought to.
3. Art as Self-Revelatory Performance. You caught the pun, did you? Ah, good because good improv can reveal something about us, and it can also be a revel. Improv art of the kind that Alex Fradera practices ought to be funded on the grounds that through these kinds of aesthetico-moral experiences–the sort that we see and the sort that we partake of–we figure out something about ourselves. Since the tragic drama staged by the Greeks up through Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the idea that art denuded us and laid us bare, severing us in one sense and uniting us in another, implied that art was magical, enchanting, and vital for living well.
As a people, do we not have an obligation to pay homage to, to give thanks for, to pay with magnanimity those artists who have helped to make our lives fuller and better, who have managed to reveal our selves to ourselves?
If the artist can be inserted back into our social order and if we can acknowledge that what art does is good for much, then the question of funding the creative life should become the sort of nonsense that wise people, in a world redeemed, will learn to poke fun at in great merriment.