Good art is good for much: An end to the problem of funding

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?

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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).

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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.

On starting a way of life business: Making good on good plan B’s

More Formal Training: Just Say ‘No’

Our bleak economic situation has led many young persons to consider job retraining, advanced degrees, and Plan B’s. But might all these actually be distractions and dead-ends?

Thankfully, some sharp entrepreneurs and creative organizations have started asking big questions and envisioning bolder projects. They’re not endorsing retraining, only serious rethinking. They’re not specialists in any one field but generalists in the practice of thinking about major connections and whole systems. They know that the cause of our social unrest can’t be traced back solely to unemployment or debt or credit and so the solution can’t rest entirely on job creation, tax policy, or social engineering. They realize that we’re in the midst of a “meaning deficit” where work has become drudgery—longer, harder, more strenuous, and much less fulfilling.

And they recognize a few important truths about our present moment: that making a good living can mean doing good things; that fulfilling life needs can be both financially and spiritually rewarding; and that living well can be the result of helping others live better.

In my practice, I see a number of promising alternatives to our meaning deficit. The one that stands out in my mind is the way of life business.

Ways of Life Business

A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an intriguing article, “Maybe It’s Time for Plan C,” about individuals who had had left the corporate world in order to start their dream businesses. In some cases, they had been laid off; in others, they were fed up and decided to take off. In most cases, they were implementing their “Plan B’s,” albeit without much success.

The Plan C in the title refers to the obstacles that loomed large for all those trying to make their Plan B’s work. These included long hours, meager pay, huge risks, and likely failures. And so, the article was meant to be read as a cautionary tale.

There are a few lessons we can learn from all this. First, new businesses that stick around and flourish owe their success not to recycling old ideas but to creating new ones that aim to enhance our ways of life. What I’m calling “ways of life businesses” are companies that mean to satisfy not our lowest desires but our most fundamental life needs. During lean economic times, they’re well-stocked with intrinsically worthwhile ideas and focused on our lived practices; they have little overhead and few sunk costs; they promise to help us live better even and especially when things seem to be getting worse.

A few cases that immediately come to mind are genuine, face-to-face companions provided for the aging and elderly; urban thinkers like Ariel Arieff, the former editor at Dwell Magazine, who describes new workplace and mixed-use designs that go “beyond the cubicle”; and 1000 Passions, a website that serves as a meeting place for local artists, craftsmen, chefs, lifelong learners, and curious neighbors.

Second, anyone looking to set up a way of life business should first set out stepping stones. Stepping stones illuminate a path from unfulfilling work to novel businesses at the same time that they improve resiliency and minimize risk. As a middle route, they come in many forms. For instance, they may let us “dial back” our current responsibilities and duties at work in order to free us to think seriously. Or they may be look like “cloisters,” contemplative spaces where we can take stock of our life and our work. Or they may be “Epicurean gardens” where we learn to desire only what is necessary and get used to doing more with less. Or they could be “moonlighting venues,” extra projects we take on to pad our savings, or “halfway houses,” jobs better than the last but not quite the best. Stepping stones are thus the very opposite of leaps of faith.

If the economic recession presents us with some profound individual and social problems, still it reveals a number of meaningful opportunities. Today, the most important virtue may be that of improvisation.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Rules of Thumb for Starting a Way of Life Business.” 3-part series. Part 1 of 3.

On Woody Allen’s modern philosophy

The other day I read an interview with Woody Allen. The interviewer’s penultimate question struck me as especially apt. (In the excerpt below, bold = interviewer’s question and regular text = Allen’s reply.)

Machado de Assis is credited with inspiring magical realist writers. Judging from the previews, the protagonist of your latest film experiences some magic in Paris, as did characters in Purple Rose of CairoAlice, and Scoop. Why do you so frequently bend the rules of reality in your films?

As I said before, I do think we live in a nightmare and I feel the same way that Blanche Dubois feels: I want magic; I don’t want reality. I want the paper lanterns hung over the bare light bulbs, like she did. And if there is any way to escape reality, I’m all for it.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any real way. You can distract yourself. You can go to baseball games and concerts and plays and have sex and get involved in all kinds of endeavours that obsess you, and you can even create problems for yourself, where they don’t exist, to avoid thinking about the bad problems. But, in the end, you’re caught. And reality inevitably disappoints you.

[End of interview]

And now what strikes me as especially apt is Allen’s set of philosophical assumptions.

  1. His Metaphysical First Principle: Life is suffering.
  2. His Principle of Human Nature: We desires objects that will bring either frustration or boredom.

Take a look at the trailers for two of his films, Manhattan (1979) and Husbands and Wives (1992).

And what are Allen’s solutions? We’ve heard him allude briefly to Blanche Dubois.

  1. Cosmic Blindness: We clutter our lives with routines that blind us to these metaphysical realities.
  2. Clear-eyed Pessimism: We gaze at tragedy head-on and have the courage to acknowledge these metaphysical realities.
  3. Literary Escapism: We either become Blanche Dubois, transforming reality into fantasy, or Allen himself, lightening reality through humor.

It’s worth considering Allen’s literary escapism further. For Dubois, taking the real and sublimating it into the ideal beautifies reality, thereby justifying its existence. In fantasy, we breathe in perfume. Comedy works a little differently. It changes reality into an object separate from our laughing existence. Smart laughter is self-reflexive inasmuch as it puts us beyond our experiencing selves: the humorist achieves a certain lightness and a sense of community by laughing at his experiencing self.

Allen’s solutions, even his third one, are nothing more than consolation prizes for a rainy-day existence. First, I’m willing to grant that life is transience, but I don’t think that life is (just) suffering. Second, Allen’s theory of human nature, which sounds a lot like Schopenhauer, won’t permit desires that can be satisfied, love that can be fulfilling, or godliness that can a form of peacefulness. If we don’t take on board Allen’s metaphysics, then we don’t have to follow the paths of Cosmic Blindness, Clear-eyed Pessimism, and Literary Escapism. That is, if we don’t see life in Allen’s terms, don’t see reality in terms of these problems, then we won’t go in search of these kinds of solutions. The result is a much kinder philosophy of consolation.

Allen sounds like the precocious child whose parents got divorced and then didn’t make a fuss: insecure, witty, imaginative, jaded, lost. In order for us to live well, we’ll have to overcome Allen’s modern philosophy. Dear reader, let’s age more wisely than Allen.