Questions for Artists Rethinking What They’re Making and Why

(Including and not necessarily limited to me)

  • What art do you like?
  • What art do you like when no one’s watching?
  • What art has changed your mind?
  • What art has changed your life?
    • Yes, sitcoms count.
    • Yes, comic books count.
    • Yes, music videos count.
  • Do your answers have anything to do with art you make?
    • Why not?
  • Are you only making art for people exactly like you?
  • Are you only making art for people unlike you, selling them a caricature of your difference?
  • What if you didn’t care what critics think is “quality,” agents think is “marketable,” grants think is “important,” or your artist friends think is “cool?”
    • Of course you care, but just pretend for a second and see what still excites you.
  • Would you rather make art that everyone likes, or art that at some people need?
    • Keep in mind that the former is impossible.
    • Yes, you count as a person.
  • What do you wish existed?
    • Why not make it?
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“Labor of Love”

On the Dance NYC Junior Committee blog, I’ve shared some of my thoughts on the use of the phrase “labor of love,” in preparation for our Long Table discussion next Tuesday on labor, artistic love, and monetary and social value in the dance field. Read the full post here, and check the blog for more JComm member’s thoughts!

“Labor of love” is a phrase brought up to justify not paying artists, with the assumption that we are so eager to practice and perform our craft for its own sake, we will be willing to do it for free. (In regard to myself, I can’t say this isn’t true.)

“Labor of love” is how I justified to my parents my desire to pursue a highly underpaid and unstable career in dance. They asked how health insurance fit into that. I didn’t know.

Throughout high school and college, I was told by some (overwhelmingly kind and supportive) teachers and advisors that “the most important thing in life is to do what you love.” In a sense, I am following that advice, but the reality is that not everyone has the privilege to view work as more than a means of survival. When we treat the choice to pursue our passions as a morally superior one, we can develop a disregard for work done “only” for money and the people who do it. (In other words, “labor of love” won’t really help you pay your rent, but it can help you feel superior to the people living next to you.)

Believing in the moral purity of “labor of love” means dismissing those lucky enough to get significantly payed for their art as “sellouts.” (I wouldn’t mind selling out one day.)

In addition to art, I have heard the term “labor of love” used to refer to to social justice-oriented work and childrearing.

A “labor of love” is usually supported by a labor of money (either yours or someone else’s).

Exposure

Cheap strippers might bare it all for a few bucks,
but we’re artists here–
we’ll do it for the mere exposure.

When empty hands talk
up their “great exposure”
they knock our covers off
and bring us to their feet,
because we know they know we think
to be more seen must be a good thing.

So turn up the exposure:
show your soul and your skin and any dark place in between–
you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t desperate be seen.

Shed another layer, shed another light, shed another tear or more,
until you’re washed out in bright lights
from overexposure.

Are Adult Humans Supposed to Have Hobbies?

…you know, things that are not their job and not their life calling, and they enjoy doing those things sometimes without caring terribly hard about whether or not they are good at them?

Don’t get me wrong, I think it is very cool that my sets of “things I would voluntarily choose to do anyway” and “things that I am trying to do for my job” are largely converging, but this also sounds like a recipe for being an exclusive workaholic.

So should I start woodworking? Join a science fiction book club? Get really good at video games?

I’m trying to develop inexpensive and non-messy hobbies in particular:

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And generally trying to slurp creative juice out of neat little boxes. As adults do.

An Exercise in Slow

Lately I’ve been writing some analysis papers for my Art Humanities class. So far, it has been an exercise in slow.

Based on my very limited experience, analyzing art involves a whole lot of time looking. Not necessarily a lot of time making brilliant observations. Not necessarily a lot of time writing things down. Mostly a whole lot of time looking at lines and shapes and colors until you (hopefully) notice something new (like OMG why did it take me an hour to notice that the girl’s eyes are totally directed at the light source?). My professor’s advice for when you’re stuck is to look longer.

It usually seems to work, but it’s also difficult and infuriating. I’m seriously supposed to just sit there and stare? And do nothing else? When I have 3 papers to write? Even if I literally have the time, it’s frustrating that I can’t make it happen faster by working harder or “smarter,” the way we’re supposed to want to do with everything.

Some people probably see this as an example of how technology has made #millennials dependent on constant stimulation and unable to take the time to fully appreciate art. But at least for me, I don’t think that’s the main problem: it’s not exactly that I feel bored staring at art, but that I feel lazy. The issue isn’t a lack of stimulation, but a lack of productivity.

The whole “time is money” thing that we subscribe to not only implies that our time is valuable, but also that every moment of our lives is an investment. Which means we evaluate it based on measurable returns, and the more we can get out of less time, the better. Fast is efficient, and efficient is good. And if a moment isn’t a good investment, it’s a waste.

Looking at art is slow. And not even the slow-and-steady kind of slow where you can comfort yourself with constant, if minimal, evidence of progress along the way. It’s the slow-and-empty kind of slow, loaded with indefinite stillnesses which give no guarantees of progress in exchange for your time.

As an investment, slow inefficiency is a risky gamble. Instead of settling for a probably-almost-as-good quick version, you put in moment after moment for the uncertain possibility of finding something of greater value.

This can mean staring at art. Or meditating. Or watching live performances instead of YouTube clips. Or making cookies from scratch instead of using pre-made dough. Or reading the whole book instead of just the SparkNotes. Or actually watching TV shows instead of just reading the recaps (side note: I find it funny that there’s a whole online genre dedicated to making a even the most mindless pastimes faster and more efficient—and I read it).

You can’t always fit it in. And it’s not always worth it. But sometimes it totally is.

I recently found (i.e. my dad sent me) this quote from an article about early tech-panic surrounding the telegraph: “too fast for the truth.” Beyond the original context, I find it kind of interesting to think about the speed of truth. Sometimes it’s fast-moving target that you’ll miss if you slow down (Wait, how many people are running for president now?). But sometimes it’s something slow and quiet that you’ll pass right by if you don’t take the time to stop and stare between the lines.

Why Sports Should be Considered a Form of Dance

If you’re a dancer, you have probably heard various forms of the “is dance a sport?” argument for longer than you can remember. You probably got into debates about it at some point and even used it as an essay topic in middle school (with a quote from Martha Graham, Balanchine, or Einstein thrown in for good measure).

It got old, but somehow people are still regurgitating “Dance is a sport”/ “No it’s an art” like it’s new.

Whatever. Yes dance and sports have some similarities, but I say they’re asking the wrong question. Sure, I get why people would want to align dance with something which has more funding and social support in our society, but what if dance was the standard which we compared other things to?

You know what’s more fun and mildly subversive than arguing why dance should be considered a type of sport? Arguing . . .

Why Sports Should be Considered a Form of Dance:

It is true that sports can be performed purely for competition, but at least in the professional world, athletic teams rely on the support of audience members (either live or though the use of film). Therefore, it is fair to assume that sports are primarily a form of theatrical entertainment which attracts audiences through both the virtuosity and dynamism of the movement itself and ongoing narrative arcs (which typically have predictable outcomes, but the exceptions can move entire cities to the streets).

Some people have been inclined to exclude sports from the category of artistic performance because of their largely un-choreographed nature. However, this ignores the importance of improvisation in today’s concert dance world. Furthermore, it is a mistake to assume that improvised movement lacks structure or intention. Football players, for instance, engage in a rule-based structured form of contact improvisation centered around a creatively-shaped ball prop. 

Then there are the performers themselves: while it is difficult to generalize about their training, it is fair to say that many of them work hard at shaping their technique and consistency of movement, while also developing serious expressive abilities (tennis players, for example, even expand their expressions of anger and frustration to the realm of dance theater with vocal embellishments).

Of course, if we are to consider athletes as dancers, it is completely reasonable to judge them by standards of aesthetics, movement quality, musicality, and emotional appeal. Basketball players do quite well, impressing with their complex footwork, suspended jumps, and lively sense of rhythm, along with tense and quickly shifting partnerships. Baseball players are not as engaging on their feet, but their occasional floor work sections are delightfully fearless. I find golf players lacking in this department, but to be fair, I’ve never been much of a minimalist.

One might even argue that athletes deserve the same respect, pay, and access to medical treatment that dancers do.

So yes, I’m kidding, but I’m also a little serious. While I’m sick of dance getting the short end of the stick, I’m really not interested in claiming superiority over athletes.

In fact, on some level I honestly think that there is something radically beautiful in seeing sports, and any other movement in the world as dance. It means the viewer is the one deciding what is art (even if the creator thought they were just chasing a ball). It means the viewer has the authority to give art meaning. It means anyone can watch dance whenever they want. It means that we don’t have to teach people how to watch dance because they already do it all the time.

And then there’s the idea that dance is enough* in itself. The idea of “dance” is a perfectly legitimate and valuable framework for looking at what dancers do, and even for looking at the rest of the world. We don’t have to associate it with sports or other art forms or other academic fields for it to become legitimate.

Now get that football costume on and dance.

*An phrase I stole from this awesome post about Dance Movement Therapy

I feel like happiness is severely underrated . . .

. . . in the artistic/intellectual sense, I mean. Just a thought:

There’s this assumption that positive emotions are somehow less deep, meaningful, complex, intellectually “serious” subject matter than positive ones. Something described as a “happy” song or book is assumed to be fluffy, cheap, and fun, but not some great masterpiece or even a personally moving experience in the way a “sad” song or book could be.

But why? Why can’t our highs be just as strong and subtle and multifaceted as our lows? Are there not as many ways to feel good as there are to feel bad?

There’s evidence that people generally experience negatives more strongly than positives, with evolutionary explanations. But I doubt that this isn’t socially/culturally influenced as well. We partially learn how to feel through the ways we communally discuss, observe, and express feelings with those around us. So maybe we need a little more collective practice with the positive ones.

They tell people to suffer for their art, with the expectation that great pain brings great expression and honest emotional depth to their work. And of course it can. But if we’re going after real and powerful emotions, why don’t we also tell people to flourish for their art? To go out and have the most profoundly thrilling, peaceful, sexy, fulfilling, loving, proud, hopeful, relieving experiences for their art? Could that change our capacity to feel on those higher registers?

I definitely don’t want to prioritize one type of emotion over another or suggest that people shouldn’t share negative emotions and experiences (and hey, average and ambivalent emotions are also cool). And my Lana Del Rey playlist gets plenty of use too. But if sadcore is a thing, maybe we need some equally indulgent happycore.