30 May 2013

Exit Strategies I: Sobriety

Being a musician is not my "dream." My "dream" was to be a professional baseball player, something farfetched enough, in my case at least, to become an obsession, and gun-to-my-head, I'd still rather be chasing it if I could. My relationship to music is rather different, but not simply because I showed infinitely greater natural ability (whatever we're currently agreeing or not agreeing that means) from a much earlier stage. Music was a significant part of my early childhood, though I resisted active participation until adolescence; the majority of blood relatives I have known in the flesh were or are accomplished amateur musicians; there was a mystical sense of rightness in my earliest experiences with the euphonium which I remember vividly despite at that time not yet possessing a vocabulary flowery enough to fully describe it; I had been obsessed as a child with acquiring paper and notebooks, writing page-long stories about my cats whenever my elementary school teachers would accept them as substitutes for those miserable "reading book" assignments, and once I found music, it became an even more fluent outlet for these creative urges, leading to the composition of about 120 short pieces from 7th through 12th grade.

Much of this does not particularly distinguish me from many of my peers, though some of it does. What I feel more acutely than anything as I sit here today, however, having just made it out of CalArts at the age of 30 with most but not all of my dignity intact is the dissonance between the rhetoric of "chasing your dreams" or "doing what you love" with which young artists are so often bombarded and that of my actual personal history, worldview and posture. The musician in me has goals, not dreams, and at the risk of committing middle-aged revisionism against my younger days, I would say that this has largely always been the case. Ecstasy is the domain of the sudden, the unexpected, the farfetched; it's what I would have felt if I had ever been offered a college scholarship to play baseball, been drafted by a major league organization, signed a professional contract, and so on. My musical journey has not of course been entirely devoid of ecstatic moments, but I can count them on one hand. Conversely, the moments along the way where I figured out, in part, what I really should be doing with myself have been overwhelmingly matter-of-fact ones, marked by a distinctive calming sensation, and too numerous to recall in sum.

I am not a spiritual person and therefore am avoiding speaking here of what I or anyone else was "meant" to do by some omniscient deity or the alignment of the planets. I don't think it's a stretch, however, to posit that in a more pragmatic, rational, earthly sense, those factors which have shaped us from birth yet lie beyond our control taken together with the general condition of the world we find ourselves inheriting (once we become aware of it, and once we have taken control of ourselves) can certainly clarify the picture for us substantially when it comes to deciding how to pass the time. In a 100% fair and just world, I would not be a professional musician or athlete, but rather a scientist. Given my family background, academic predilections, innate abilities, and general social considerations of long-term stability and respectability, a 100% fair and just world would have nurtured my stated desire to do science rather than throwing it back in my face at every turn. Perhaps in that 100% fair and just world, I would be "meant" to do science. In the real world, however, despite the many frustrations of a career in music and the poor manner in which my experiences as an aspiring scientist reflect upon the institutions I attended, I have trouble convincing myself that I was actually "meant" to do science and not music.

It feels good to have found my lane, but not good enough to throw a party. Parties are reserved for the momentous and the unexpected; for reaching landmarks, not for just existing; for the fulfillment of dreams, not goals. We "dream" of building houses on hills, sailing around the world, winning the lottery, witnessing the turn of a millennium, meeting Kim Kardashian, and other asinine preoccupations that would (and do) destroy us if our obsession with them becomes normalized. Only in vocations widely thought to be privileges in comparison to the life of the average working stiff do we find such a high incidence of recreational self-celebration verging on narcissism: art, sports, politics, and so on. This tells us something about privilege, but it tells us even more clearly and importantly that the bulk of these individuals are living their dreams, not their goals; that talent and happenstance aside, they were not truly "meant" to be artists or athletes or politicians; that if they were, they would comport themselves with a far higher degree of modesty and class.

I did not attend my graduation from the University of Minnesota, and I hid, quite literally, in my room for nearly a whole day last year to avoid the CalArts graduation festivities as they unfolded not far from my door. I did attend this year, however, which brought all of this home to me in a big way. I have been struggling ever since to put into words everything that I sensed and felt throughout that evening. What you've just read is part of it, and there's still more, which is liable to take me several more paragraphs, perhaps posts, to exhaust. A relative said I looked embarrassed, which was precisely correct even though I hadn't initially thought to put it that way. People who know me are laughing as they read this, thinking it's just the standard-issue curmudgeonly diatribe from the guy who would rather hole up with the complete Lutoslawski and a bottle of wine than go have a beer with the guys. I do, admittedly, have a strong aversion to pisserfest clusterfucks involving any but my very most favorite people in the world, but that is beside the point here. The point, rather, is that as graduate after graduate traipsed across that stage in their Halloween costumes, accompanied by their favorite nine seconds of music, in many cases acting out rehearsed gestures and/or jumping on the mic for quasi-forbidden shoutouts, I simply could not convince myself that I was watching people who had found their lanes. This has nothing to do with the fact that I generally don't like parties and everything to do with a bunch of spoiled brats throwing a party for themselves without in many cases having yet entered the phases of their lives when "dreams" and "goals" as I have called them have become discernible from each other.

To be sure, not everyone at CalArts is a spoiled brat, some degrees granted there mean more than others in their respective fields, and there are lots of students there, undergrads as well as grads, who have indeed been out in the working world for some stretch of time or other. The rest of y'all might do well to take a cue from a professional athlete named David West and act like you've been there before. When I wrote in the previous post of "how destructive the ongoing excessive romanticization of the arts remains to the arts themselves," I was trying to point to an issue which is at its heart a decisively economic and political one and not merely a cultural or social one as it might appear on the surface. It is remarked upon often what a privilege it is to have a career in the arts when judged against the backdrop of the things that most other people do for a living simply because most other people are profoundly unhappy doing those things for the amount of time their jobs require it of them, or at least a lot less happy than the average professional artist or athlete or politician, or so the logic goes. At this point you will of course recognize this as the rhetoric of "dreams," of our culture's obsession with having it better than your neighbor, of winning the meritocracy, of defining art (socially!) by negation rather than by affirmation, which is not to say that I am oblivious to any sense of my own privilege in having had the opportunity to become an artist, just that there is an important difference between hope and fear to which artists (of all people) ought to be particularly finely attuned. And while I have known very few truly malcontent professional artists, I do sense fear at nearly every turn in the professional world: fear of poverty, of day jobs, of failure to keep up appearances and the ubiquitous threat of silent judgment by parents and peers, a brand of fear which, by my sensibilities at least, is rather inherently destructive to the artistic impulse even if it seems to live in the realm of "real life."

Superfluous, perhaps, to point out that Western musicians before Beethoven and Liszt were closer to working stiffs in both cultural and material terms, but it's interesting to consider. It seems counterintuitive but is in fact the case that romanticism was deeply concerned with what today we call "outreach" but not at all with "plurality:" high art was to be shared with all, but there was a way to listen, to play, to write; the people were not to beat the aristocracy but rather to join them. The final deconstruction of taste, valuation, essentialism, innateness, etc. only came much later, intended to make art, in the West the ultimate privilege for centuries, into a human right; and yet art has only became more of a privilege as this relativization of reception fragmented the market right along with culture itself. Ironically, one can scarcely imagine there's another place on Earth which has devoted so much real and imagined effort toward such deconstruction, relativization and utopian egalitarianism than CalArts, and yet the comportment of the students there (and this extends far beyond the graduation party) has all the rhetoric of the petit bourgeois masquerading as aristocrat, of new money on parade without knowing quite how to behave itself.

For the record, I am all for art as a right, at least in theory, but I recognize that this cannot happen until it ceases to be ecstatic and once again becomes workaday. What I mean of course is not that the experience of art must cease to be ecstatic, but rather that the posture of its creators within the context of their society must break with the rhetoric of privilege. The question of whether this is either possible or desirable is not one I feel up to tackling right this minute. What I am ready to do is to leave the pretension of "dreams" behind in the CalArts bubble.


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