02 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (i)

...throughout my reporting, a certain imaginary comic book duo kept presenting themselves to me: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. Plastic woman has during the last century performed superhuman feats of flexibility. She has gone from barely working at all to working only until she got married to working while married and then working with children, even babies. If space opens up for her to make more money than her husband, she grabs it. If she is no longer required by ladylike standards to restrain her temper, she starts a brawl at the bar. If she can get away with staying unmarried and living as she pleases deep into her thirties, she will do that too...

Cardboard Man, meanwhile, hardly changes at all. A century can go by and his lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same. There are many professions that have gone from all-male to female, and almost none that have gone the other way. For most of the century men derived their sense of manliness from their work, or their role as head of the family. ...Some decades into the twentieth century, those obvious forms of social utility started to fade. Most men were no longer doing physically demanding labor of the traditional kind, and if they were, it was not a job for life. They were working in offices or not working at all... And as fewer people got married, men were no longer acting as domestic providers, either. They lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with any obvious new one. What's left now are the accessories, maybe the "mancessories"–jeans and pickup trucks and designer switchblades, superheroes and thugs who rant and rave on TV and, at the end of the season, fade back into obscurity.

Hanna Rosin, The End of Men, pp. 7-9

First and foremost, allow me to take credit for my contribution, however small, to any statistical case that women have "pulled decisively ahead" of men, to quote the publisher's blurb for Rosin's faux-provocative screed. I can't claim that pursuing a music career has been either a graceful or a constructive way to disavow my white male privilege, but it certainly has been an effective one: I am 32 years old working for $11 an hour; I hold an entry-level position in an industry where I previously worked for over 5 years; I have never held a job that required more than a high school diploma; I rent a room under the table in a shabby shared apartment close enough to spit on the Hollywood Freeway; I have been single for longer than I care to admit; and of course, like so many of Rosin's Cardboard Men, I have spent most of my life trying to make play look as much like work as possible.

Admittedly, to implicate myself in this way requires strategically omitting a few incongruous details, such as my enviable academic track record, a graduate degree from an expensive private college, a stellar professional resume in a field wholly unrelated to the aforementioned day job, and a life that on the whole has been more frequently over- than under-privileged. Call it my Plastic side if you will; it has nonetheless proven entirely ineffectual in delivering even a whiff of the self-made material or domestic respectability by which polite bourgeois society measures its charges. And while any grand pronouncement on the contemporary economics of gender is well-suited to attract attention, that Ms. Rosin's appears through and through to have been issued from the perspective of just this sort of contended, materialistic non-culture is, as many have already pointed out, the real lead story here. This much, at least, is obvious to anyone who has lived concurrent Cardboard and Plastic lives, and who thus inhabits part of the vast grey area unaccounted for by her imaginary comic book duo.

In my case, the highway from academic all-star to broken manhood runs squarely through territory most commonly (if unwieldily) referred to as The Arts, ironically thought by so many unliberated men to be the exclusive domain of sissies and faggots, but which, as even its seasonal inhabitants quickly learn, in fact harbors its own litany of gender terrorists, macho men, misogynists, and homophobes, some of whom would undoubtedly get on just fine with their more politically conservative brethren in fields like finance, law, and politics. A more substantive defining characteristic of The Arts, rather, is the inevitable disparity between intrinsic and popular valuation arising under advanced capitalism and fragmented postmodern culture, a disparity which, as intensely uncomfortable as it is for many artists to verbalize, itself has an unmistakably gendered component. The Arts in fact present a more extreme case of material incentive lying almost entirely on the side of compromise, accommodation, and malleability than most any economic sector Rosin endeavors to chronicle. If those have become, as she argues, highly gendered characteristics, then the valuation discussion indeed takes on a highly gendered character.

Such it is that for a field of endeavor so often and so loudly criticized for representing, literally or figuratively, the interests of male aristocrats and colonists, it is today difficult to locate which upper class privileges, exactly, are being enjoyed by any but the most conventionally successful artists; that is to say, by those exhibiting the ostensibly feminine "willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape." (TEOM, 270) The true men and women of leisure one encounters in artists' circles are far more likely to have simply inherited a fortune than to be collecting royalties from a hard-won mainstream breakthrough. And yet the rest of us white men do not simply divest ourselves of privilege in one fell swoop by choosing to become workaday professional artists; privilege, or the lack thereof, reproduces itself as long as one continues to exhibit the trait(s) with which it is associated. Such it is that as far out of my lane as I might seem to be these days, I am nonetheless reminded frequently and vividly that white male privilege is powerful enough to moderate even the extreme indignities and vicissitudes of the service sector in ways that most of my co-workers will never enjoy. This makes it hard for me to take seriously any argument that a service economy could ever serve as the backdrop to real feminist progress.

There is more than one reason for the underrepresentation of historically oppressed groups in so many Western artistic disciplines. It starts with good-old-boy politics but it does not end there. Becoming an artist of almost any kind worthy of the name in a world where cultural consensus and common practice have gone extinct is one humongous risk. All artists sign up for certain challenges, but only some see these challenges magnified immeasurably by intersecting oppressions. An arts career is thus a more manageable proposition for someone of my background who can count on relatively fair job interviews and loan approvals and an emergency familial safety net; it is less so for people truly on their own whose lives are already defined by underground discrimination and the daily risk of police brutality and/or sexual assault. Much as health care reform will do more for artists than a hundred NEAs, winning the ability for everyone to count on basic human dignities from their employers and governments is infinitely more central to the task of diversifying perspectives in The Arts than identity-based curating or grantsmanship ever could be.

And so, while I do wonder if my high school teachers, for example, might not be horrified at what has become of me, I can also accept this as a First World Problem. I have a steady job, a roof over my head, and just enough "spare" time to maintain the semblance of a music career working with some very talented people. Make no mistake that the ability to be an uncompromising artist at all and still attain even this basic degree of human dignity has everything to do with having had untold advantages from the outset. As such, I do not and never have considered holding a service sector day job to be in and of itself an affront to my dignity. To conclude from this that I have not been "successful" in life is, on the other hand, beyond an insult.

Indeed, there are always just enough artists of various stripes succeeding in polite bourgeois terms to make the more uncompromising elements look like failures. Just as surely, there will always be a few bourgie busybodies observing all of this from a safe distance and jumping to questionable conclusions; sometimes we meet them after a show, other times in print. Such it is that while the ostensibly cherrypicked, anecdotal nature of Rosin's case studies and her alleged statistical misstatements have proven fertile territory for critics wishing to engage her on her own turf, for me it is the turf she neglects to cover which opens up a far more revealing line of inquiry. Indeed, The Arts had to be more or less ignored to maintain Rosin's central conceits; the life of a modern-day Franz Schubert, Hector Berlioz, Bix Beiderbecke, or Herbie Nichols would blow the roof off of such clean and clear distinctions between success and failure. These men, like virtually everybody else, male or female, artist or not, were both successes and failures, compromising and uncompromised, part Plastic and part Cardboard. The "old architecture of manliness" has seldom been more than an undue burden on The Arts, but nor does consigning The Arts wholesale to the playpen of "mancessories" and "ornamental masculinity" do them justice. Literally, this is not what The End of Men does; by proxy and the occasional odd whiff of hostility, it comes closer.

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