04 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (iii)

The notion of compromise is uniquely fraught, loaded, and just plain complicated for artists no matter their particular relationship to it, a fact which makes reading The End of Men from the perspective of an artist a particularly uncomfortable experience. In so breezily and uncritically tossing the notion around, Rosin indicates, at the most parochial level, that The Arts are not on her radar, and, at a more substantive level, that she is oblivious to the pitfalls of hitching the wagon of women's progress to a service economy paradigm rife with both institutionalized and individualized injustices.

Under these circumstances, I believe it might profitably fall to artists to elaborate a bit on our strained relationship with compromise, this in hopes of rounding out the picture for the benefit of those more apt to make peace with the concept on account of having led very different lives. Start with the fact that The Arts inhabit Western society's most hyper-relativistic space and are valued and supported tremendously unevenly across various American demographics. Broad pronouncements about who has "pulled ahead" of whom in The Arts have always been particularly contentious for us, be it a question of gender, nationality, style, discipline, posture, finances, or virtually anything else. There will be no "data wars" here, only style wars, some of which will have a gendered character while others will not.

(A brief aside: faced with this, some will inevitably lament the loss of pre-modern cultural consensus and attempt to appeal exclusively to micro-consensuses, or to grow them in a laboratory so to speak; cultural fragmentation is, however, ultimately just one inevitable consequence of a free society, and so if we intend to build the latter, the former is something we need to learn to live with, and soon.)

This slippery state of affairs has many well-known and much-lamented implications for the quotidian lives of non-celebrity artists. Lurking more quietly: the lines between artistic idealism and "mancession" (TEOM, 3), chasing technical refinement and playing with "boy toys" (113), being dedicated and being "isolated" (156), having a long-term plan and being "slow to cook" (159), and so on are typically difficult or impossible for non-initiates to see. Who among my fellow artists reading this, whether male or female, has not experienced both types of reactions, sometimes in the same evening, maybe even from the same person? To work in a field of endeavor where the notion of success itself is almost entirely subjective is to accept the impossible challenge of ingratiating oneself to everyone while at the same time risk failing to ingratiate oneself to anyone. And so if the drive to ingratiate, or lack thereof, is, as Rosin is convinced, itself a highly gendered phenomenon, that opens quite the can of worms for those of us who work in and value socially marginalized musical subcultures. In fact, you may want to change into clothes you don't mind getting dirty, so numerous are the ensuing wormy messes.

In my unmediated maleness, I can think of two good (to me) arguments against compromise that apply to The Arts and not to the archetypal American office building. One is this: the hyper-relativism of artistic reception dictates that while we certainly can ascribe greater and lesser probabilities of material success to different musico-stylistic arenas, the only thing guaranteed by compromising your own aesthetic and/or cultural values is that you will have compromised them, while the only thing guaranteed by refusing to do so is that you will not have. Professional artists are thus the perfect control group in an evil science experiment designed to disprove the existence of a meritocracy: having all but disallowed the concept of merit itself, and under absurdly redundant, oversaturated supply conditions, the chance elements and pre-existing advantages that are the real wellsprings of material success both here and elsewhere are laid bare. In The Arts, people pay you to do what they want, not what you want; and they seldom qualify as rational actors in why they want it and who they want it from.

The second argument both follows from and completes the first; it concerns how the ego is situated in The Arts as opposed to how it is situated in standard-issue office building politics. Placating the ego by getting one's way over co-workers is always a hollow victory, usually bad for business in the long run anyway, and, to invoke Warren Farrell again, a literal death trap for the red-faced perpetrator and his escalating blood pressure. Conversely, achieving fulfillment through wholly self-directed artmaking, while it is undeniably also an ego-driven pursuit, is real, personal, and ameliorative; if you're happier, so are the people around you, the people around them, and so on. Indeed, on that last count, who better to cite than Hanna Rosin (and Susan Faludi, from whom she gratefully borrows the concept of "ornamental masculinity") for evidence that civilization is virtually disintegrating under a shock wave of deeply personal male discontent? Under these circumstances, it rather boggles the mind that men who have all but disavowed long-term financial stability, creature comforts, social respectability, and long-term domestic partnerships could be routinely derided as egotistical, elitist, self-indulgent, decadent, etc. simply for following their muses. I mean, those manufacturing jobs are not coming back, and there certainly are worse ways to pass the time than making art.

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