21 December 2017

Career Designs: Relative and Absolute Privilege, and the Even Keel

I seldom go long between social encounters with laypeople bent on idealizing my career choice on my behalf, the customary remark being something about "following your passion." Needless to say that my peers and colleagues are rarely quite so saccharine when discussing music as a vocation. The combined effect of these contradictory expressions can be disorienting, though to be sure they both betoken a familiar grass-is-always-greener outlook as well as the facility with which we can put either face on things, not just in our various interfaces with outsiders but also in our own minds. That is, we may reason relatively, as the layperson tends to (think Symphony Tubist vs. Ice Road Trucker), or we may present our real situation (statistically speaking, probably not anything like Symphony Tubist nor anything approaching it) in absolute terms.

There are good reasons for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to keep sight of the relative sense, if not merely to avoid saying something that they might later regret. But if The Arts so broadly construed are thought to have even the slightest objective social utility, then there is, dare I say, a reciprocal imperative on the extra-artistic world to keep sight of the absolute sense in which the vast majority of artists one can expect to meet face-to-face are dealing with much the same mixed bag of joys and sorrows that any committed professional does.

For me, music certainly has proven a potent avenue through which to learn that sources of great joy are uniquely suited to pile on great heaps of sorrow, and are typically also quite happy to oblige. This is a Life Lesson with implications beyond the narrow concerns of any one profession, yet I doubt that someone who has never truly devoted themselves to a calling can meaningfully understand it, particularly because it is a profoundly dualistic statement whose reverse does not hold: sources of great sorrow, as a group, are not particularly likely to also be sources of great joy. There is something in there about the wretchedness of the human condition, I think, but that is another topic for another time. More to the point is that the irreversibility of this fundamental vocational principle is what causes so much of our dialogue with outsiders to remain rhetorically anchored in the notion of relative privilege. To posit this relative privilege as a defining characteristic of artisthood, however, is to commit three related errors: first, by obfuscating its non-exclusivity to The Arts; second, by defining The Arts via what they are not; and third, by failing to account for the fact that this roller-coaster ride of privilege and obligation is quite a bit more than the sum of its parts.

Indeed, this latter reality is why so many of us academy-trained creatives were at some point told by an institutionally-sanctioned mentor not to get "too high or too low." If we were in fact told this, then we were, for one thing, fortunate to have fished out of the academic miasma at least one person who knew what they were talking about, and this in spite of their own relatively privileged position in the selfsame anti-meritocracy which we ourselves ostensibly aspired to enter. This much we may even have realized at the time. Less apparent back then, in all likelihood (and ever more so with "privilege" in seemingly perpetual ascendance as a watchword) was that we were being asked to withdraw from the relative into the absolute, to set our own standards for success rather than triangulating based on the messages being sent to us by the external social world; all of which is to say that every degree of failure to meet these internally-generated standards which is occasioned by an external factor makes it that much harder to swallow the more strident critiques of bourgeois art currently in circulation.

I am certain that my musical mentors were also correct in advising that "You get out of it what you out into it," and I expect that this is a less controversial statement than the one immediately preceding it. Precisely because this is such good advice in all areas of human endeavor, non-initiates of virtually any stripe getting a rare window in on the artist's habitus are bound to fixate on what appears to them as a conspicuous lack of either putting-in or getting-out. In fact you can't even admit to other musicians that you're not available for any reason other than that you already have a gig, and especially not if the real reason is that you've blocked out time to get out of public view and hone your craft. Suffice it to say that I speak from experience on this point. It is a phenomenon which, again, speaks to many larger human concerns which ought not be dredged up in too much detail right this minute. Even if you're not a professional artist, you can probably relate an analogous situation that you've faced, and if so, then perhaps you've also caught yourself thinking that privilege is a more complicated concept than the lowest common denominator of armchair theorists is capable of giving it credit for.


Time has a strong existential claim to being the most valuable personal resource, but I for one, millenial that I am, find focus per se to be the scarcest of all, which conventionally and practically speaking makes it the most valuable too. Hence the focus here on what I am calling the even keel. The advent of leisure time has an unimpeachable place in the study of history whereas the subset focused time remains incomprehensibly decadent even to some career academics. Hence the external social pressure to self-flagellate at the altars of myriad political interest groups is thrown into higher relief by the question of focus than by that of time even though the latter speaks to more basic political issues.

For the artist, this pressure creates palpable tension with an outside world which in spite of its boggling diversity of political orientation and worldview is seemingly quite unified in its intent to define art and artists relatively rather than absolutely. I have to think that anyone reading this can readily conjure the vastly different versions of infinite regress that, say, Bernie People and Trump People can be counted upon to summon in this respect. The region along this spectrum where inhabitants risk being accused of harboring an unseemly "relativism" is rather small and remote, yet there is, at the minimum, relativistic thinking in evidence both in the soft-Marxist critique of bourgeois art and in the contemporary red-state contempt for Artsy-Fartsies as against red-blooded, mammal-eating Americans. Both rhetorics cherrypick small differences and explode them into full-blown deviance. There is as well a characteristic distrust of the abstract and the unmeasurable which is a defining feature of the era of sclerotic institutions. (Hey arts non-profit people, can you say "measurable outcomes?") I would love to convince myself that these are essential mechanisms of social accountability upon which artists can profitably draw both in the content of their work and the living of their lives. What I actually stand convinced of is that this relativistic streak is merely a low-stakes commission of several deadly sins with which we are all familiar no matter what we do for a living.

That is to say that those who would accuse me of "following my passion" seem to be saying as much about themselves as about me. If they were merely expressing support or admiration, I suspect the wording of choice would be rather different; and of course if they knew what I actually have done for money over the years and how much of it has had nothing to do with music, they might have bitten their tongues altogether. It is just as easy for me to lapse into idealizing the many other fields I could have gone into; but alas, whereas enabling a select group of artists to live as solid middle-class earners has been an enduring project of the actual institutional bourgeoisie, the rise of the gig economy perversely relegates a great many others to live as only artists used to. Here as always, then, the term "professional" is used literally, reluctantly, and advisedly. Nihilism is the ultimate even keel, especially as human suffering becomes ever more visible; hence no "professional" milieu will ever lack for nihilists. As in most every other respect, The Arts are neither immune from nor especially exemplary of this reality.

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