The Monk- Part I

All artists stumble and strive towards their place in history. Most fail to contribute anything of historic note even given years, decades, or a lifetime of concerted and dedicate effort.

Yet, no matter whether any single artist achieves, fame, recognition or infamy, the paths of most artists tends-especially in contemporary America- to look largely the same.. Whether one is a musician, a writer, a photographer or potter, the arc of an artists career is a hard long slog to little money and little recognition and fame.

And yet so many persevere, attempting to create a personal vision. To leave a record of their inspiration, imagination and passions. No matter how varied our methods or interests, we unite in the hope of creating work, a vision, which will endure.

What interests me most- as an artist these days- is the intersection of the image and written word.  As for most, this pursuit doesn’t provide much in the way of profits or recognition.

So why bother?

Obviously any pursuit which fails to provide something substantial in the way of financial remuneration, or at least a little stardom, in America in 2013, is hardly worthy of respect.  Any good Republican will tell you that there is only one yardstick. and that’s return on investment.

Why spend the time and energy if your interest isn’t going to turn a buck?

Artists as a class usually have a number of answers to such questions going to the issue of art and profits- or lack thereof. However, before addressing such questions it is more important to note that such a discussion entails acknowledging,that any such discussion is so much horseshit.

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That is, to even have this discussion is to provide some legitimacy to the the assumption that art requires justification. Or to provide credence to the common assumption that that we’re all born on this earth to serve as corporate drones. But let’s play this line of thought out as there are bigger philosophical issues at stake beyond the moral righteousness of the almighty cost benefit analysis.

For let’s be clear that money is, as Joe Dominguez once wrote- in his brilliant work,Your Money or Your Life, something you receive in exchange for your life energy.

The truth of this assertion dictates that such such questions are neither academic nor trivial. Why not maximize the retur on your life energy? Why create art instead of working towards a new BMW?

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In addition, any serious artist must address this question as the reality is, in almost every field of artistic endeavor, that a market really doesn’t exist for most art. The production of words and images-like the writing of poetry and throwing of pots- is a piss poor way to make a buck because the omnipresent and classic supply and demand model are squarely against one for several reasons.

First, in my instance, word and images are ubiquitous.  Words and images , in one form or another, flood every form of media, especially the internet. This an obvious observation. Moreover, it is also axiomatic that the wildfire spread of the word and image occasioned by the rise of recent technology- have  caused the bottom to drop out of the traditional publishing and photography industries.

This point is also old news.  As Clay Shirky brilliantly explained some time ago in his essay Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable:  “The competition- deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it.”

In short- the internet not only made the word and image ubiquitous, but dirt cheap, if not free. It costs a lot of money to run a brick and mortar newspaper and/or photography gallery, and the internet is virtually free.  So no one’s obviously going to pay for that they can get for free.

This much is known to damn near anyone smarter than mold.

However, this observation does not cover the entire breadth of the publishing and image conundrum,. For while it is true that countless writers and photographers are going broke- or at least having to find new day jobs due to the electronic prevalence of the word, there is, at least, one other major point to be discussed.

To wit- most artists are not starving these days just because images and words are so prolifically and simply transmitted, but they’re starving because the internet has made America- if not much of the world- immune to quality.

The problem is that the internet has made the word and image not only ubiquitous but also fungible. Those who flooded the world with so much digital detritus have also convinced nearly all the population that one photo is as good as another and that a poorly written sentence is as serviceable as any well crafted statement.

In today’s internet world of memes and cute kitten images, quality work simply does not rate. Thomas Pynchon’s new novel is seemingly no more valued than the latest mad blog ravings of some neo-fascist scribe In today’s economy it doesn’t pay to be talented, it doesn’t appear to pay to develop a craft over decades.

So to circle back, why bother? Why bother to create and craft work of any quality, let alone spend a lifetime creating work worthy of one’s hopes and aspirations if virtually no one is going to give a damn?

Mostly, it turns out for the same reasons man has always created- because he must. And man must create not only art, but he also must constantly work at advancing technology. In the end- to pit technology against art- as so do without any real thought on the subject, is to engage in a fools debate. Man must create art, man must create technology and the two have always and will always collide and collude in a thoussand interesting, infuriation and fascination ways until the end of time.

For while it can be said that the rapid technological shift which has occurred over the last several decades has indeed wrought havoc to nearly all forms of art, such a development is as predictable as the tide.

These  parallel tracks of art and technological advance reach back to man’s earliest days. These twin basic urges- and their concomitant commingling- will never abate.

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Moreover, the results of these twin urges have sometimes been glorious and sometimes chaotic. Sometimes technology has served to benefit the arts to an unthinkable degree. As Shirky also recounted in his essay in discussing the impact of the Gutenberg Press:

In the early 1400s, the era before movable type…. [l]iteracy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible…..[I]n the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

Thus the issue is not whether the internet is good or bad, or whether the internet spells the demise of the written word or the existence of photography as an art form, but, rather, how will artists choose to deal with this fundamental and seismic shift in the creative landscape.

The answer is bound to be chaotic and slow as revolutions happen in a frenzied and bloody explosion; while the growth of the new systems which arise to replace the old systems, the old regimes, arise in a haphazard and less than linear manner.

Again- Shirky: That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Thus, one can bemoan the advent of the cute kitten meme or one can adjust and find new ways to create. One cannot stop the rise of the cute kitten nor the precipitous plunge of the American intellect. Nor can one expect to get paid- at least well- any time soon. But maybe the difficulty of being paid well is a small price for the privilege of being able to create in this day and age while having access to an endless array of tools. digital and otherwise…..

In any event,, the point is as moot as railing for or against the evolution of art, it’s audience and the morphing means of its production- as these developments like the very evolution of man as a species- has always been a foregone conclusion. Whether or not we choose to accept this fact really doesn’t matter. As the Buddha once said, “when we understand, the world is as it is, and when we do not understand, the world is as it is.”