Friday, April 8, 2011

Opinion: Anarchic thought for the plebian artist

Last night I picked up the spring issue of Maisonneuve, a Canadian "Quarterly of Arts, Opinion, and Ideas." I was looking forward to it: I got a subscription last Christmas, and I really enjoyed the last issue. But as I started flipping through the pages, I couldn't find a single article worth reading. I wondered what it was, and then I realized it was that Maisonneuve is an honest-to-goodness, barefoot-and-naked, capital-L liberal magazine.

You can imagine how stunning this thought was. After all, aren't I a liberal?

Let's count the things that ought to put me in the Lockeian camp. I'm a vegan and a pacifist; I'm pro-choice and believe in gay marriage; I support programs of positive discrimination that rectify historical imbalances and elevate minorities, and I like big government spending to fill niches in the social sphere that support civil society - like cheap daycare, accessible higher education, and affordable healthcare.

But! I'm still a fiscal conservative. I don't like the government wasting money, even though I approve of the government spending it wisely. And there were two things that really pissed me off in Maisonneuve, two articles that lamented the fact that the government isn't wasting more money: an article about a lack of material support for aging artists, and another about the supposed detrimental effect that algorithm-generated web content - like eHow and other sites cobbled together by Demand Media - will have on journalists.

The funny thing is, I'm an artist. But I despise the sense of entitlement most artists seem to feel. I work forty hours a week to pay my bills, and find time in between to practice my craft. When I worked for the Canada Council for the Arts, I would read the project reports of artists who received $25,000 grants to write a book - and took two years to write a first draft. Honestly? In two years, I've written the first drafts of five novels, and more than thirty short stories. Oh, and I blog, and I write for Fantasy Faction, and I volunteered with two different newspapers, and I learned how to e-publish in the meanwhile.

Without a grant - by the by.

As for the issue of algorithm generated content, it boils down to the same complaint: people, namely creative people, are mad that other people don't care about the same things they do. People want to know how to trim their hedges, and they run to Google. If that puts you out of work as a journalist, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG. You have to have a customer to make a living, and whining that the customer is broken isn't going to fix your ill-conceived career.

All this made me think how weird it is that most people don't think in terms of, y'know, rational thought, but align themselves with models of previously established sociopolitical systems. If I didn't exercise my brain, I wouldn't simultaneously be a pacifist vegan, and an artist-who-hates-(capital-A)-artists. I'd be blowing glass statues of Mao Zedong and demanding the government pay for my physiotherapy; or I'd be writing stories about tripping on ayahuasca and criticizing people for being more interested in snorting cocaine. That's why I maintain that, though I'm not an anarchist, I'm an anarchist thinker: a few beers can rule my brain just as easily as a sophisticated political tract, but, in the long run, it's always going to be the strongest argument that wins.

Art is great. I love it. But don't expect people to pay you for it, and especially don't expect the taxpayer to support you career choice. There's a nasty habit - in Canadian art circles, at least - to lament that the public "ought" to appreciate The Arts (capitals again), as though they didn't. Wake up, buddy: Canadians buy Taylor Swift albums, they read Twilight, they watch the latest techno-thrillers (did you see Source Code? It wasn't half bad!). But according to the Real Artists (read: jerks with MFAs and some government graft in their pocket), "good" art is always the unpopular stuff (that taxes ought to pay for), and the popular stuff can never be good. Something, someone, somehow, is always ruining art. Somewhere.


I'm going to go back to being a productive member of society and an artist at the same time. Thanks for listening, and remember: don't be a jerk, free your brain from dogma.


1 comment:

  1. Aww c'mon Ben, let's not confound artists and journalists. I understand the "business model" argument. But the problem with content farms and algorithm gen media is that it inherently devalues content at the expense of ad sales and revenue sharing. Websites run by "internet marketers" have the side effect of belittling the professional aspects of writing and editing. Because hey-if you make your money per click, who cares about the content? This is unfortunate because the degradation of the profession through hedge-trimming how-to's spreads to the online presence of other, more artful or literary media outlets.