Monday, October 5, 2009

Nuit Blanche: Art and Money

Hi everyone!

This post is going to be a bit different from the usual resume I generally write here. I've decided I have a blog for a reason and a website that is being overhauled so I can update it myself, which makes using this blog as a means of updating what gigs I do kinda redundant.

And, while busking during Nuit Blanche in Toronto, I started to form a post in my head that was later spurred on by a couple of people emailing me this pretty awesome blog post written by Amanda Palmer, entitled, "Why I am Not Afraid to Take your Money", as well as recent conversations I've been having with fellow street performer Chalkmaster Dave about making money as artists.

First of all, let's talk about Nuit Blanche. I'm by *no way* against events such as Nuit Blanche. Why would I be against the idea of bringing art and culture to the masses and making it unpretentious (for the most part) and accessible? That's awesome! As a street performer, that's what I do! I am, however, totally and COMPLETELY against the idea of free art. This will lead me into a rant about what I think art is, and, maybe I should go into that rant to contextualize for you all where I'm coming from.

Okay, so what is art? To me, it's a business. Period. Now, it's a great business, where ideas and execution come together to create something amazing, it can change the world, sure, but, at the bottom line it's still a business.

The idea of art being all about sacrifice and ideas and totally useless and the Artist As The Divine Being was fabricated in the 19th century, during the Romantic era. Artists needed to break away from the patron and decided to create their own biblical myth in order to do so. And it worked; patrons went away, art was consumed by the masses and everyone was autonomous and happy. However, people took it further and decided that art was no longer a business, but a lifestyle choice. Excuse me!? A lifestyle choice?

I'm sorry, but I work hard at my craft. And for somebody to turn around and call themselves an artist when they don't spend every day improving their craft in some way just doesn't make sense to me. I don't change a light bulb and go around calling myself an electrician. You don't work as a waiter and call yourself an artist. It's as simple as that. Trust me, folks. I'm not a divine being. I'm not a genius. I'm not a mythical beast like unicorns or Jesus. I'm an adult who took art very seriously and has worked hard to build a career for myself.

Anyway, before I digress too much, that's what art is to me, that's what it is in the context of this post.

The danger of promoting free art is the danger of promoting the well-established idea that experiencing art is entitled to people. This is where business comes in. Now, I love being an artist. I love doing what I do for a living. While I don't consider myself lucky (seriously, if anybody works hard at what they love, it will pay off in the end) so much as happy that I'm dedicated to my work, in the end, I probably wouldn't be doing it if I didn't earn a comfortable living from it. Yes, that's right. As much as I love to create new and interesting things, give something to people to cherish, if I didn't make money, I wouldn't do it. Why? Because it's not profitable. Oh, and just so you know, I failed miserably at the business end for a long time. I still do, sometimes. I am not inherently a business-man. I had to learn it. Just like I had to learn how to play piano, or learn how to mime.

Some of you reading may ask, "but does economy compromise artistic integrity?!" sure. Just like economy compromises the integrity of a variety of industries (look at the medical industry, for example). But you know what: you can work within the context of financial reality and make it work. Just how big of a deal is this integrity thing, anyway? To me, it sounds like something said by people who are afraid of success. I stand behind my work, personally. I think what I do is both artistic and subversive, as well as entertaining and profitable. You can merge the two, people. You can do it. Quite frankly, I think art is supposed to reach the widest demographic possible, and if you create work that is alienating and reaches only a certain demographic, you fail. Miserably. Art should be for everyone, not everyone who went to university. I don't need to quote Dostoevsky to prove I'm intelligent, or legitimize my work.

Here's an example of making things work realistically: Chalkmaster Dave is trying to get out of chalk and into painting. His work is stellar. He's not a fan of 3-D art at all. He believes 3-D chalk art is a gimmick as bad as a one-trick living statue. But, this year, Chalkmaster has decided to start producing 3-D art at festivals. Why? Because it's profitable. Fest organizers clamour for that kind of thing. They can't get enough of it. Now, Dave sure isn't going to do your typical fare with it, no doubt. He's a gifted artist and brilliant person and he's going to make it work with what he loves to draw: Batman. (and seriously, if anybody reading this honestly wants to push the 'Batman isn't artistic!' angle with me... have you READ any of the Dark Knight comics??) And he's not compromising himself terribly. Making 3-D art enables him to ask for more money, which means, he will improve the quality of his life and his family's life. Oh, and guess what. He's going to use some of that money to make paintings so he can eventually make money from his paintings instead of chalk art.

On the topic of having the audacity to ask for money...

Amanda Palmer's entry was emailed to me by a friend who said I should look at it, since it was talking about something I yammer on about all the time: why artists shouldn't be afraid to ask for money. Amanda Palmer used to be a street performer (in fact, she used to perform my very type of act), and her entry totally smacks of a street performer mentality. And that's a good thing. The one thing I've always admired about my industry is the total and completely ballsy way in which we approach our survival. It's also the most honest form of employment: who else gives you their product and THEN asks you how much you think they are worth? Answer: no one other than street performers.

I could go on about some of the misconceptions I've had over the years street performing: people from shelters handing me sleeping bags, suited business-types who act scammed when they see me go home with my boyfriend, I've even had people recognize me in fancy restaurants and ask where my shame is for dining at an expensive place, when they saw me at Yonge and Dundas performing earlier in the day. What the hell is wrong with that? I'm not like that panhandler who's going to inevitably spend your two bucks on some cheap booze. I'm funneling that money into new shows, my rent, and yes, sometimes a night out for some steak! I get angry and passionate, folks, because I find this whole idea so absurd. What is so wrong with me paying my rent on time?

I work hard. Arguably a lot harder than some folks at a desk job, who were hired by an employer, have all their benefits taken care of, all they need to concern themselves with is the task at hand for the day (generally given to them by somebody else). I have to book myself gigs, I have to train, I have to do all my own bookkeeping, my own promotion, build my own contacts... luckily, I work with some rather fine agents who take care of a lot of that work for me, but ultimately I am completely accountable for my own success or failure. Admittedly, my career-choice is even a bit unstable: I've been assaulted, stolen from, almost arrested, shut-down, had turf-wars...That kind of reality is hard stuff! My fan-base keeps me grounded. They are my paycheck. I am so grateful for the regular folks who know my name and make a donation every single day, and for the folks who write me emails or posts on the facebook fan page discussion forum. It's humbling.

But. It's also business.
And I never confuse the two. It's a bizarre career choice to some, I'm sure, but it's my own, and I'm entitled to make it work for myself. If you don't agree with me, then don't support my work. It's as simple as that. But if you do agree, know that your support goes a long way and maybe one day I actually will produce a piece of art that moves that large demographic of people to a satisfactory degree to some art academic with pretentions for Higher Ah-rt. But you know what? It will have probably taken money to get to that point.

I'll let you know when I get there.