Essay: The Art of Work and the Work of Art

I like to work, but am opposed to having a job.  Almost everyone works, in some capacity.  But "having a job," or working for someone else, is a guarantor of conformity.  The perceived necessity of having a job with benefits is the main distraction of adult life in America, where it's all about school, work, family.  At this moment, the question of jobs is particularly sensitive and charged.  Those without jobs, a club whose membership has grown appreciably over the last two years, are desperate for them.  They require income, food, health care, and shelter, for themselves and their families.  Protecting the brood drives the unemployed to aggressively pursue gainful employment; individuals without dependents may feel a bit more freedom to change careers during times such as these, when economies contract and markets change their shape.

But whatever the larger economic climate, those of us who are destined for another kind of productivity are stymied by the overwhelmingly dominant mindset that requires us to go to work for others.  Forty hours per week - the heart and meat of every weekday - are given over to work that ultimately, mostly, enriches others.  Our personalities, our interests, our talents, and our dreams are systematically subjugated in chilly environments that reward our toil with money and, sometimes, easy access to health care and modest investment opportunities.  I am not among those who hold Capitalism responsible for this sort of thing; nor am I saying that this set-up is definitively “bad.”  The problem is that not everyone is meant for this kind of life.  Capitalism is a useful concept, but it is borne out by human beings who make conscious choices as to how the system functions in its specifics.  Capitalism exists elsewhere, in places where the value of individual freedom of expression and freedom of mind in general are valued more highly than it is here.  The problem is cultural.  The problem is American.

If you grow up inside your head, testing ideas and experimenting in fields of creative and personal endeavor, you may wind up producing or discovering something that changes the world.  It may take a while.  People around you may have no idea what is it you are trying to do.  You yourself may be confounded by what you are compelled to pursue.  Paths of creative and scientific pursuit - paths originally trod centuries ago by driven, committed amateurs - have been professionalized to the extent that defining an individual way forward is not only untaught in either our public or private education systems, but is wholly absent from our common social discourse.  In the United States, we often suggest to one another that somehow, if someone is talented enough, they will rise to the top.  The idea that our society is intrinsically strong enough in its dynamics to "automatically" move the deserving into their proper place is a piece of outdated social Darwinism that smells vaguely of the totalitarian.  Yet this is a commonly-held trope that I continue to hear repeated in the context of conversations on the broad subject of "talent."

Capitalism reinforces and rewards hard work by individuals in operating in capacities that have the greatest social value.  In our society, these are the people whose work takes us away from quotidian concerns: athletes, actors, and musicians; or they are people who have the power of determining their own pay: corporate executives.  Occasionally, hard work by artists and scientists and other amateurs is rewarded via the marketplace.  More often, people in these fields are merely faced with raised eyebrows and suspicious glances, especially when they suggest that they should be paid for what their brains do.  Odd, given the money earned by people who answer telephones, throw balls back and forth, and pretend to be imaginary characters.

I have spent much of the last decade entangled in professional misdirection that has not brought me any closer to where I want to be in life.  This was a mistake on my part, and I'm responsible for it.  But it wouldn't have been made if I had been surrounded by differing - or even a variety of - expectations and attitudes.  Instead it was: school, work, family.  When it came time to earn a living with a college degree in English and Creative Writing, my options seemed limited - they weren't, but it seemed that way.  So I took a job in the publishing industry, because it looked like a place where a budding writer could learn something.  I did learn something: I learned that the publishing industry had virtually nothing to do with being a writer.  I also took jobs working in the non-profit world, and learned that writing grants was not only a depressingly salesman-like process, but that it sapped me of the mental energy required to do other writing when I wasn't at work.

More recently, as I've become more aware of my place in the world as it relates to the general workforce, and my complete unsuitability as a member of it, I've taken a series of small, tentative steps toward a different kind of existence - one that is not career-minded in relation to sources of income, and one that involves wholly unremunerated work as a writer.  But, the situation allows me great energy to write, and it affords my writing exposure to a small but consistent audience.  I should point out that this all amounts to nothing more than experimentation in terms of "how to be a writer."  I’m not there yet.

This set of personal circumstances is far from the only impetus behind the reflections herein.  I have a number of close friends who are in similar straits, struggling to balance the expectations of a social structure hostile to their strengths, and talents that refuse to lie still.  They work as hard as anyone I know.  Of course, I also know people who excel in professional or corporate environments, too, and probably belong there.  But the failure of suburban America, and the values that have incubated there, is its inability to find a place for people who wish to operate outside the common school, work, family mode of life.  There is no place for them there.  In cities, there are more opportunities, but what if we don't wish to live in a city?  What if we would like to live in the countryside?  As much as we would like to pretend that the Internet has eliminated the need to live where we work, it just isn't true.  But the main problem remains one of education, comprehension, and an ability to view the world through a multiplicity of lenses.  Hemmed in, bound by either arbitrary or unimaginative conventions, artists and other individualists face a challenge that is more stifling and impossible than all the tragic opera and bohemian mythology could ever express.

1 comment:

  1. OMG Casey (and I never use omg, because I think it is generally stupid). But it is warranted for this post. This is so well-articulated....you just summed up pretty much every struggle I feel as an artist. There really is no place for us in society. People don't get you, and I find I am constantly having to explain what I do to people who only understand corporate language and ideals. Nothing against corporate culture per se, but so few people realize it is just one lens. Being misunderstood 99% of the time is difficult, and I find it is easy to get depressed and wonder if what I am doing even matters some days. Of course, I know that ultimately it does, but an artistic path is hard to pursue day after day. I respect people who are able to persevere in these kinds of endeavors.