Tuesday, May 23, 2006

How I started a revolution by knitting-Or Alienated a Lot of Awesome People by Trying

Tonight, a friend and housemate nearly reduced me to tears by saying, in so many words, that, lacking proof of productivity as a visual artist, I might not qualify to take up permanent residence in the 13-person warehouse collective I’ve been calling home for the last three months.

Exhausted from days of work, band practice and very little sleep, I slumped disconsolately over my jam jar of warm beer, almost too weary to defend myself. “Where to begin?” I thought. With a lecture on the more subtle art forms of tact and sensitivity? Or the news that in three weeks my mother will no longer be employed leaving the entire family (including two siblings with chronic debilitating illness) at the risk of being uninsured? Perhaps heart-rending weeping over how much I hate myself every day that I fail to write?

Fighting back tears, I motioned weakly to the slop-stained trash compactor adjacent the moldy sink. “It takes a real artist to hand scoop all the garbage out of there when the bag is torn and everyone else ignores it like it’s not their problem.”

It’s ironic that what finally compels me to sit down and write is my absolute disdain for artists right now. So much so that I think this blog might detour into a manifesto like series of essays on the topic. My detractor makes a lot of neat art. I guess. To her credit, she helped found and runs an art gallery/craft collective out here in the east bay that hosts lots of free shows and workshops. Troubling however is her conviction in having found the true “right way to live” and her often course myopia in defending these sketchy ideals. Oh, and one more little thing…she is also financially poised to not have to work. I bet that’s nice. In fact I know it is, I’ve been there myself. I got a lot of writing done.

I am currently in the middle of Ellie Wiesel’s newest novel, a meandering web of elegant racontuering, “The Time of the Uprooted.” It’s a fitting read for someone who still lives out of a backpack and finds herself from time to time (like last night) roomless and hunkered in her trusty sleeping bag on the living room sofa. On my way home from work this evening I came across a particularly moving passage in which a character is brought back from the brink of suicide by a visit from a friend. A powerful conversation with his rabbi ensues. Rebbe Zusya says:

Don’t you understand that each life is sacred and irreplaceable? That a single life, any life, yours as well as mine, is worth more than all that has been written about Life. (italics mine, but note the capital ‘L’).

I suppose I’ll open it up to my wise and beautiful readership because after a quarter of a century, years of education, and life far from, at and over the edge, I still don’t understand who merits the title of ’Artist.’ More urgently, when it comes to creating viable, idealistic spaces for alternative communal living, how critical is this nebulous honor? I means, from time to time, (to make like teenagers do) can’t I just fucking live?

If I have one wish for my socio-cultural-economic cohorts it would be for everyone to start taking very honest stock of how and why we create and what it means to create in the ways that we do. Whereas I might have once believed art to be a life-or-death necessity, the grand explicator of truths wholly pure and divine, I have come now to regard it mostly as play. Art is something we do to build community, to feel good about ourselves and validated among our peers, to engage in so we sublimate our violent tendencies and stay out of trouble. Art is something we do to create a richer, more nuanced, ultimately more interesting world. And these are good things. But art is not the only means to these ends. In fact, at times (like when it’s wielded as some socially Darwinian caste system club), I would argue it is absolutely counter-productive.

The fact of the matter is, I’ve been inspired by artists and I’ve also been bored out of my skull by artists. At the risk of re-inventing the wheel here, I have to sound the reminder that flinging paint on a canvas is a priori proof of neither intelligence nor depth of character. I barely lasted one semester in art school I found this anti-axiom so disheartening.

Of all the artists I know, those I really care about, certainly the only ones with whom I’d want to live, also happen to be fantastic people. I try to be a generous, responsible, fun and supportive housemate. I have even been known to book shows, play music, write poetry and sew quilts. I assumed most people would be judging me more on the former set but I guess to some people that’s not enough. Was it the eternally quotable Mark Twain who said something like “when I was younger I admired people who were clever, now that I’m older I admire people who are kind.”

Maybe this is a sign that I should move into a studio apartment, get a cat and a television and give up on this charade once and for all. Yep, tonight, thanks to my awesome artists’ collective I can finally say I’m going to bed inspired.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Person Formerly Known as "An Artist"

(I will start writing again out of boundless gratitude to Mark and Mark, my loyal-perhaps only-readers. I hope you’re both doing well).

Sometimes I feel like no one understands me and I haven’t got anyone in this world. And then I remember that I’ve got Richard. Richard and I talk on the phone long-distance about once a week. He is a good friend, warm and funny, a companion, a sympathetic ear, a supporter. After all, only a close, stand-up buddy would lend me $7,000 in a pinch like Richard did.

Well, he didn’t exactly lend it to me personally.

Actually, he works for National Education Lending Corps. He’s my debt manager. And a really nice guy. I rather like talking with him more than a lot of people I know and it’s come to the point where sometimes I call him just to chat. I’m always telling him I wish we were business partners on different terms and he always chuckles at that.

Just the other day I was standing in the stairwell at work punching his extension into the phone menu at their headquarters back in my former home of Chicago. “This is Richard,” I hear after a couple rings. “Richard hi it’s Abbyg.” I’m breathless with excitement.
“Abby, how’s it going, I was just going to call you!”
“Did my check come??”
“It just came today, a money order no less, I’m impressed.”
“Are you proud of me Richard?”
“Very proud indeed.”

What we’re talking about is the largest single monetary transaction I’ve made since an obscene wad of bills stuffed awkwardly into my shoe for a jaunt across the street between the bank and the travel agency when I was 17 and preparing to move to Israel. Last week, after months of arduous saving, I mailed off a check to national education for $1,000 (addressed to Richard’s attention) - a fraction of the debt I managed to incur from JUST ONE semester of graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Phases are funny. When I moved to California a few months ago I figured I would spend all my days drinking coffee and writing rhapsodic poetry about the fog and the hills and the piss stained concrete. Or working on my masterful memoir-style contribution to the contemporary Jewish literary cannon. Or fleshing out that play of vignettes investigating the spiritual/material nature of Stuff.

But I suppose I had another kind of trajectory planned for myself.
I’m dry.
I’ve got nothing particularly interesting to write about. But I AM working like a fucking horse, 6-7 days a week right now, singularly obsessed with getting myself out of debt and putting aside money for my next series of escapades. I tend to seek out reading material that only reinforces whatever kind of tunnel-visioned mode I find myself in, so right now, for a “good” (i.e. Terrifying, depressing) read I recommend Anya Kamenetz’ book Generation Debt .

Debt is so real and so scary. Kids, don’t do it. Richard congratulates on my hard work, shares his own frustrated English Major dreams of at least becoming a financial educator because he sees all these kids sinking in deep for junk educations. He’s my friend and during our talks he confirms everything in Kamenetz’s book and more. I do not regret dropping out of graduate school for even one moment when I think about how debt-sick I would have been at the end.

Despite all my beautiful artist friends, my cynicism about art, creativity and class is plumbing new bored and sardonic depths these days. So until I’m ready to tug on that tenuous line, consider me “the person formerly known as an artist.” Right now I’m convinced that remaining free from children, debt and want for Stuff (you know, material things you’d end up giving away or throwing out if you had to move) is my ticket to liberty on a serious level. I’m taking a breather from my bohemian laziness to pull myself out of this mire.

Tell me the poetry will come back one day because without it, I am feeling kind of lonely. But when it does, I want to be ready to run off to Mexico, drink Chinaco on the beach and be nobody’s bitch but mine.