09 September 2019

Making Art, Doing the Thing

I've given a lot of thought to this business of art-making. It's not an easy business. One of the major hurdles in the art-making business is, really, the whole business aspect of it. It's not too hard, once you've mastered your craft or even have an inkling as to what you're doing, to produce art—and good art, at that. The tricky thing is being able to sustain yourself—in a capitalist society which tends to value art not on its overall effect on society (as culture, as memory, as knowledge, and as vessels of affect/feeling/emotion) but rather on either its more practical effects or its trendiness or (more infuriatingly) its potential to be trendy. It's a wonder we get any art-making done.

What's an artist to do? We have to ask for help to survive, but we live in a society (especially in toxically-masculine America) which disapproves of asking for help. Asking for help, it seems, connotes a weakness, which makes one less valuable to society, or, at least, to Steve in accounting, or wherever. The reality is that asking for help connotes a strength. You can ask for help, and be asked for help in return, and you are stronger for it. And we (society) are (is) stronger for it.

Much of my thinking on this topic has been influenced by the amazing performance artist (I call her this; not sure she would agree) and musician Amanda Palmer. She has a book called The Art of Asking as well as a TED Talk which goes into detail about all of this from an artist's standpoint. And so, we create art, we ask people to pay for the potential for art, and art gets made and made again and again. We help each other. We build a stronger community and (with hope) a better society.

Recently, two big events have helped me put this into perspective.

You may or may not know that my friend Jade Rosenberg and I are writing a musical called A Time to Speak, about a young woman who inherits her father's company at the turn of the last century and must join the women's suffrage movement in order to protect her father's legacy. We asked a lot of people for help in order to put together a video of one of our songs, “The Way of the American”. This particular song is sung by the workers in this company, which is a textile manufacturer in New York City. The workers are mostly female, immigrants, potentially former slaves or second generation freed, potentially indigenous people. These are the kinds of people working in factories in America at that time. (And at this time?) We chose this number specifically because of its potential for parallels to our current era.

Jade helpfully stepped up as director for the shoot, since I had to play an instrument due to one of our musicians cancelling at the last minute. (But we only had one cancellation, which I think is pretty great!) She had our singers try to embody the emotional journeys of each of these factory workers, even though our singers were in their own clothes and singing in a dance studio. I think the effect works to highlight the universal-seeming nature of a struggle to make a better life.

There is no way we could have made this video without help. We got help from the singers and musicians, who gave up time to make this happen. (We gave everyone some money for transportation and food, but not the kind of wage one would expect for doing this kind of work.) We got help from Adam Blotner, who filmed, recorded, and edited the video and audio for us, and from my soon-to-be-spouse, Grace Odengo, who also filmed and took photos. We got help from Megan Doyle at the 92nd Street Y, who gladly let us use Studio 92 for our shoot. And, behind the scenes, we got help from our patrons on Patreon, a number of whom have been giving us monthly monetary support since we started this project in September 2016.

And we hope that our art helps people; if not, we hope it at least brings people joy or some kind of feeling; if not, we hope people just like it. If not, it still exists and has effect and meaning in its own way.

I was reminded of this important piece, where we have to help each other as artists. I was accepted into the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop as a composer last week. The BMI Workshop is incredibly prestigious. Some of the alums are Alan Menken, who has been the house composer for Disney for the last thirty years; Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who wrote Ragtime, Once on This Island, Seussical, and others; Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who are responsible for (among other things) Frozen; Jeanine Tesori, who did Shrek and Fun Home and a bunch of shows in many different styles. The list goes on, and I'm still pinching myself. But what I'm getting at here has to do with the entrance form they had us fill out when we got accepted. There was a page where they asked what skills you had to offer to your fellow workshop attendees: do you sing, or dance, or play the piano, etc. It was the open invitation to help each other which made me realize what this BMI Workshop is all about, why it's so successful. It's about skill-building, to be sure, and it's about producing work. But it's also about producing community. The people I work with in this workshop will be a part of my community now, and I will be a part of theirs. This community already feels different than the one I entered into at NYU, many of whom I do not keep in regular contact with (though I should). The BMI Workshop focuses on the collaboration and the community building. We're all already together.

I am interested to see where all these collaborations go. And when I say collaborations, I'm talking not just about the different artists getting together and making work. Collaboration is as much about society coming together in come way. Patrons collaborate with their resources as much as a singer collaborates with their voice. The project can only exist in community. Something to think about.

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