The Poor and Mighty

Puccini's destitute artists in their garret

This is the last part of a three-part essay. Check out here and here to get the whole thing.

The first fact we must understand and accept is that as working artists in New York City, we are lower-class; we are among the working poor. Every auto mechanic you’ve ever seen in New York is most likely making more money every week than you are. Every doorman takes home more and has a much stronger union backing him up. Cabdrivers do better.

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will direct for food

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For many of us, college-educated and from middle-class homes, this is not something easy to accept, let alone embrace. Money is the national religion and we are all heretics on the brink of ex-communication. It is a sobering and somewhat embarrassing admission to define yourself as poor, but check your bank account and read the bottom line. For many, if not all, young artists, the early years of struggle and impoverishment are seen as a necessary and temporary condition; a romantic caffeine and booze-fueled interlude between college and the inevitable Big Break, a collection of crazy, amusing anecdotes to be shared on late night talk shows when your buddy, the host, asks you about the Early Days. This is a helpful delusion, no doubt, keeping many hopeful and working in the face of constant adversity, but it seals the artist off from the rest of the working poor in the city, making her believe that she has more in common with a professor who can quote Brecht (and is making 80 grand a year) than with a cashier at RiteAid who can’t (and is in the exact same economic limbo as her). I see a mostly unconscious but unmistakable sense of superiority operating when I watch artists dealing with working people. Perhaps this is the result of a class consciousness that was bred into the artist growing up or maybe it’s just an unthinking belief that art is somehow a more valuable and worthy occupation than anything else could possibly be, especially something as pedestrian and mundane as jack-hammering a sidewalk or mopping a floor.

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via Art is Everywhere

This is tricky territory. I believe that art is central to a fulfilled human and civic experience, which is why I believe that an arts-centric city and society is the goal we should be working towards. But I’m with Andy Warhol when he asks “Why do people think artists are so special? It’s just another job.” This is akin to the task of letting go of the tyranny of aesthetics, only on a broader and deeper level. Somehow, we have forgotten the basic truth that before art is a communion with the divine or a descent into a fever dream or an experience of wonder and beauty, it is manual labor. Hours and hours of it. What is the daily difference between a sculptor and a welder? Between a dancer and a traffic cop? As artists we work towards something called Beauty, others work towards Utility, but an objective observer, not understanding either of those terms, would be astonished at the gulf between artists and other manual laborers. Writing is physical labor. Singers and dancers and actors are, essentially, athletes. The Romantic (and romantic) conception of the artist is of a visionary, a seer, a dreamer. In our Puritanical work-ethic value system, it is a small and easy step from “dreamer” to “lay-about”, as though the artist did nothing but sit around and think things up all day and the rest takes care of itself and presto-chango! a play or a poem or a song or a painting leaps into existence. Any artist reading this now is smiling, as they know that art is work. Manual labor. You have to be in decent shape and you have to put in the time. Once this is understood, things become clearer.

An artist’s life is hard, there is no sure paycheck and when you are employed or recompensed, it’s never big money. But it can be enough, and it can be more than enough if some things were easier. This is what every working class person thinks Sunday night before the working week begins, artist or no. But the artist has something extra that kindles his hope. The artist loves his work. Most working people don’t. The artist is enraptured by his job, he can’t stop thinking about it, it transforms and transcends and transports him. This is why no one should ever pity an artist and why the artist must never succumb to self-pity. To be touched by a power this great and to serve it daily is ample reward in this world.

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Working together: Puccini’s destitute, Bohemian artists in their garret

What I am arguing towards is a means in which more people can experience this. If we acknowledge the kinship between art and labor, we can begin to think of labor as art. The artist works towards harmony, completion, balance and beauty. So does the craftsman and so, by extension, can any physical laborer. Imagine a world where we’re all looking at things through an artistic lens, where the most common-place acts and objects are valued for their beauty or their originality or their humor or their depth of understanding and insight. Imagine a city of artists. A city that openly and consciously welcomes, values and promotes artists and artistry. A city that provides space for artists, that employs artists in its schools its parks, its prisons. A city that proudly defines itself as a cultural mecca.

We can build that city. If we, as working artists, first recognize that we are primarily working-class manual laborers and then make common cause with the rest of the working-class, honoring and working to promote the latent and potential artistry in their labor, the hard work is over. Because here’s the good news and the thing that should give us courage and hope:

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We are legion.

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In New York City there are an estimated 50,000 citizens in the independent theater sector alone. That’s just one segment of one discipline. How many writers? Singers? Painters? Filmmakers? Photographers? Choreographers? Cartoonists? How many generations of artists, celebrated, unknown, emerging, struggling, surviving live in our city? I don’t know these numbers, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that we greatly outnumber the bankers and the realtors. And yet finance and real estate interests run our city. And we, disorganized and increasingly despondent, accept our slow but inexorable forced march out of Manhattan, out of Brooklyn, out of Long Island City, out of our city.

It does not have to be this way. We do not have to accept the current situation and civic value system. We can change it.

The first, practical step if you are a theater artist is to join the League of Independent Theater. We’re organized and ready to make some good things happen. If you’re not a theater artist, contact me and we can start creating a working coalition between LIT and other arts advocacy organizations in the other disciplines. Our situation and our needs are the same.

Let’s do this.