Friday, November 30, 2007

Dead-End Passions.

The more I get into the Ann Powers book I referenced in my previous post, the more I relate to the themes it presents. There's an entire chapter that examines the work-related attitudes of the self-identified bohemians of my generation. Months ago I wrote about this particular aspect of my life, but the subject is worth revisiting. Assuming that I fit into the specific sub-class of people that Powers wrote about, the reader can assume a few specific things about me. I am interested in the arts- a broad category of endeavor in which it is nearly impossible to make a living. If you have a child, and you are not sure whether to push them toward a career in professional sports or the arts, you should choose the former. The odds are long for monetary success in either field, but there are more slots available on the major league teams than there are in collections of contemporary art.

So if you (like me) grew up with dreams of becoming an art-star or rock-and-roll-hero, you have most likely found yourself in a series of unfulfilling jobs for a significant period of your life. By the very definition of the term, a bohemian is likely to reject the conventional assumptions of his/her society. There's a fundamental belief that everything can be commodified and its value set in terms of US currency. If an activity doesn't lend itself to this type of valuation, then its worth is necessarily minimized. We are taught that the strength of our nation depends on our participation as active consumers. We are told that we can only be truly fulfilled by the status and comfort conferred on us by the pursuit of materialism. These are ideas that are actively challenged by participants and followers of the arts. In fact many artists and musicians invert the priorities of their fellow countrymen.

Still, everyone has to meet the basic requirements of life. If we can't find anyone to pay for the art we make, we must find another method of acquiring the money necessary for food, shelter and clothing. As we become self-sufficient and examine the available options, we feel discouraged and limited. Powers points out that many bohemes gravitate to whatever consumer endpoint most closely approximates their individual passions. So if one aspires to be a musician, he/she often finds him/herself working as a cashier at the local 'Record Mart'. Would-be authors become clerks at the bookselling superstores. A visual artist might similarly attain employment at an art supply chain. While these folks certainly don't gain the satisfaction of getting to sell their own work, at least they can console themselves by being in the presence of the mass product of their chosen medium.

Unfortunately the cynicism produced by this kind of situation can be soul-crushing. Imagine the avant-garde jazz guitar player who spends his time stocking the shelves with the best-selling CD's of Michael Bolton or Toby Keith. Watch his deep frustration as he directs the next consumer to the new Kenny G. album. See him frown as he listens once again to the hottest Brittany Spears hit on the store's stereo system. He wastes all of his vast reserves of music expertise, while he waits for the 2% of customers who either have decent tastes or an open-minded attitude toward recommendations. His job is to pander to the lowest common denominator, and suppress his urges to display the contempt that he naturally feels. The same thing applies at the Barnes and Noble. How can the boheme not despise humanity when the majority asks for the latest Grisham novel?

How do you suppose the 'cultured proletariat' (Powers' term) maintains its sanity under such conditions? How do they protest the system? They regain their humanity through 'slacking'. They take long breaks, linger in the stockroom, engage in free-form conversations about aesthetics with their co-workers, make fun of the drone-like shoppers, and give out deep discounts to their friends. They may even lift some of their favorite products. It is easy to justify such minor scams when you are a minimum wage slave. The disenchantment is shared with co-workers, and the resulting community bands together- united in 'silent protest' to subvert the corporate machine. The rub is that management expects such behavior, and even budgets for it. The money lost is written off as 'shrinkage'. The corporation passes the expense on to the customers, and it actually ends up costing less than paying employees a decent wage. Every once in awhile they make an example out of someone to make sure the indiscretions don't get out of hand. And another worker has become a sacrifice to the bottom-line.

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Blogger Marc Snyder said...

Since the skills involved in using a cash register at a book store, record store, or art store are pretty much interchangeable, it seems like it would be good for the mental health of everyone involved if the musicians would work at the bookstores, the writers at the art supply stores, and the artists at the record stores. All of those folks tend to have interesting tastes and could make good recommendations outside of their chosen field, it's not so tough to learn the merits of the inventory on hand, and maybe they wouldn't become so embittered. . .

Though from personal experience, I'd recommend being a bank-teller. The hours are good, and it's a job that you don't mentally take home with you. I was very productive in the studio during the year I was a bank teller. Then I spoiled everything by going to grad school. . .

3:09 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I always thought that being a night-time security guard might be suitable to the 'artistic temperament'. I did that after my first year at college, and I had plenty of time to get into my own head, and I didn't have to interact with many people. The only down-side (other than low pay) was having to wear a uniform. There's often a lot of down-time when you can actually read or get some work done (sketching, writing and reading).

4:42 PM  

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