NOTE: Please excuse the re-post but given certain recent experiences (both mine and my friends) I thought it couldn't hurt to revisit a previous column.
Why do we do it? What compels artists, writers, actors, musicians to dedicate so much of their energy—so much of their very existence—to pursuits that more often then not result in frustration, pessimism, self-doubt and poor credit ratings? What can possibly be the upside to feeling down so often and sometimes so deep? What’s with the miserable, spectacularly disheartening tone of this introductory paragraph? Why don’t I just pour salt in your wounds? Huh? Why don’t I just stop typing right now, open up a big can of Morton whoop-ass and pour it into the gaping chasm that is your soul as I sit back and watch you writhe in incalculable, interminable pain?
Because believe it or not, I’m hopefully going somewhere with this and the result just may very well be encouraging. I can’t say it definitely will be so because, well, I’m also crippled by diffidence. But the mere fact that someone as hobbled with apprehension and irresolution as myself could think even just for one sentence that this might all end on a happy note has got be seen as somewhat encouraging, right? Right? Come on, people. Give me some positive feedback. I’m dying here.
Anyway, why do we do it? I’ve thought about this long and hard for several minutes and I’ve come up with the following three possible reasons, all which I believe ultimately support artists’ career choices (just not in the crucial financial way that involves being able to purchase food minus such cooking directions as “stir in seasons from flavor packet” or “can also be used to make a mock apple pie”):
1. To Know We Exist
At the risk of sounding like Neo struggling with the Monarch Notes to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” when you get right down to it reality is but a shared illusion. We don’t feel as if we truly exist unless someone, at some point, turns to us and says, “Hey, glad you could make it! Oh and you just gotta try the dip. I don’t know what Jenny put in it but it’s just freakin’ awesome! Maybe she added chickpeas. Hey, Jenny? Jenny! Did you put chickpeas in the dip? The dip! Did you put chickpeas in the dip?! You did?! I knew it! Awesome, man. Just freakin’ awesome!”
Consequently, most artists only feel truly alive when someone takes note of their work, of their efforts, of their goals. Now many of you might be thinking, “But I know plenty of artists who are loners, who seem to actively shun social interaction, who can’t go five damn minutes in a group without making some fucked-up comment that alienates everyone, even after I went out of my way to vouch that he was cool and wouldn’t bring down the party.” But being unable to cope with people is not quite the same as not wanting to be recognized by people. What we can’t say in public without causing people to dismiss us or stare at the table in awkward silence, quietly peeling the labels off their beer bottles and making one feel about as welcomed as a pandemic, we can say in our performance, our drawings, our self-produced EP. Now that might come across as high-falutin’ talk from a guy whose professional responsibilities consist of no more than attaching word balloons to doodles anywhere from one to four panels a day. But my comic strip allows me to connect with people that I would in no other way get to meet or be able to say “Hello” to without freezing up or immediately apologizing. What I’m trying to say is that we all need to find our own way to achieve recognition. I don’t mean at a pecuniary or even professional level but in a manner that lets us have our identity confirmed. You are an artist. Through your art you substantiate such to others. You go from a concept to someone many will love, many will like, many will detest and many will wonder what the hell you’re doing at age 55 still buying all your clothes from a consignment shop in Williamsburg. You’ve joined the party, you’ve got your name tag, now enjoy the dip.
2. To Know We Are Free
As far as subtitles go, “To Know We Are Free” is about as down-to-earth and humble as “To Know We Duly Possess the Inevitable Facet Crucial to Soul and Sapience” or some other quote I’m certainly misstating and surely misinterpreting from Rousseau. But nonetheless, I’m going to stick with it. Why? Because who among us, even those not in the arts, has longed not to have to work for others? How many of us here today have wanted to say, “You know what? Screw this. And screw you, Mr. Big-and-Mighty Company President! Just who the hell do you think you are, Mr. I’m-All-That-And-Oh-So-Much-More CEO?! Not everyone was lucky—oh, I’m saying lucky, you no-talent, empty suit—to have your economic and educational advantages! Some of us didn’t graduate from the Ivy League. Some of us graduated from The School of Hard Knocks…otherwise known as DeVry. Of course, ‘graduated’ may be putting to fine a point on it. Classes were chosen. Teachers were challenged. Security was alerted. Apparently knowledge is only for those who fill out an application form and are formally accepted by the institution. But that’s perfectly fine. In fact, it made me the man I am today! After all, some people learn best in a structured environment from accredited professors, others on a slowly sinking oil derrick at knifepoint. I don’t quite remember the particulars of those fateful three days at sea but I do recall being rescued just prior to drowning—not from the oil company who thought it best to cut their losses—but from a tuna ship, which was oddly named considering the sheer number of dolphin the crew regularly hauled aboard. But when I brought up the subject of their ‘additional captures’ they—like the teachers at my unofficial alma mater or the guy from the gas company who checks my meter—seemed uncomfortable with having their actions challenged. And so without concern for my well-being or how I would survive in a foreign environment they dumped me off at their very next port…which, fortunately, was San Francisco. Eventually I made my way back across country, taking odd jobs that mostly involved delivering unmarked packages, collecting ‘dues’ and stuffing envelopes. But with each employment opportunity I learned something about myself. I also received more bruises than a melon repeatedly struck with a ball peen hammer. Sure, I left each position minus any la-de-da ‘benefits package.’ And sure, that means I now have nothing in savings, nothing in checking and no income coming in with the exception of rebates from Crest and Disney DVD purchases. But I’m a survivor. Or at the very least, a breather. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Boss Man!”
Clearly we’ve all been there. We’ve all felt the desire not to have to report to people we don’t particularly like or respect, fulfilling tasks that often fail to satisfy us. Your art is your key to accomplishing that goal. Sure, that may sound like a specious argument at best, especially given that most artists have to work for someone else because their craft cannot pay their bills, their college loans or even their parents back. But just knowing that you are in charge of something outside of some manager’s grasp is in itself liberating. Just knowing that you are the key decision maker in a project, a dream, that is not beholden to countless approvals and being dragged through endless meetings or having everyone input their thoughts and objections through some sort of corporate wiki has got to make you feel emancipated from others’ whims and rules. Working on your art is the very moment in your day that you are, in fact, free. That you are speaking for yourself, fulfilling your mandates. True, to achieve your dream of working full-time in art you will actually have to work with others, but at least they will be working on your project, the way YOU conceived it. Unless, of course, they have notes. And, oh boy, do they always have notes.
3. To Know That You Can Just Plain Deal with It All
Every decision we make says in some small way how we’ve chosen to cope with this little riddle we call life. Accept a job you don’t particularly like but may prove financially advantageous? You’re saying, “I put the greatest value in personal security.” Opt for an “everything bagel” for breakfast? You’re saying, “To hell with carbs and halitosis, I deserve a little personal pleasure.” Decide in childhood to dedicate your life to becoming a professional cartoonist? You’re saying. “I’m through with sports. Oh, and forget girls until college. Just forget them. But at least I’m not one of the AD&D kids. Oh God, tell me I’m better off than the AD&D kids.”
I’ve known cartooning was my calling since junior high school. Alas, that was way back in 1981, when Quarterflash topped the charts and mustaches were the tonsorial choice of more than just undercover narcotics officers, so you know it was an era rife with poor decision-making skills. I mean, come on, who bases their entire life on a career selected in a decade that opened with the question "Who shot J.R.?" and closed with the query "Who the fuck is The Escape Club?"
So why did I stick with it? Because cartooning—and writing—are the only ways I know how to cope with the world and my place in it. It’s a means through which I can address problems both personal and public, organize my thoughts and ultimately offer some response (or, when I’m feeling snide, retort). That’s not to say I’m coming up with any great solutions to mankind’s problems. I’m not. I can’t. Hell, you’ve read this article. It’s a discursive nightmare! If this were a high school report I’d get an “F” for effort. And what the in the world was that nonsense about DeVry and oil derricks a few paragraphs back? I actually graduated from college and the closest I’ve ever gotten to the oil industry is when driving past the refineries off the New Jersey Turnpike. Seriously, that’s the sort of circuitous logic that’s supposed to crack open the mysteries of the universe?!
Well, no. But life isn’t about breaking the code. It’s about putting two and two together and finding out what you believe in and what you need for a happy existence. Through cartooning and humor I’ve been able to draw my own conclusions about politics, relationships, religion, death and 70’s TV programming. Every artist uses his or her talents as a prism through which to see the world. And every artist is fortunate for that gift. Not every person has a means through which to determine what is right, what is wrong, what is true and what are talking points. True, you may never achieve conventional success. You may never even be able to live solely off your art. But if you keep at it you’ll be recognized as an artist, you’ll enjoy the freedom that can only come from pursuing your own dreams and you can find not only a voice but also a belief as you go through life.
Well, what do you know? I ended on a hopeful note after all. Somebody beer me.