The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2019

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MAY 2019 Issue

Pay the Artist

Roscoe Mitchell. Photo courtesy of United States Artists

Roscoe Mitchell needs no more accolades, he's been lauded many times over for what he has created through decades of playing and composing creative music as a founding member of the essential avant-garde jazz and improvising group the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as a superior and individual improviser, as an incisive and skilled composer carving out an idiom that can only be described as Roscoe Mitchell’s music, and as an important example and lodestar to young, creative musicians around the country. Yet he does need to be rewarded, meaning he needs to get paid. He has worked for decades, often under extreme conditions (the Art Ensemble toured Europe in 1969, camping along the way because they couldn’t afford hotels).

In Chicago in late March, Mitchell and nearly 50 other artists across all fields came together as this year's group of United States Artists Fellows. Each and every one was given $50,000 in what was a karmic, partial payment for their work. Because it was money for all the work they’ve done, and money in the most basic, valuable sense—as a representative of USA said, “What do Fellows spend this money on? They pay bills, they pay their rent, they get out of debt.”

Pay the artist. Let them live. Ignore the outliers, the artists who were born wealthy or came into wealth. As with all the Fellows, Mitchell got up on stage to present his work, which for him was to spend five minutes playing his sopranino sax, using circular breathing, keeping his fingers in motion and letting his air column produce sounds and pitches—it was a musical metaphor for the artist’s life, constant effort that produces something, often fleeting, of beauty. Then, sometime later, when Mitchell returned home, he probably had to buy groceries, or pay the electric bill.

Everybody loves art, except when it's time to pay for it, then it has no value. In a well-known clip from the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the writer Harlan Ellison tells a little story about how a production company asked if they could use a previously filmed interview with him for a video compilation. He said sure, you just have to pay me. The caller was aghast, saying that people were doing it for nothing. He asked, “Do you get a paycheck? Does your boss get a paycheck?” Everyone in commerce seems eager to take from the artist, and ever reluctant to pay them.

As much as the verb "consume" is a terrible euphemism for reading, listening, looking, it does have a poetic meaning when it comes to people acquiring art and not paying for it—downloading PDFs instead of buying the book—or requesting work and offering some variation on "sadly, there is no budget, this is a labor of love." I got that once when I was asked to contribute to a book. There was no money for the writers, yet somehow the editors were going to get paid, and so was the publisher. Strangely, they didn’t find any contributors.

That's the American way, and not particular to this age of late capitalism. America is the long con, the something for nothing—something for me, nothing for thee—the middleman, the skimmer, the rentier. Mitt Romney, exemplar of capitalism, has never made a thing in his life (his father at least made cars), but made himself a fortune on the labor of people who did make things, like paper. And when workers have the temerity to ask for things like social programs and services, for the pensions they contracted for, they become "takers," morally inferior to the "makers,” who make nothing. And deserve nothing. The perverse genius of late-stage capitalism is that Romney and his peers take a little bit of coin from every dollar that crosses their path, all in the name of some financial idea. They are conceptual artists in a way, rewarded for things that don't actually exist.

The actual takers like Romney are jealous and paranoid about their money, and have political power, and so grants to artists have changed over the years, going from the simple cash we need to shelter, feed, and clothe ourselves—getting paid—to money administered by institutions and organizations and confined to a single project that they have commissioned. It's transactional, there is a budget, it's like buying a product. Once sold, what comes next? The bills come, the rent is due, the fridge is empty…

The beautiful brilliance of the United States Artists Fellowship is that they themselves are funded by the kind of large, wealthy institutions, like the Ford Foundation, that disburse money (with strings attached). In a culture where hard work is a measure of how many phone calls you make, how many emails you write, how much paper you push around, "hard work" is the term of art used to justify unconscionable salaries and rewards that often go to people who are demonstrably bad at what they do, but who went to the right schools, have the right credentials, know the right people. People who make nothing are ostentatious about how hard they feel they work.

People who make things work hard. Artists work hard in real terms: intellectual and physical effort, endurance, perseverance. The 2019 USA Fellows include paraplegic dancer Alice Sheppard, who performs in a wheelchair, not only in horizontal but vertical dimensions, and basket weaver Gabriel Frey, who goes into the woods, cuts down a tree, carries the log out by hand, and then uses a sledge hammer on every bit of the surface to separate the rings, from which he cuts the fronds that he will then use to start making a basket. He said "it's pretty labor intensive." His baskets are beautiful, and useful. They last, they do something. They are art that works.

Art is hard work, harder than anything that involves wearing a sweater in July because the office is so heavily air conditioned. Art demands the most effort because it demands patience, perseverance, endlessly delayed rewards (often eternally delayed). Melville wrote:

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.

Leaving out the means by which to survive to then wrestle with the angel. How does the world survive? Cash. Give the artist cash. Pay the artist.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2019

All Issues