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The need for struggle

Dear All,

I want to talk today about the idea, much promoted in media and literature, of the struggling artist.

Now, let’s be perfectly clear…I am not speaking about the so-called ‘Bohemian’ lifestyle which has seemed to come back into vogue post Rent and currently with various and sundry denizens of Brooklyn…

What I am getting at is the idea of the struggle to create, and the NEED of the struggle to create.

It was Beethoven and the later Romantics who really defined the idea of the struggling artist, at least for music. That image of the artist, waiting, as in pain, for ‘inspiration’ to come down as a blue lightning bolt from Heaven to imbibe the artist to create a masterpiece. It’s great P.R., but as all of us who actually do this for a living know, it’s not reality.

What IS reality is the artist balancing the need to create with the need to eat. This balancing act has been going on for years. How do you make a living when you can’t make a living on your art, which, let’s face it in the non-popular realm, none of us really can.

What I just said is not news to anyone, but what I want to explore is the idea of the struggle and how that may actually be used–probably more unconsciously than consciously–to perpetuate great art.

Most of us in the creative industries need to live in places where we can find work and continue to be in the cultural consciousness. This is hard. There are very few places where this is truly possible; in fact, you can probably count the main ones on one hand: New York, London, Paris, Berlin…and even then, being in the center of arts doesn’t make the struggle easier when you have literally thousands of folks who are fighting for that same opportunity you are. Living in NYC is hard, real hard. But we know that we can’t create in a vacuum…as much as I’d love to be somewhere (anywhere!) else at times, I know that this would even be more difficult. I grew up in Lowell, MA, lived for years in Boston…both are lovely places to live and raise a family and both have their own cultural scene, but as a living creative artist, how would I live? There is only so much one can do; only so much (so little…) opportunity.

Who would hear me? Who, really, would care…?

So I left and came to NYC. I had exhausted every opportunity in MA…I needed the ‘big stage.’

Even in the Information Age, the artistic centers still stand supreme as the locations to be in. Internet and Youtube aside, there is nothing like being in the ‘Center of the Universe’ every day. You feed off of the energy, of the struggle, of the creativity of your colleagues…being immersed in it, you learn, you expand your mind, you understand how to express your soul…my colleagues who have great situations at distant academic institutions do their best to get performances in NYC to stay ‘relevant’…it’s hard to be relevant in Reno, or Dayton, or Lansing, or at any other academic institution far away from the energy of the creative vortex. Those folks find their own balance; some very successfully, most, not so. But that is a later argument…

I have been musing a lot lately both on ideas of how to create a life/work balance and also on the idea that what some may see as disadvantages to the artist may actually turn out to be great advantages.

I am a workaholic…I know this…I embrace this obsessive aspect of my personality. It has destroyed many relationships over the years, but it also has driven me to be successful in many endeavors. The need to be successful in my personality has trumped pretty much everything else. It’s not money–I mean, come on, look at the profession I’m in…like I give a damn about making/having lots of money–but it is perhaps immortality…not in the physical sense, obviously (something else I couldn’t care less about), but in the impacting culture sense. However, one can’t live on the art. And interestingly enough, most artists never have. Sure, in the days of aristocracy patronage a chosen few had gigs where they had to create constantly; Haydn, for example. But even so, it was more like working for a film or television studio than living as a creative artist; you had deadlines and you had to please the folks writing the checks…Verdi probably came the closest. Beethoven had super-stardom in his lifetime. Most were teachers as well, or like Bach worked for the church. And many composers did not even make their money from music. Borodin was a chemist, Cesar Cui a military engineer, John Cage collected mushrooms for NYC restaurants, Philip Glass for most of his life drove a taxi and was a plumber.

This is very common, finding a balance between a ‘day job’ and an artistic career. For a brief time, academic institutions were the haven for artists, but the deflation of degrees and the need for state/federal funding has changed this into more of an academic profession than an artistic one, so many professional (non-academic) artists are not considered qualified to teach at this level anymore. But that is a later argument…

Many of the great writers in history had day jobs. Franz Kafka worked in an insurance office, William Faulkner worked night shifts at a power plant, William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy,” Kafka told his fiancee. These were all highly creative personalities who could not make a living on their art, yet found ways of creating when they could. Late at night, weekends, inspired by stimulants such as coffee and depressants such as alcohol to help negotiate the worlds of creativity and that of fiscal reality. Many struggled to find this balance…many lost the battle to substance abuse, unable to find this balance…many were unable to function beyond menial labor so that they could focus their energies on creativity. Many were imbalanced…there is that tightrope…

I personally find it very difficult teaching music, even to college students, and having to create myself later…I get burned out on music, at times. I never look down on an artist who decides not to take a teaching path. In many ways, I find this may be an advantage because they can focus all of their artistic energies into creation and not into teaching; although, let’s be honest, I do enjoy teaching.

Regardless, there is a common thread here: the finding of balance to create time within the realistic confines of life to pursue one’s creative endeavors.

Struggle, then, becomes a metaphor for creative planning.

I find that the fact that I have to fit creativity around my schedule as a teacher, performer, fundraiser, and as self-managing publicist actually is not a disadvantage, but a strong advantage: I am quite brilliant at time management. But more importantly, knowing that I have limited time to create gives me great focus and energy TO create. I prefer to have solid, immovable deadlines and to have to think about how to manage the limited time (and space…where I can create also is variable) that I have. Leonard Bernstein talked about a ‘dream state’ where he would be in his studio and ideas would come to him transcendentally…he would spend hours in this relaxed state and wait. Amazingly, considering his duties as music director of the NY Philharmonic, he was still able to produce some hefty works. I can’t work that way; I don’t have Bernstein’s genius. Granted, I spend a lot of time ‘thinking’ about a piece before I try and write it (in fact, that’s the most important part of my creative process) but I do that while doing other things, not lying around in my studio. I don’t have time to lie around and think…I have to pay rent…

I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have such a hectic and stressful schedule. Truth be told! Organizing when I can compose is just as exciting as the process. Thinking that “hey, I can work Saturday morning on the new piece before I have to leave at…” is fulfilling in its own way. To be honest, the most successful pieces I have written (as well as the most successful recording sessions and performances I have had as a performer) have come during the most stressful times of my life, be it temporal, personal, or financial. And at the times where I had unlimited hours to work, such as at an artist colony, what I created was, shall we say, less than inspired…

Do financial woes, lack of time, and/or anger with the world, lead to great masterpieces? Maybe in some cases, but I know many would argue that. Struggle is finding balance. Balance may be the need to be inspired while under much duress of life. Society does not support the arts–it never really did, pop culture non-withstanding. But that struggle to be heard, read, seen…the struggle to find a way to have impact when all of society’s factors are against you…the struggle to rise from the grit and anger of the day to day to be a reflection of the hopes and dreams of mankind…those struggles can be of great advantage…those struggles lead to masterpieces…

Until soon,

Demetrius

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