We’re All Don Quixote Now: The Betrayal of Tomorrow’s Artists

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

— Pablo Picasso

The spectre haunting Wall Street has recently celebrated its first birthday. One year after it bloomed almost spontaneously into existence in Zuccotti Park, the Occupy movement — the defiantly unruly but endlessly articulate reaction of the latest generation failed by capitalism — has transcended the gilded den of thieves where it first made camp and taken on global significance. It has crafted an identity, avoided sectarianism and infighting, made certain questions unavoidable, turned its anger into a weapon, and demonstrated that what used to be called the ‘counterculture’ can once again be made honest and effective. It has also attracted enemies.

On 17 September, as a thousand or so people returned to the spot on Wall Street where the first tents were pitched, similar rallies were being held around America. Not far from the Charging Bull — that weird bronze idol of New York’s financial district, which looks as though it was sculpted to see how far the Third Commandment could be pushed before it broke — confetti was tossed and celebratory songs sung. And then, almost as predictably, the arrests began.

Of the estimated (at time of writing) 150 people taken into custody, the artist Molly Crabapple — whose involvement in Occupy and work on its behalf is longstanding, heartfelt and unique — was probably the most reported. As a symbolic spectacle, it’s so perfect it stretches credulity. The much-shared, blurrily captured image of the diminuitive Crabapple being led away by a police officer to be handcuffed proves, at least, that the NYPD is obstinately immune to poetic imagery. Arresting a revolutionary artist for standing in the wrong place? Nice job, guys. Always plays well.

“Somewhere in NYC,” wrote her friend, Warren Ellis, on Twitter within hours of the arrest, “a cop is listening to an angry short artist in heels spewing obscenities in four languages.” However, since Crabapple doesn’t appear to have been doing anything she doesn’t do most of the time anyway — turning art into protest, and vice versa — its unsurprising that she was free in less than 24 hours, no doubt ruining some online vendor’s plans for manufacturing and selling ‘Free Molly’ t-shirts. One hopes that the rest of those arrested will be released with similar speed. But then, spurious charges that cannot stick for long have long since become a wearily familiar element of Occupy protests, especially in its birthplace.

Those who have followed the career of Crabapple — whose paintings, drawings, comics, posters and political cartoons are entirely personal in style, but can often bring to mind Gustav Dore and Ralph Steadman simultaneously, and have become an increasingly recognisable part of Occupy’s aesthetic — will know she is hardly a publicity-seeking gloryhunter. Nevertheless, the back-biting began in earnest from the internet’s swamp-dwellers; Crabapple, they sneered, is a dilettante, a poseur, a rich white girl (all artists are rich, right?), and a practitioner of ‘radical chic’ (that old fart Tom Wolfe has a lot to answer for) whose arrest was well deserved, even if nobody can quite figure out what it was for.

This kind of squalid reaction is the price someone like Crabapple pays for being unapologetically radical, gleefully different from the norm, and consciously artistic in everything she does, even (or especially) in her politics — which, taken together, is almost everything Occupy’s detractors fear and despise about the movement.

It’s this disturbingly resilient attitude, a mixture of bloodthirsty anti-intellectualism and self-satisfied philistinism, that makes the arrest of Occupy’s resident artist so darkly symbolic. For many, Occupy has come to be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a movement that connects art with politics, whether through its carnivalesque style (like all the best protests, it provides an excuse to dress up), self-consciously nonconformist character, or simply the sheer amount of struggling artists, actors, writers, filmmakers and other graduates in the arts and humanities that seem to compose it. The idealistic young people who make up these groups, and will hopefully fill the ranks of the coming generation of artists, are now confronted with the same irrational disdain and venomous scapegoating as the Occupy movement they are conflated with, and thus have found a place in, along with many others from countless walks of life.

From almost the moment the protests began in September of 2011, right-wing commentators were furiously dismissing the Occupiers as a ragtag assembly of spoilt, parasitic bohemians who deserved nothing less than poverty for failing to spend their higher education studying something profitable. Brendan O’Neill, writing in the British Daily Telegraph — a newspaper so conservative it’s virtually Victorian (and not in a fun, steampunk-kind of way) — odiously captured the tone of such horseshit when he called Occupy Wall Street a “gathering of angry actors, graphic designers and various other hipsters” whose “weird demands… capture the descent of the modern Left into the cesspool of victimology, conspiracy-mongering and disdain for mass society and its allegedly dumb inhabitants.” (“The teenage moralism of the Occupy Wall Street hipsters almost makes me ashamed to be Left-wing”, 3 October 2011)

Those who hold this kind of opinion tend to believe the artistically inclined live in the clouds, insulated by their self-absorption, selfishly playing amongst their own dreams… and they hate them for it, with a pre-emptive rage at anyone they even suspect of looking down on the majority from their ivory towers of culture and learning. And so, no opportunity must be missed to drag them down, not just to Earth, but into the economic hellfire, preferably with as much relish as possible.

Writing of America’s struggling creative class with compassion in Salon, Scott Timburg summed up the prevalent prejudice when he wrote that contemporary artists are stereotyped as “pampered, privileged, indulged — part of the “cultural elite.” They spend all their time smoking pot and sipping absinthe. To use a term that’s acquired currency lately, they’re entitled. And they’re not — after all — real Americans.” (“No sympathy for the creative class”, 22 April 2012)

It’s a hatred that is self-perpetuating, and produces an equal and opposite reaction. After all, when a section of society appears to hate art and those who produce it, what can a struggling generation of artists do but loathe them in return?

“The most important thing is work.”

— Lou Reed

Point of interest: I never actually liked the term ‘Lost Generation’ as a description of the cohort that I, along with many of my contemporaries, have found ourselves a part of. It’s increasingly become the standard description, and I’ve even employed it a few times myself, for lack of anything better. But it should be remembered that the real ‘Lost Generation’ — a phrase put in print by Ernest Hemingway, who borrowed it from Gertrude Stein, who in turn stole it from the man servicing her car — originally referred to those young men who managed to limp back home from the First World War, only to find no rewards, jobs or real lives of any kind waiting for them. For all that my peers have endured — and there’s been plenty — there are some historical experiences you don’t get to borrow.

Besides, it’s inaccurate. This generation has not been lost — it has been betrayed.

The official script, followed by those in the media who speak of the economic meltdown as if it were the act of a vengeful God, runs something like this: the so-called ‘Millennials’ — roughly, those born from the mid-’80S onward — grew up coddled by a world which was, suddenly and unexpectedly, no longer preparing for tomorrow’s all-but-inevitable nuclear holocaust, and thus raised its youth to believe that not only would they survive, but they would prosper. The notion that a university education is a right, not a privilege, was not actually new — reformers and radicals of various stripes had been saying as much for over a hundred years — but it appeared to be an idea whose time had come (though the idea that such an education should be free got stuck in the mud somewhere).

And so, we went off to university in numbers our parents’ generation, even with all the advantages of the boomer years, could only dream about. We naïvely supposed that what we studied should have some tenuous but identifiable connection to what we were interested in and what we wanted to do with out lives, rather than what paid best (though naturally, business and law schools did not exactly suffer a shortage of applicants). Student debt, the mechanism by which one generation has been loan-sharked by its predecessor, was accumulated with abandon. With global capitalism established as the dominant and unchallenged model for a new century, nobody worried about what would happen when the bottom dropped out of the bullshit.

However, after the economy cracked open like Pompeii, the fact that no jobs worth the name were waiting for us once we got our diplomas became difficult to ignore. Graduates, instead of being the chosen few, have quickly become a new, largely unacknowledged underclass — economic lepers whose decadent ‘education’ was apparently not something they had earned with their own hard work, but was instead an extravagant gift from a society which could no longer afford such largess.

Professional buffoon Toby Young articulated the popular wisdom with his usual lack of grace in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year: “The world doesn’t owe them a living,” he said, in regard to a government scheme that forced unemployed graduates to work unpaid for private companies. “They can’t just expect a fulfilling career to fall into their laps – and the sooner they realise that, the better off they’ll be.” (“Is all work experience good experience?” 14 January 2012)

As this situation bleakened, we were told that we were wrong to feel entitled to the careers we wanted. Then, we were told we were wrong to feel entitled to any careers, or employment, at all. And finally, we were told we were wrong to feel entitled to benefits, welfare or debt relief to help us survive that lack of employment. We’re screwed, basically, and are still expected to look grateful.

It’s a strange, savage combination of arguments, mixing a suspicion of high-falutin’ cultural elites with a pitiless disgust for the feckless, undeserving poor. If, as those who delight in twisting the knife keep telling us, the belief that we had the right to study anything that could not immediately turn an obvious buck was the worst kind of selfishness, then those young people who still dream of pursuing the arts are seen as not just selfish, but painfully, hopelessly deluded. Such dreams are dangerous. Make no mistake when I say there are those who would be happy to kill them off.

Bloodthirsty Anti-Intellectualism and Self-Satisfied Philistinism

“There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either.”

— Robert Graves

My own experiences are far from unique. I studied English literature and philosophy for no grander reason than an excuse to read for four years, and, if you pressed me on the issue, because I wanted to become a writer. Even in the supposedly flush days of yore, neither I nor anyone else expected many job opportunities to be waiting for me at the end of that; a certain realism regarding prospects was unavoidable, though I was as susceptible as anyone to dreams of noble artistic poverty that have endured ever since Balzac moved into his first garret.

After graduating, a career in journalism (such as it is) was hammered out in between prolonged stretches of unemployment, or menial, part-time work. As the months crawled by, my local job centre gave me what has become common advice: leave my degree off the CV, lest it frighten away whatever minimum wage nightmare I was applying for that day.

The rituals of joblessness are as familiar to me as they are to many in my position. Just among the motley ranks of my immediate friends, I can name at least a dozen musicians, two artists, a photographer, a filmmaker and a fashion student (though no journalists, oddly enough — make of that what you will), all at some stage of pursuing their vocation (in between waiting tables and delivering pizzas), all balancing somewhere between ‘getting by’ and ‘living in morbid, hate-filled fear of the debt collectors and their official letters of doom.’

The myth has become embedded that graduates, and those damn flighty artists in particular, turn up their noses at jobs they consider ‘beneath’ them. This caricature of whining, self-righteous narcissism recently found life in the Lena Durham’s hideous HBO misfire Girls, whose Millennial protagonist — a useless, self-absorbed would-be writer living off her parents’ straining generosity — was, it seems, created solely to insult an entire generation of liberal arts graduates who are barely surviving as it is. In reality, the vast majority of them work whenever and wherever they can — as waiters and bartenders, shop assistants and shelf-stackers, temps and interns. And, though complaining is good for the soul, they’re mostly grateful for those jobs, because they know what the soul-destroying alternative is.

If any time exists in between work and sleep, they can try to keep the dream’s heart beating — write a few pages, work on the painting, call over a few friends for a rehearsal. Occasionally, some spare change is earned for their efforts. Some keep at it; others, eventually, are broken. In either case, the bitter knowledge still burns inside an entire generation: “We know there was a time when things were better, and we know the mistakes that keep us down were not ours.”

In America and the UK especially, and to a lesser extent across debt-ruined Europe (though the continent that produced the Renaissance still has more than a token respect for its culture), funding for the arts by the state has been targeted mercilessly by the prophets of austerity. The underlying premise is not complicated: Good art, they tell us smugly, pays for itself. It does not require support from the taxpayer. Any art that does is an elaborate indulgence. At the first sign of trouble, the arts can be thrown overboard as surplus to requirements, and once it has divested itself of their burden, ‘civilisation’ (if it still deserves the name) will roll on without any particular discomfort. The idea that the arts and the people who create them are necessary for a society’s health and survival — more necessary than, say, commodities brokers — is slowly, painfully slipping away, replaced by… whatever sells.

“It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.”

Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

This August, I was lucky enough to pay a few bills by reviewing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest arts festival on Earth, which each year sees thousands of young, hungry performers descend on Scotland’s capital and vie desperately for attention, while the town’s businesses greedily rub their hands and triple their prices for the duration. It’s difficult to describe the Fringe to those who have not actually experienced the occupation of an ancient city by an invading army of vividly costumed performing artists; imagine if Amanda Palmer was Grand High Dictator of the World, and it might give you some idea of the general atmosphere. It also stands as proof that dreams of art are not so easy to kill.

Against all odds, the Fringe displays everything the recession was supposed to kill off in the arts: the unashamedly avant garde, the defiantly confrontational, and the needlessly, wonderfully weird. Of course, a lot of it is utter crap — with any refuge for artistic experimentation, that’s kind of the point — but then again, a lot of it isn’t. The point is, it exists, and when all the burlesque performers, bunraku puppeteers, jazz bands and slam poets return to their scattered homelands, they will try, in spite of all that stands before them, to defy the economy’s Mad Hatter logic and continue existing. It made me hopeful for the first time in a long while.

The best play I saw was This Way Up, a romantic comedy put together by the shockingly brilliant Antler Theatre company. The audience follows Alex, a recent graduate in Fine Art, as she slowly loses her grip on her aspirations to becoming a painter, and the call centre she finds herself trapped in transforms into a mindless purgatory peopled with grotesques mutated by drudgery and routine. In the end, it’s not her art that keeps Alex sane, but the childish games she plays out with her equally childish co-worker Mark. He once dreamed of being an astronaut, and in the cold new world of the Permanent Recession, becoming a painter is regarded as being just as unfeasible. Nevertheless, in cardboard spacesuits, they play out their fantasies of travelling through outer space and fighting aliens, and through them find solace, hope and eventually love. The dream, however absurd or unrealistic it may seem, sustains them.

One thing I can’t complain about my periods of unemployment: they gave me ample time to read. In particular, it led me back to The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes, possibly the only contemporary of Shakespeare’s who could be called his equal. The story, adapted countless times, should be well-known: an aging Spanish nobleman, his brain “dried up” by old books of romance and chivalry, finally goes mad and sets out on an old nag, dressed in rusted armour, to act as a knight errant, a figure that, by Cervantes’ time, had long since passed into laughable legend. There is perhaps no greater story of one man versus the world, and the heroic virtue of Quixote’s madness acts as a beacon amidst the fog of grey, unforgiving sanity. The knight errant fights injustice, and so, Quixote battles against an unjust reality.

I’m sure there are those who would define both the young, underemployed artists of today and the Occupy movement they show so much sympathy with as Quixotic, but I doubt they would mean the same as me. I only know that to survive the dark days ahead, it’s vital that they, we and even you keep an element of Don Quixote’s lunacy in all of us. We must fight injustices that seem gigantic, and yet others cannot perceive. We must pursue our quests, whether they be delusions or dreams, until we can force them into reality through sheer force of will. Art is not a pragmatic force, and compromise is ever the enemy of protest.

Still, ask the question that all the stereotypes demand: what is it we are ‘entitled’ to? What are we owed, if anything? Is this all, as Dennis Hopper’s mad bomber screamed in Speed, about “money due me… which I will collect”? Well, in part, yes. Almost everyone — 99%, if I remember — are owed more. But that’s the wrong question. It’s about what we as a society are entitled to. Do we owe ourselves a healthy culture, an artistic as well as a political arena that is vibrant and untrammelled, forceful and opinionated, and filled with young people who earnestly want to change the world? If you think the answer is no, then you don’t need me to tell you to imagine a world without the influence of art. Just look around you, and imagine it getting worse.

A generation of the highly-educated and underemployed, artistically inclined or not, that meets with no response but demonisation will, sooner or later, cease to see any reason to play nice. It will stop trying to live up to expectations, and instead form agendas — organised or anarchic, widespread or personal, constructively hopeful or hopelessly destructive — completely at odds with a society that has, to all intents and purposes, rejected them. Vengeance would be ugly, whatever form it took. Don’t worry about today’s youth becoming artists. Worry about them becoming tomorrow’s post-ironic supervillains. Worry about what exactly they will do, once they are finally convinced that this is a world they have no stake in, and which has no faith in them.

We must all become Don Quixote. Because the alternative is a nightmare worse than any delusion.

See also Robert Loss’ essay on art and economics, “The Money I Owe: Bloodbuzz Ohio in 2012”