These are wild times. In a world seemingly being both destroyed and born anew on a daily basis by the horrors of the COVID19 pandemic, where the future’s uncertain and the end is always near, it’s nice to know some things remain the same. Namely, that the onus to keep the world from imploding into a dystopian hellhole has been placed squarely on the shoulders of some of the most vulnerable members of society – including frontline workers living paycheck to paycheck, and artists. And while plenty of column space has been rightfully taken up with praising the former (although not to the extent of advocating for any kind of living wage for them, of course) there seems to be little mention of those artists who are facing an increasingly uncertain future.
Artists who’ve lost their main source of income, their very identity to some degree, are now being expected to bear witness to this pandemic through the art they’re supposed to be creating. This is something akin to handing a condemned man a typewriter on his way to the gallows. Don’t worry. You’ll be paid in exposure. It’s almost as if the capitalist ghouls are no longer content with consuming the very lives and livelihoods of their victims across the globe. Now, even amidst the pandemic, they want our souls. There can be only one response: Radical Laziness.
Radical Laziness is a personal form of protest against the capitalist prosperity gospel that laid waste to the pre-COVID world as we knew it. It’s a mindful refusal to constantly correlate your self worth with your level of productivity. There’s a Henry Miller quote that has always stuck with me, and as of late it’s taken on a whole new meaning. He said, “when you can’t create, you can work.” I think that we’ve become so indoctrinated into the mindless drive to create product and content that our whole concept of work is flawed.
We aren’t machines. We aren’t working on a production line. So why would those same standards of work apply to the artistic process? Why is our worth as artists always seen as so directly proportional to our productivity? Why do we as Americans suffer from this very specific and toxic Puritanical hangover? Could it possibly be because our system here is so skewed towards corporate profits and the Almighty GDP that most artists are forced to work multiple jobs just so they can have the “luxury” of creating art? I think this is likely.
While it’s true that this Puritanical hangover isn’t unique to the United States, it’s fair to say that in the US it has finally reached its logical conclusion; the manifest destiny of American Exceptionalism. Most cultures, even western ones, value artists that create art for arts sake. I have a record coming out on 15 May that I recorded in Winnipeg on a Canadian Artist Grant. I’m not even Canadian. Imagine if the US offered these types of grants to people from other nations. Or even, god forbid, to its own citizens on a regular basis. It seems like a wild concept. Is it?
As worn as the cliché is, most artists are empathetic, sensitive souls. At least the real ones tend to be. In the midst of a global pandemic, isolated not only from our loved ones but from our regular routines, support networks and creative collaborators, it strikes me as grotesque that artists are being shamed for not focusing on innovative and new creative outlets. Every social media platform is awash with so-called influencers and tastemakers reminding us that if we’re not using this valuable “down time” to learn a new instrument, start a new painting, record that Operatic Doom Folk Opera or write the Next Great American Novel, then we’re failures, frauds.
Never mind if you lost your sole source of income along with any side-hustles you might have had, or lost your home, or lost a loved one to COVID-19. Never mind that for most of us art is more than a source of income. It’s an identity. And now we’re being told, “you’re an artist. Do your job. Create.” Sounds pretty close to “shut up and sing” to me.
I was talking with my poet friend Tiana Clark recently about writer’s block — that mythical crypotzoological entity that neither one of us really believes in — and she mentioned that when she talks to her students she defines the concept of work not only as the time one spends putting pen to paper, but also the time letting the writing “ferment in darkness” as she beautifully describes it. To read, cook, exercise, talk with friends, listen to music, watch TV with pleasure and without guilt. I must admit that some of my best ideas were born on scraps of paper that I’d find crumpled into my pocket from bar-rooms I have no recollection of being in. Work doesn’t always look like work.
As I watch my two-year-old daughter grow I’ve come to realize more and more what I’ve suspected all along: that play and boredom are the twin gateways to the subconscious, the wardrobe leading to a strange world and wonderful world, the road to William Blake’s palace of wisdom. Some of the most important work you’ll ever do as an artist is when you’re allowing your mind to wander and make connections, when you’re fostering a playful environment of free association and creativity unburdened by the concept of work or expectation. Who among us hasn’t felt the tug of the mystery while driving across the endless gray expanse of highway in Shitsville, Kansas, or while walking through the park alone at dusk, or staring mindlessly at the wall of a jail cell waiting for the drunk to wear off and the hangover to kick in, feeling like an empty jar of peanut butter that someone is trying to scrape the last morsel out of with a rusty butter knife?
As artists we have historically prided ourselves as being for the most part outside the tentacled reach of the soul-destroying drudgery of a 9:00-to-5:00 existence. That exchanging that life of relative security for the soul-destroying drudgery of driving 50,000 miles a year, haggling with promoters in half empty rooms, and the Sisyphean task of keeping body, soul and checkbook together is absolutely worth it. Because making art is worth it, right? And getting away with making art on your terms – that’s worth even more.
When Dylan said “to live outside the law you must be honest”, he must surely have been including being honest with ourselves. So here is my truth. You know what I believe is not worth it? Strapping yourself to the wheel, over and over, and grinding yourself into dust during a global pandemic because that’s what society expects of you as an artist. Fuck that.
If you feel like making art right now then by all means do it. Not that any artist ever wanted or needed permission from anyone. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, if you’re feeling ashamed about having been abandoned by the muse during these trying times, take heart in the knowledge that maybe the most radical thing you can do in a time like this is, as Nick Cave put it recently “to become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out… to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilization in real time”.
The monster thinks it may have finally found a way in, a weak point in the hull, a crack through which to slide its oily tentacles into our dreams. Don’t let it in. Take a nap.