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Why You Are Right to Make the Wrong Choice: A Life in the Arts

Posted in Uncategorized by cesco7 on May 5, 2017

When I was ten years old I made a bucket list. Of course, back then no one called it a “bucket list.” And I was not suffering from an incurable illness. But this was the mid-70s, when every morning news reports would track just how much closer the giant swarm of killer bees were to overtaking the country and killing us all, leading one to conclude that our only chance of survival was to move en masse to Canada and maybe buy another six weeks.

The list included four career goals for the adult me should I ever survive:
1. Do a comic strip.
2. Write a humor book.
3. Write for TV.
4. Become a Jedi.

True, I haven’t succeeded at every goal on this list, mostly due to a decades-long procrastination that eventually led me to conclude no one wants to see a fortysomething Padawan. (Also, until recently there was a dearth of accredited lightsaber schools). But the fact I accomplished the first three items on the list is due entirely to my parents. They never said “Lets call this list ‘Plan B.'” They never said “Or you could pursue careers that might actually result in you opening a savings account.” They never explained the odds against such dreams, maybe because in part as artists they didn’t focus on such but mostly because they believed in me. Not simply believed in that I had any talent but believed this was my choice and that in the end I would make the most of any opportunities that choice provided.

Which leads us to both the title of this piece and the very notion of “choice” itself. Because when you really want to do something—when you really have to do it for the betterment of yourself and/or (hopefully both) others—there is no “choice.” People create because they have to create. To simply say it’s a matter of “maybe or maybe not” would be like me saying right now “You know what? I’m going down to NYU Hospital and giving this whole thoracic surgeon thing a try. Then I’m getting tacos.” In short—as it is with most positive personal goals—the only real choice is to deny yourself pursuing what you really want to do.

So if “choice” is in fact a “drive,” the follow-up questions is not only “Why do we do it?” but also “Aren’t you focusing only on desire and completely ignoring the obstacles?” and “What about earning a living?” After all, what could compel artists, writers, actors, performers, 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 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 going somewhere with this and the result may very well be encouraging. Because I think art is a must. Because I think being an artist is not being in a profession but about being who you truly are. And because I already came up with three possible reasons as to why do we do it despite all the obstacles and economic realities, so I’m going to share them with you anyway.

1. To Know That 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 the party! 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 they are able to communicate a thought, a fear, a desire with others. Now, many of you may 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 they were cool and wouldn’t bring down the party.” But being unable to be around people is not quite the same as not wanting to be heard. What some of us may have difficulty saying 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. This might come across as high-falutin’ talk from a guy whose professional responsibilities consist of writing word balloons and free verse for pets. But my work 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 share and confirm your voice. You go from a concept to something someone many will love, many will like, and many will detest in comments sections. You’ve joined the party. You’ve got your name tag. Now enjoy the dip.

2. To Know That 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 graduated from The School of Hard Knocks. 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 that guy from the gas company who checks my meter—seemed uncomfortable with having their actions challenged. But eventually I made it to shore, 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 my still trying to cash Crest rebates from old Disney clamshell VHS 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. And yes, some of you might right now be thinking, “Because of my job, because of my family, because of real-world responsibilities I never have the time to pursue my art, so I guess I will never be an artist after all.” But that is a lie you tell yourself, because if you step back you will see you’re still jotting down thoughts, you’re still dreaming up projects, you still enjoy others art because it inspires your own. Yes, you may have to create art on a highly restricted schedule, but you still are in your true form an artist. You still have this thing that is wholly your own. And 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 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 still have to work with others—that will almost always be the reality behind the dream—but at least they will be working on your project, the way YOU conceived it. Unless 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 it all.”

I made a goals list when I was ten. By middle school I realized that was the only career map I could and would ever be able to follow. 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 goals cemented 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 art is the only way 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. 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 oil derricks a few paragraphs back? The closest I’ve ever gotten to the oil industry is while 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 some great code. It’s about finding out what you believe in and what you need for a happy existence (while never preventing anyone from doing the same so long as they follow that rule with others). Through writing I’ve been able to draw my own conclusions about politics, relationships, religion, death, and all too often 70s and 80s pop culture. Every artist uses their 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 try and determine what is right, what is wrong, what is actual, and what are lies disguised as 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 your own list to help you not just get through life but live it.

Well, what do you know? I ended on a hopeful note after all. Somebody beer me.

Dedicated to everyone who actually made it through this article but, more importantly, has a notebook, a napkin or a head full of dreams.

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