Society does not value its artists ~ an examination of systemic contempt
I made myself quite unwell over the last four days, gnawing at a festering sore of an issue without really understanding why it bothered me so much. If it had been on my skin, you’d have thought I was merely picking at a tiny scab and making it worse. But that tiny scab hid something much deeper, just as skin cancer lesions can seem unimpressive and fail to convey the threat they pose to health. I thrashed around, snarling a lot and feeling incapable of articulating quite why I was in such distress over what many other saw as a small thing, barely worth noticing.
To backtrack, I’d discovered that a project I had thought both nurturing of writers and of spiritual awareness had turned out to be nothing more than a run-of-the-mill attempt to make some money off the backs of writers and poets. No law had been broken as far as I know, but it reduced the whole thing down to yet another “send us your writing so we can publish it and you can buy your own work back from us as part of a book” scheme. Many poetry contests use this format and unless it’s for a well-known and prestigious prize, it is seldom worth bothering with; I got caught with one a few years back, and needless to say, I never bought the book they offered me at some exorbitant price. If you want to see your work in print, fine. I am aware that many of those who took part in this initiative are delighted with it and have bought multiple copies of the offered book, which had the merit of not being overpriced. But I would be willing to bet that very few people will buy the book who are not somehow connected to the project in some way either by virtue of having work in it or knowing someone who does.
There was something deeper at work in my obsessional worrying at this; there always is and troublesome as it may be to others to see me go through this process and deeply distressing as it is to me to do it, I do eventually dig my way through to the truth at the heart of the matter and this time it is a very ugly truth indeed.
It’s so ugly you may not be able to bear it. I know I can hardly bear to look at it now I have unearthed it.
It’s simply that not only do I see that my work with words is not valued by society, but that all the work with words by writers dead, alive, published and unpublished are viewed with a contempt that runs so deep that we are seldom even aware of it.
Do a straw poll today and ask people to think of the names of writers. Chances are the names you get will be Dan Brown and Katie Price unless you have a fairly literary set of acquaintances. Do the same for poets and I suspect you may find a dead silence and a scratching of heads before someone says, “Oh yeah, Shakespeare. Oh and Wordsworth.” Great results hey? Two beach read purveyors and two very dead poets.
The contempt goes into the industry; anyone who has ever submitted(now there’s a suitably bondage-orientated word to set your hackles rising) work to a publisher knows about the slush pile. Note the choice of word: slush, that half-melted mucky stuff you see piled at the sides of roads after a long period of snow, filthy and useless. If you’ve ever got rejected, the first ones you tend to get are without any sort of personalisation, a stock slip without reference to you as a person or the work you sent them. I have plenty of letters back praising me and telling me to keep going because I was good; they just didn’t have a niche, or they didn’t love it quite enough to take a risk or whatever reason they chose to give. Each time, it sawed at my soul and in the end, I’d had enough. Enough of being considered but rejected. I may have got further than many do, but it wasn’t far enough and the damage it did me was incalculable. That’s why I think this recent brush with more contempt hurt worse, because I’d begun to hope for better, especially among writers (the organisers of this were supposedly both writers and spiritual)
As a society we consume the work of artists (the words of writers) without paying any attention to the artist. We feel ourselves qualified to critique art without knowing anything about the process. Listen in at a gallery sometime, especially somewhere like Tate Modern; the sentence you will hear most is usually, “I may not know anything about art but I know what I like.” I’ve said it myself, which is a lie, because I do know something about art (but there’s another story) and while I understand that appreciation of the finished product is subjective, the understanding of the process of creation is not.
When it comes to writing, any moderately literate person can write. But to write well, that is another matter entirely. I think it may be this accessibility to the basics of the art that means that society has long since lost any sense of appreciation of it. We consume it without tasting it, without tasting the work that went into it. Writers are the milch cows of the media; if one withdraws there are thousands of others to take their place. If you buy books from Amazon, you get suggestions of what to buy next on the basis of what you have already bought. “If you liked Dan Brown, then why not try…” I’m sure you’ve seen this sort of thing. If the Dan Browns and the Katie Prices vanished, there’d be more of the same homogenised and sanitised crap to buy from the pen of someone else. There always is, and for good reason: the desire of the writers ourselves to have stab at immortality through our writing. Most of us know that the chances of winning the Lottery are better than the Best-sellers’ Sweepstakes, but we think, hey, buy a ticket, you never know. It could be me, it could be you. Yeah, well, I have never even bought a Lottery ticket. I’m not a gambler and hoping to make it big through writing is probably the biggest gamble ever, short of throwing yourself off Beachy Head and gambling on the rapid evolution of wings.
I’m not sure where this systemic contempt for writers and artists originated but it goes deep and I have no idea of how to reverse it. For myself, it may involve a giving up of hope for myself and my work. Because perhaps what holds me back is that hope that one day I may be up there in the panoply of literary gods, like Dan Brown and Katie Price (OK, so I was joking there but you know what I mean) and that hoping against hope in a market place so massive that ten years ago I wouldn’t have imagined it could exist outside of science fiction I might have a hope of being noticed. WordPress alone has over 400k blogs; hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. I am a speck of dust in the universe.
But even a speck of dust in the right place can be the start of a whole new world. Just look at the Big Bang.