Society does not value its artists ~ an examination of systemic contempt

 

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my work with words is not valued by society, but that all the work with words by writers dead, alive, published and unpublished are viewed with a contempt that runs so deep that we are seldom even aware of it.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.

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24 thoughts on “Society does not value its artists ~ an examination of systemic contempt

  1. Absolutely right. Like most things in the world now the arts (and particularly literature) are financially led. Would Kerouac or Rand etc even get a second glance by publishers today? Probably not. Frankie is correct – entertainment for the masses lines the coffers. Doesn’t mean we should give up trying though – sheep lives as sheep does.

    • It’s heartbreaking but true. I read fabulous stuff from years back and realise that now it would end in the slush pile.
      I have a second blog, http://thewildsheepsociety.wordpress.com where I have used the idea of sheep and so on; I’d love it if you have a peep over there and maybe consider writing something about the above for it?
      xx
      ps lovely to meet you here, where we have as many characters to work with rather than the 140 of twitter. Twitter makes me feel as if I am wallpapering a room through a letterbox!!

  2. Thank you – will do… It’s a huge and compelling subject and one very dear to the heart of most writers. Twitter has certainly opened some letterboxes! x

  3. Twas ever thus. I think you’d find similar laments from writers over the centuries.

    I’m a writer by trade, with book no. 2 out April 14, and the only advice I might offer, which you may have already done, is to study/learn/network like a fiend.

    Rejection is deeply unpleasant to everyone but you have to find a way to de-personalize it and then surmount it — if your ideas or products are simply not ever selling, you must be tough enough with yourself to find out why. I’ve written more than five full-length (unsold) book proposals, gone through five agents and had both books, non-fiction, published in the US where I live, rejected by 25 publishers apiece before selling each to a major NYC house. The competition is fierce.

    The writers who eventually get published are often the ones who never ever ever give up — but also work hard to make sure they have something worth publishing.

    • Some excellent advice here. Thank you. But there is a fine line between being tough enough to take the crap and too tough to be sensitive to the things that fuel your writing.
      I am happy that you have made a success of it. Hard work, talent, persistence and a touch of something else…luck.
      There is no magic formula or someone would have found it and patented it.
      thanks for visiting and commenting.

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    • I am at some stage going to post a meditation from the late Antony de Mello working through the whole issue of how many failures there are for how few successes. I delay because the meditation is nowhere online and I will simply have to type the whole lot out.
      No injury you reckon? I’d disagree. There are such things are soul injuries that can be more devastating to a life than physical ones. There’s also the mind-body connection. I had a brain haemorrhage as a result of being messed about by publishers (long story) and it nearly killed me.
      Having recently tried my hand(or whatever) at skiing, I have every admiration for athletes, but would also say that for every Olympic wannabe there are tens of thousands who just enjoy the sport and compete locally quite happily.
      There is such a thing as setting ones sights far too high.
      thanks for the thought.

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  6. This is very true. I have some meager artistic ability as well, and I am far more likely to be praised, or noticed, for it than for my writing. I think some of it is the time it takes. Someone can glance at an image and say “spiffy” in 2.3 seconds, but to appreciate the writing they have to read it, digest it, sometimes think about it (depending on what it is).

    I think you’re right on the point of how many there are, too. Everyone thinks they can write. And true, they can, but not all write well. But, the same goes with drawing. Everyone, technically, can draw, but not all well. But, people don’t think that. the mind frame is “Oh! That takes talent and i have none!” but the mindset for writing is “anyone can do that!”

    Okay, I’m sort of rambling….

    • Hi Joleene,
      Yeah I think the time taken is a factor. We like the quick, the sound bite and the glance.
      I can draw too so some degree but contrary to what someone suggested at Barb’s, I don’t believe that this is purely a skil that can be learned, or that writing(real deep writing) is either. Yes, one may learn techniques till the cows come home and you may well produce some good stuff(art or writing) but that extra factor that one might term talent is inborn. I’ll give an example. I learned guitar when I was a teenager. I loved music and I really wanted to learn. I worked hard and practised an hour every day and had a lesson for an hour once a week for a number of years. But (and this is a big but) no matter how passionate I was, how hard I worked or how much I wanted to be good, I realised after a certain point that I never would be more than mediocre. Some years later I gave my guitar away to someone who desperately needed one and have never played since. I lacked that essential inborn spark that was needed to excel. For me, there is a subtle difference between writers who have that spark and those who do not; no amount of creative writing classes or exercises or writers’ group meetings can change that. And the fact that everyone who can write(which is pretty much everyone) because they learned to write at school doesn’t make people aware of this difference. Until you actually try to write and like when I learned guitar, spend time exploring it, you can’t be sure which animal you are.
      Anyway, thank you for visiting. I don’t generally write about writing, because to be honest I find it boring, but I hope you and all those who have visited from Barb’s may pop over from time to time.

  7. As tough as rejection is, and as sucky as the life of a writer can be, it is far, far, far sweeter than being a visual artist. I dare say you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could name even one living artist, much less two. The tastes you need to impress are those of the few jaded gallery owners who can put your work in front of the right eyes.

    That being said, I didn’t go into the arts for money, or for fame, but, rather, because creating things is who I am. Rejection or no that doesn’t turn off. As much as I would welcome a publishing contract, not having one doesn’t take away from the pleasure of one person reading and ‘getting’ your work. That, alone, is enough reward for something I NEED to do anyway 😉

    • Hi Sessha,
      its quite curious that both on here and elsewhere, people have all clamoured to claim their art as the worst treated. I simply don’t know. I only know how I feel.
      But you are right. I didn’t go into it for fame or money but simply to express what was inside me.
      And even a few readers reading and really getting my work makes it worthwhile.
      lovely to see you here
      xx

  8. I think part of where it comes from is the progressive dumbing down of society, through high politics (thatcher, blair & brown eschewing public debate on anything and valuing all art by the market value only), through a twitching British suspicion of ideas and the intellectual (and thereby the artist) and from a cravenness in artists themselves, censoring interesting work for chasing the marketable dollar.

    When footballers, soap stars and reality stars are the culturally significant movers and shakers, as adjudged by column inches, then society is right royally screwed. here in britain we are at this permanent fin de siecle stage and Katie Price and Victoria Beckham are as you say holding the flag and leading the way into the cultural wilderness.

    And few artists are commenting on this development in their work, so more fool them. Turkeys voting for Christmas, since Ian McEwan will never be as good a self-promoter as Katie Price. Both are novelists…

    marc nash

    • “Turkeys voting for Christmas!” I love it, so true, Marc.
      let’s se how this all works out but keep true to my own vision and integrity.
      x

  9. It’s sad but its not going to change anytime soon, unfortunately. Oscar Wilde remarked on the very poor taste of the great British public a century ago or so. Still, in todays world at least you’re able to get your work seen via the internet. I know its not the same as making a reasonable living from it, nor the same as seeing your work in print, one should be grateful for small mercies or should one? BTW love the title of your blog.

    • Hiya,
      I know, it can be disheartening. But my first book is out there, getting regular sales and good reviews, so all is not lost. I’m a distance away from making a living at it, but it does seem feasible now to at least make half a living in the next few years.
      And thank you for liking the blog name. I had the name in my head for a long time before I hear about blogging.
      good of you to take the time to read and comment. Thank you.

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