Letter To A Young Artist # 1

I cannot help notice that every time I have a conversation with a young artist is that when my age comes up,
there is an odd sense of competion present in them mixed in with a kind of misplaced relief. I find it sad too that when I ask someone young their age they often stutter uncomfortably in order to whisper “around 25” or “around 30” as if youth is the only thing that can guarantee them a leg up.Competition may not be the best word to use to describe what I am talking about but there is a sense of “Oh! I am on the way up and you are on the way out.” Or maybe it only is “I STILL have TIME to make it”.Perhaps it is a only sense of relief that they feel in the face of me and my age, in this very ageist time,that they have another 30 years before they reach my age. At 26 or 30 I know that those 30 years feel like more than one life time. But I thought it might be useful to mention a couple of things. 30 to 60 happens almost overnight. Time moves twice as fast from 30 to 60 as it does from ten to 40. Another is that despite the fact that I started performing in the downtown experimental performance scene at 18, with people far older and much more accomplished than myself, between the ages of 21 and 31 I lived several different lives, lives that included performing but were grounded by really living in the world, all very far from the all encompassing ambition of NY.From the 60’s to the early 80’s there was still standards for excellence that were upheld by a very selective and demanding audience of connoisseurs. Since the scene was intergenerational there was a longer time before people were expected to make their “own” work.This meant that one could see what was possible in terms of artistic development by seeing work that was more refined, more complex, that held dimension.This situation that was brought about with the focus on emerging artists has coincidentally effected not only the quality of work one sees but also the economics of art, meaning before artists were able to make some money from their work, as they earned their turn on a greater professional basis because there was an audience partially made up of younger artists who paid to see the work of more developed artists. With the ever growing onslaught of emerging arts, this crucial audience is gone because this emerging class of artists is busy making their own work so they rarely go to see other,older artists unless those artists receive the kind of publicity these new workers in art hope to have. Fran Lebowitz has spoken rather eloquently on this disappeared audience of connoisseurs who demanded excellence. One of the things that is misunderstood in the current climate of the erasure of history is that one of the things that happened because of the AIDS crisis of the 80’s is that when those generations of people died wholesale, it left a vacuum that was then necessarily filled by younger, less developed artists and the whole culture fell several notches from what it had been. All it took was the professionalization of the arts with it’s inherent careerism to bring the whole thing down to a rather mediocre level compared with what had existed before. I have continued on an almost daily basis to put myself in worlds far removed from art, allowing me to develop my point of view and my memory, both of which continually feed my art practice. The ambition I encountered in the 60’s and 70’s was perhaps as desperate as today’s; desperation being one of the basic elements of ambition but this earlier drive for ambition held other desires that included the desire for ability and the desire for excellence, both which seem to be largely missing now, leaving mostly a combination of fame seeking and careerism. What do I mean by that statement? I mean that the rush to get acceptance and recognition sits at a twisted place in today’s hierarchy of values in the Art World. What no one will tell you is that ‘recognition’ is a two edged sword. You can use ‘hype’ to bring you into a higher arena but another truth is that one is judged very harshly in that arena. One very rarely gets a second chance to demonstrate ones ability in the real world of the entertainment business. Without sound development one risks being stranded later in life without the tools to move forward.The artist Jack Smith once said “Art is more like farming than like manufacturing”.Film maker Jonas Mekas said “MY job is like the job of a farmer, to plant the seed andd protect the little sprout. To allow it to grow to fruition in it’s own time.” I have seen many talented people who received early recognition founder as they reached 40, lacking the inner development to carry on.Today’s downtown performance world operates very much on a basis of popularity rather than on ability. It is very easy to feel like you are succeeding with your work when what is actually happening is that you are succeeding socially. It is bad form for people you know socially to tell you that your performances are boring or pretentious. Most of the time the audiences that one gathers socially know very little about art and they are the last people in the world one can base their assessment of the impact one’s work. At a time in history when being an artist or more tellingly just being famous is almost everyone’s dream- just the fact that you are on stage impresses most people. When I was first making work in my middle 30’s and throughout my 40’s, and even to the present day, I only personally
knew 1/10 of my audience, probably less. I was too embarrassed to ask people I knew to pay to come to my
shows when I felt I really didn’t know what I was doing. Instead I developed both my audience and my work
thru the interest of strangers, strangers who were themselves invested in my experimentations.The interest of this audience supported my inquiry. Since I had so little critical coverage in the face of
my large audiences, my collaborators and I took to calling the phenomena “The Drag Factor” because strangers
dragged their friends to see work that meant something powerful to them that they wanted to share.Once in 1989 a younger woman artist stopped at my table in an East Village restaurant and said to me proudly
“There were a hundred people at my show last night and I knew everyone one of them by name.” Being the truth teller I was I replied “That’s too bad” and she was stunned and angry at me. She asked me why, and I replied “You can’t depend on people you know to support your work indefinitely.” I saw her in San Francisco 25 years later. She was no longer a performer and she reminded me of that earlier conversation. She had been a very talented and charismatic performer but her need to have audience approval,shown by numbers, left her without the perseverance one needs to keep developing and without the all important inner dialogue. In the early 2000’s I met another young woman who told me that she had seen me perform when she was 18 and had become a performance artist the next day. She proudly told me that she was 29 and had been performing for ten years. Absentmindedly I remarked, “That’s funny. I was just talking to someone like you in my head yesterday.” “What did you say” she asked me excitedly. “Well, I replied, bracing myself for her disappointment because I knew what was coming next. “Well”, I continued a bit uncomfortably,” I said I feel sorry for you!” The young women was offended and defensive. “Why did you say that?” she said. “Well, I wasn’t talking to you, I didn’t know you. But what I said to the imaginary person was this. I feel sorry for you because you have never had one experience in your life that you didn’t try to make into poem or a spoken word piece, or a song out of it or a video, or a short story, or a performance piece. You have never lived.” The girl began to cry and said “I have been doing this for ten years and I don’t know why I am doing it anymore. I have no ideas and barely any interest in it. I feel so stuck. I have been depressed for months. I feel lost. What can I do?.” I said “You need to live! You are young. You need to experience your life without trying to make a product out of it.” I never saw her again but I am confidant that someday I will hear from her because I always do eventually. It is one of the perks of my life, finding out what happens to people who I tell the unvarnished truth to, despite the discomfort it brings us both.Talent is just one part of what one needs to succeed artistically. The muse is jealous of us splitting our attention with mundane things like ego gratification and approval and will withhold artistic growth.The artistic journey is the hero’s journey, and often contains many trials and setbacks. One needs the strength that comes from our inner dialogue with the muses of creation.If ones life between 18 and 35 is only grounded in the desire for achievement and recognition without any concept of development or rigorous inquiry, the possibility for continued development as an artist is severely compromised. The first generations of “academic artists” hit NY in the late 70’s to late 1980’s. I can tell you that very, very few of those artists were still making work in the late 1990’s and even among the successful ones,only a small handful are still making art today. Why? Because it is very hard to sustain any kind of real personal dialogue with art, if you come out of school and start making your own work right away. There is no period of failure. No striving to develop the true inner dialogue on which art is based. What one ends up dialoguing with is success and recognition. The all important period of developing your own vocabulary which is best done in the shadows is truncated, starved.Instead what one sees are people copying what seems to work for other artists and this is a betrayal to ones own budding vision, which cannot be rushed to fulfill some ego based need for recognition. There are many of examples of people who got that recognition early, shows, tours and grants from age 26 on who are empty and artistically exhausted by age 39, just at the moment that ones own vocabulary starts to naturally coalesce. In my early 40’s my personal vision was just starting to assert itself in an integrated way. There were younger artists 10-15 years younger than myself, who were frustrated by my lack of critical success and they had no problem telling me that to my face. At the time I had been running my sex and censorship show,a blend of political humanism and erotic dance “Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! for a year off Broadway. Their comments included “All my friends think you are a brilliant but you are not getting any deals! You are not having success!” I replied “I have been running a show off Broadway 5 nights a week for a year without producers and hardly any press. To me that is success!” They measured success by deals with HBO and articles in The New York Times and by grants.They felt they were speeding by me, feverishly working to make products that would be bought by cable or working themselves into the fabric of the funding system. 20 years later none of them are still making work and neither are the ‘successful” artists whose careers they had admired.There are a handful of young artists I know who turn a skeptical eye to the golden promises the professionalization of the arts hold out. I am always happy when I have conversations with these holdouts because it is distressing to see how many really talented people give in to the demands of the market place.Yet we live at a time where the infiltration of the marketplace is almost impossible to avoid, for anyone including older artists like me. It is a constant struggle to not give in the forces that demand dumbing down and homogenization.It takes takes enormous vigilance to not succumb to it’s tyranny, to honor your own trajectory, no matter how modest it may seem in the eyes of the world.There is simply no substitute for the developmental arc, no matter what you engage in, making art or being a shoemaker. Once you develop your vocabulary and your personal style it is very easy to make your art into product but in focusing on making product, you lose out on learning how to make art.