I just finished listening to a panel of music industry professionals recollecting on the life and death of pop star Whitney Houston on tonight’s episode of MSNBC’s The Last Word with Laurence O’Donnell. Normally I skip these “tributes” to recently deceased entertainers—they tend to be opportunistic and a little too late in their recognition of a talent that has passed.
But O’Donnell’s panel went in a direction that I found interesting. Yes, there was the obligatory praise for Houston’s phenomenal talent. And yes, the panel touched on the singer’s tragic decline into substance abuse.
But the most pertinent point made by O’Donnell’s panel was the fragility and vulnerability of the artist’s soul, especially in the brutal world of professional entertainment.
The Creators and the Consumers
At some point in our history, the balance between consumer and creator was much more sensible. Just as before the Age of Specialization, people were expected to grow their own food, make their own clothes, and teach their children, they were also expected to provide their own entertainment. Games, stories, music were the province of the family, the community, and the individual.
But as life has become more fractured into increasingly narrowing specializations, we are turning from a culture of creators to a culture of consumers. We do our little thing—answer phones, prepare taxes, fix plumbing, cook burgers—for our forty-fifty hours a week, and then we go home and consume everything else.
Our food comes from a grocer, shipped by a trucker, packaged by a manufacturer from plants and animals raised by farmers. Our clothes follow a similar, convoluted path from origin to home, as do our cars, appliances, games, and entertainment.
In our hearts, though, and our souls, we are still a race bred to creation. We are imaginative souls, wildly creative and consumed with a desire to experience and shape our lives. The tragedy of this narrowing culture is that it not only reduces the natural creativity in all of us, but it also perverts and twists our reaction to those among us who have been designated “creative people” by society.
We are drawn to beauty, to art, to music and stories and dance. It is built into our genetic structure, and no culture on the planet is immune to that drive.
Ellen Dissanayake, discussing her ground-breaking studies on Darwinism and art, said the following:
“We don’t have a verb, ‘to art,’ but what are artists, dancers, poets doing?” she says. “They’re taking the ordinary and making it special. You create a bowl out of mud but you don’t leave it ordinary, you make it special by engraving a pattern or figures on it. A poet takes ordinary words and makes them special. An artist places an activity or an artifact in a realm different from the everyday.”
This is a miraculous thing, this making of the ordinary into the special. We all have the ability to do this, but we are taught—especially in Western culture—that this creativity is the sole domain of the socially-approved subset called “artists.”
This narrowing down the scope of creativity from the domain of the human animal to a rare and special thing to be attained by a privileged few has done much harm to the psyche of our culture. It’s a powerful, and devastating, lesson we’ve swallowed here in the West. It’s bad for us, and bad for those who simply can’t help being artists.
Stephen Sondheim wrote a simply breathtaking song in his play, Sweeney Todd, called “.” In the song, a lovely woman named Johanna sings of her imprisonment as the ward of an elderly (and roundly despicable) judge named Turpin.
The song, ostensibly about sexual predators and the plight of poor young women with few prospects in the 19th Century, resonates with the perversion of art in modern society. The craving of humanity for beauty, stultified at every corner by our bottom-line, austerity-based, left-brain world, becomes ravenous and predatory. That need for creation that we used to satisfy for ourselves now becomes a commodity we will pay for.
And it’s a commodity we’re greedy for. According to the Department of Labor’s Consumer Expenditure Survey, the average American spent approximately $2500 for entertainment in 2010 (compared to, say, $3157 towards healthcare). While this marks a slight decline in spending from earlier years, it still shines a light on where our values lie.
Our consumer-driven culture has taught us that, if it’s worth having, it can be bought. Given the value Americans (humans, really) place on art and the systematic destruction of average people’s education in the arts, when it comes to our entertainers we want our money’s worth.
The Gilded Cage
You don’t have to be particularly well-informed to know there’s a hell of a lot of money in the entertainment industry. Television, magazines, and the Internet are flooded with images of celebrity excess—the mansions, the fashion, the glamorous parties. Our superstars are elevated to demigod status, and no whim is too frivolous to indulge.
What we don’t usually see is the other side of this. Yes, celebrities (the superstars, that is) make a boatload of cash. But it’s a mere drop in the bucket compared to what their bosses make. Sony International had a sales and operating revenue in fiscal year 2011 of 7,181,273 million yen. That’s $92,173,754,831 at the current rate of exchange. Even though this is before expenditures, you get an idea of the level of money we’re dealing with.
In this industrialized approached to the arts, a Whitney Houston or a Michael Jackson or any number of big name celebrities become (at least in the eyes of their corporate owners) not so much entertainers as business assets (or in some cases, liabilities). And with that much cash on the line, the corporate owners are going to milk every bit of profit from those assets as they can (often with little or no concern for the health and welfare of the artist they’re using).
Sustainable Practices in Art
A lot has been said in recent years about the need for industry to reduce waste and practice a more ecologically sound approach to business. The entertainment industry is no different. What major corporations do to their top performers is the equivalent of artistic strip-mining.
I’ve always felt there were two major kinds of stars: those who did it for the money and fame, and those who did it because they just couldn’t help it. Both are potential prey to users and predators. The fame-seekers will do anything for the money and power and fame, making themselves vulnerable to those who gain to profit from their talent and drive. It’s harder to feel sorry for these spotlight-hunters. You think they would know better.
But the second type, the ones who are artists, who can’t survive without their creative endeavors, the ones who bear their souls on the stage or the page or the film—they are the ones who are most vulnerable. They are the ones who, regardless of the situation, can’t help but give their best. And they are often the ones who are most abused.
It is a rare artist who rises to the top of the industry without being tainted by it. Those lucky few with strong constitutions, broad bases of support, rock-solid foundations—they survive. But all too often, our most artistic and creative souls crumble under the weight of the very art they pursued.
What Can Be Done
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a Whitney Houston or a Michael Jackson or a Kurt Cobain. My artistic endeavors are of a smaller scale. I do know that when I was performing, I would come off the stage drained, exhausted, and exhilarated. I knew that there were times when it felt that the strain of performing was too much.
We will never be completely free of our need for art, for music and stories. But just as we can practice more ecological consumption in food and clothes and manufactured goods, we can also be “greener” consumers of entertainment.
First, we can let our voices be heard. Speak out, write letters, and show support for artists who are struggling to maintain artistic integrity in this increasingly profit-driven business. Speak out against the corporate takeover of our creative arts. Promote local artists and artisans whenever you can.
Second, we can “shop local.” If you live in or around a city of any reasonable size, there is probably a local music scene. By supporting local artists (musicians, writers, visual artists), you can help broaden the base of opportunity for creative professionals so that they can make a living doing what they love.
Finally, you can, create. Write. Blog. Sing. Paint. Sculpt. It doesn’t have to be great—it doesn’t even be good. We are operating as a culture on a creative deficit; we are barely subsisting in this area. We are fed an anemic diet of nutrionally-depleted entertainment by an industry more devoted to profits than to art, and our souls are starving as a result.
By creating your own art, and by sharing that art, you are in essence planting a garden where our souls can be nourished by wholesome, home-grown food instead of mass-produced junk food.
Maybe if we can encourage a culture of creators, instead of starving artistic consumers, there will be fewer tragedies like the fate of Whitney Houston, used up and depleted, a shadow of her former glory.
P.S. Just in case you think you have to be famous to be a phenomenal artist, take a gander at this alternate performance of Green Finch and Linnet Bird by a relative unknown.