The Importance of Art in Trying Times

By Topaz Rodriguez

Posted on Friday, June 5, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks.

Hello there! I see you’ve landed here from your journey, and I’m glad to see you alive and well in these changing times my good friend. Now that I have the privilege of your time and attention; I’d like to talk to you about an observation, or rather a perspective that has been around longer than you can imagine. This perspective is the flippant conversation of pursuing, creating, and dissecting art- society seems to have with artists of all mediums- claiming that our careers are phases, or they’re gaudy precursors to what we are ‘supposed’ to do. This conversation leads in with condescending tones, then follows up with the pressure of living in a capitalist society where if your work doesn’t bring in money it shouldn’t exist. If you’re lucky it ends there, but most times you’re not so lucky and the person or group of people ask you what you’re going to do with your life, why do a career that leaves you in poverty, etc. One of the best examples I can show you of this attitude seeping into an artist’s life, or how pervasive this attitude can be comes from the late Kurt Vonnegut, writer of Slaughterhouse Five, and A Man Without a Country. In this book (A Man Without a Country) Vonnegut (or his character)- is shown to have said:


If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”  

 

This observation itself speaks volumes of the attitude towards art both in the times of Walt Whitman’s journey as a writer (some may even argue as a person) and to today’s 21st century.  To many people of the past and the audiences of the present, art is a waste of time- it doesn’t do much, and pursuing it is a disappointment to both you and the people before you.  To some it may be hard to believe nowadays – artists of many mediums have sprung from all walks of life.  We even have  more representation (of people who are marganlized or left in the background) in media such as Black Panther (2018), Steven Universe & it’s epilogue Steven Universe Future, to even revived specials such as Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling where one of the main characters is transgender.  However it is hard to keep art alive where one is in a society where it is neglected, disengaged, or even destroyed for capitalistic gains in it’s society. Below this are my two main arguments, and some advice for your troubles, dear reader.


1 (One): Capitalism is (More) Insidious than you think.

I know what you’re thinking: “Gee, next you’re gonna tell us water isn’t wet, and moonlight is technically still sunlight, wowee” but sarcasm aside it just seems I’m stating what you know to be your reality. However, I’d like you to take a moment, and think of the last film, t.v show, or even youtube series you’ve binged at 2 am and ask yourself if there were any jabs, commentary, at the providers of the show, or the network companies. Now add any implications of characters without a job being portrayed as annoying, antagonistic, etc. Once you’ve got those two ruminating in your brainspace, ask yourself: “How come (insert character name here) is seen as a useless person if they don’t work? How did that jab at (Insert network provider/company) fly past the executives?” Isn’t a little weird that you may feel odd for thinking that’s not fair to the character, or that you might bite a nail, inhale a sharp breath, or even laugh at the creators jabbing at the people that left them behind? Now, I’d like to direct your attention to the idea that people are inherently good but capitalism prevents actual good being done. I know, it sounds a bit radical (and pro-communism if you want to bring in the ideologies of economic systems) but hear me out for a second. I’d like to introduce you to a show title I hold dear and near to my heart called One Day at A Time (2017). This series was inspired by the 1975 sitcom with the same name, but this version follows a Cuban-American  family led by Penelope who starts the series off as a newly single veteran who divorced her partner who was also in the military, and she takes care of her two children and her mother in an apartment owned by a white landlord who’s a really really rich and aloof hipster. Already, this is a major field of representation for people who immigrate to America from Latino, and Hispanic countries, for those who are veterans, and for those who may have the same familial setup or culture- where there’s a matriarch in charge or in the picture. This series is both light-hearted, sweet, and also heart-wrenching at times from the days the family goes through, from Penelope’s daughter coming out as lesbian, to Penelope dealing with the seperation of her marriage, and her youngest son dealing with bigotry from the groups around him at school. To many people’s dismay, the show was dropped by Netflix after it’s 3rd season but was saved by Pop TV, another streaming tv service. In the 4th season’s premiere, there’s a jab done at Netflix where there’s nothing good on it anymore since they cancelled the show itself before. This series brings the inherent goodness idea to light by the representation the show gives, but since Netflix was not gaining the viewership it wanted it was dropped outright. Due to the influence of needing to see profit, cultural growth in television/media was stunted, and many creators that we need may have just given up. We also constantly see characters (in other shows) who don’t have jobs being portrayed as annoying to the main characters who do have jobs, an example would be Jack McFarland from Will and Grace (both the 1993 version, and the 2020 epilogue season) where in the beginning seasons he’s seen as a hindrance/annoyance to Will (his best friend) since he doesn’t work and is often asking for Will to spend some money on him or get him some services- and Will is patted on the back for being a good friend, or he just exchanges jabs to get Jack to quit. This may be a small facet into how capitalism can show it’s ugly rear in art but it’s important to spot it- since it’s a good foundation to bring up the debate or theorization of capitalism’s evil nature, and that it changes the way art is made in the 21st century, and how art will continue to be made in the 21st century. Final point-Keep your eyes open for shows being cancelled even when they do social good, or shows being threatened to be shut down due to its international viewership not sharing the same ideologies as the shows creator/s, money is paper but it affects us like poetry.

2 (Two): Culture is also at Fault.

Now, before you throw me out of a window or commit defenestration, please listen for just a second. I am not blaming any cultures who are at the short end of the stick ie: those who need the money to live, and survive/ need the bread and milk before they can buy the flowers to keep their soul alive. I am specifically coming for the culture in charge of artistic prowess, development, and survival, and I’ll be addressing them directly for this portion so please be prepared…

 

 HI! Are you a white upper-middle class to high- middle class individual who cares about art as a concept, and as a way of life? Do you enjoy seeing really cool things made by people not like you?  Do you go outside and interact with people who are not like you? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, I’d like to introduce you to the state of the art, first of its kind, just for you-brand new tool to make sure art survives, and continues to thrive so we can all have the things we want if you want us to contribute to your wealth. For just a small price of donating to centers, donating to systematic organizations, to cities, and local towns, villages frequently and consistently – you can acquire the tool of understanding that Art should be treated and supported as a necessary part of a capitalistic society that prides itself on earning the right to live, and  just maybe-live happily.

 

People need art to live- we don’t just live for clean food and water, or just shelter, we need things to sustain our minds, our hearts, and our way of knowing each other- including ourselves. People who work get through it through music or videos, or writing or drawing, etc if we’re going to have to work the rest of our lives we have to make it worth something besides material things. Because of you all, we have to work more than you do,  and the things we enjoy come at a price. We can’t work without pay, and we shouldn’t have to work without pay, and representation if you want to enjoy what we’ve made for ourselves. When you give us money we make great things happen. People grow and change, there’s hope for newcomers from the next generations, or those who look for solace here from worlds of tragedy beyond where we are now. 

Treating artists as people who do work for monetary gain is not only a good thing to do, it’s an insurance of humanity. If you feel isolated from what you have, you can start getting to be w/ people if you support the things they love, not just once but consistently- the love will always be there, you just gotta water it from time to time. Be a person with money who cares and the world will thank you for it. Thanks for tuning in.

 

3 (Three): “Art is the revolution that keeps reviving.”


Heya, you’ve reached the epilogue of your journey with me, thank you for sticking with me, here’s the advice you were promised. Art is a reaction to change, a lack of change. It flows through many, changes worlds, changes hearts, it survives, it is the inertia of humanity when it’s at its most powerful, and it is the small shimmer of light in the darkness of uncertainty, war, famine, and times where death seems to be a neighbor- rather than a force. It is what it means to be human, and find humanity again. When this is over, artists will have to seize the limelight of being a foundation of sanity when we were all locked down from the inaction of the government until it was to/too late, and having what I said in mind can be the difference between us as artists, creators, and supporters being lifted into higher places from now and us biting the dust. If we win, then know that art will be the reason we rise day after day, after day. If we lose, art will never die so long as we live to see tomorrow. Remember that in every human the ability to change, or react is instilled in us- art will follow suit. Thank you for making it to the end, for taking the time to read all of this, for creating, supporting the creativity, and for existing as yourself. Best Wishes- Topaz.

 

*****

Topaz Rodriguez is a Trans and Queer poet from NYC who’s writing starts from different mediums of poetry, to original stories that will be published in the near future! User of He/Him and They/Them pronouns, Topaz is also an advocate for Trans Rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, and the right for teachers, educators, and non-profits across the nation to continue their pay for the right price. Feel free to follow their instagram or tumblr under the handle: honeygemtrashbag

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