Wednesday, April 29, 2015

800 Words: Home

Baltimore is my city and will never be my city. I am an interloper to its developments, a Johnny-whose-family-come-lately in a city where your only credibility is your insiderness, and whose wounds and tensions stretch back 350 years. The land of Barbara Fritchie and Hattie Carroll is not mine, and perhaps I delude myself in thinking that the land of Roger Taney and Spiro Agnew is not mine either.

But it is the place where I've spent the vast majority of my life so far; not in the true Baltimore, but in an ersatz Baltimore - a bubble northwest of the city where Jews enact a separate but greater-than-equal community free from the goyisher molestation that's never happened in America. There is no way for a Pikesville kid to ever find out where the true Baltimore is, I don't know whether the true Baltimore exists anymore or if it ever did, and it certainly isn't there. But is the true Baltimore simply a nightmare from which we can only wake up by leaving it?


How does a place so seemingly right go so wrong? At the moment when America was at its most prosperous, we lost all our hope. America has never been more prosperous than it was in the last century's second half. For all its unimaginable poverty and inequality, there was still less devastation here than anywhere else in the world. And yet the moment this century ended, we all lost hope for America's future. The most privileged country in the history of the world, which has done more to lift more millions of people out of poverty and squalor than any European nation on its most altruistic day, and whose entire identity is based on a brighter future, is now a place of despair. The one thing every citizen in this country seems to agree on, regardless of ideological background or ethnic origin, is that something has gone horribly wrong. Nobody agrees on when or how or if it was ever better than it is today, but nearly every American now seems to agree that America is a shitty place, and only getting shittier.The one country in the world for whom pessimism was never in the national lexicon is now a place where everybody seems to dread a future worse than what came before. We won everything, and by winning, we lost.  


An overheard conversation:

"What's going on in Baltimore?"

"The Schvartzes have gone crazy."



Baltimore is one of the racial fault lines of America - it should be no surprise that this round of protests and riots started around St. Louis - the city closest to the exact center of the country. Baltimore has all of St. Louis's salient qualities: a huge black underclass, enough white progressives to help give them voice to their grievances, but not enough progressives to lift them out from where they come. Anywhere further north, and there would be enough liberals to make a dent in the underclass, anywhere further south and white conservative control over the black underclass would be so ironclad that a riot would be nearly impossible. Nowhere in America has had more hope continually dashed than Maryland. In pre-Civil War Baltimore, slaves and educated free blacks rubbed up against each other every day. After the war, Maryland's inability to secede meant they wouldn't get a cent of reconstruction money,and its antebellum progressivism ensured a law that all blacks must receive an education, and as a result, former slaves arrived in Maryland by the thousands. But the conservatism that forced Lincoln to treat Maryland so destructively ensured that the education could only be received in segregated schools. Black leaders, having hoped for a new day, had to explain to their constituents that they had to back Jim Crow so that the vision of a universally educated Black America could be fulfilled. Blacks and whites together served in the steel foundries of World War II, and many poor Southern whites came to Baltimore looking for well-paying jobs which the heirarchical South would never allow them. But when the jobs started moving out of Baltimore, the whites who were always wealthy moved away from Baltimore too. All that was left was poor black people living near poor white people.


For all the complaining this overprivileged white male does on a daily basis about the ineptitude of Baltimore's local artistic scene, Baltimore as a subject has produced more memorable, sometimes stunning, art about racial divides by great artists who know it intimately than nearly any other city in America: Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, Liberty Heights, Serial, The Accidental Tourist, Roc, the Tess Monaghan series. We here in Baltimore are acquainted with tragedy, dashed hope, farce, and epically dramatic events as few if any American cities have ever been. Some cities are an American success story writ large. We are a million stories of American failure. But people from more secure places will never know success like a Baltimore success - to climb to victory over a millions obstacles, to make it in a town that conspires to take it away. For those few who ever made it, how sweet it must be. But we are the city of failure, and by losing everything, we have gained the freedom to be ourselves which so few others ever did. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

800 Words: Regulate the Arts!

In America, there are only three markets less regulated than finance: drugs, sports, and the arts. At least 1% of this country makes it work because of their investments. But in these three fields, the people who make it work are 1% of the field itself. Not being an athlete or a drug dealer, I have no real knowledge of how to cure those markets to make them more equitable. But having continually made lame attempts at being a financially subsistent practitioner of the arts, I think I have some idea.

Those who are successful stand to make millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars - encouraged by market forces to only do material that’s tried and true, and those who are marketable within it make more money than they’ll ever know what to do with. The rest of us are occasionally lucky to make a middle class living - getting a regular job with an orchestra, or a regional theater, or doing technical jobs on film, or getting regular commissions from galleries, or designing clothing that a couple rich ladies want to wear. But surely this is only 10% of people who want to make a living as artists and artisans in America. Perhaps another 30% make a living from teaching their art to people who have no real interest in it, remunerate them inadequately, increasingly give them no real health and insurance benefits, and spend what should be the most productive years of their careers tied down to a system that designed so that they cannot make any of the art they wish to make. The rest of us, if we’re lucky, feed on small scraps, we might eke out a lower-middle class living from gigs, plays, commissions, and wedding photography/videography. But most of us can’t even do that. God knows what else we have to do to make it work, and all of us certainly learn that it’s not pretty, but let’s not kid ourselves: The paltry amount of time we get to do what we want is usually not worth the amount of compromises it takes to make that time. Many, perhaps most, of us have to go to school to learn our craft, and accumulate vast quantities of debt which we eventually can only pay off by leaving our fields and getting a ‘real job.’ And God alone knows how many talented artists and artisans are dissuaded by circumstance from ever exploring their creative selves properly.

The arts are a real job for real people, responsible people who pay their taxes and contribute to society in a manner that no other field can. All artists and artisans want to do for you is to make your lives more beautiful, more meaningful, more civilized, more livable. The arts serve no real function for society except to make the society better. The worth of our society should be judged by how much we can pursue what makes us happy. The worth of our society to posterity is judged almost solely on the joy its art still brings to our descendents. The more we leave behind, the more people after us will value who we were.

But part of the problem is that most artists, like most drug dealers, most potential athletes, and most people who work in finance, are grotesquely bad at what they do. The incompetence of our field is staggering - a waiting pool for amateurs who go into the arts because they’re not good enough to be competent in anything else. If you go to medical school, you have to learn all the necessary tools. If you don’t, the patient dies. But in the arts, we say that anything at all can be art, and the result is that most people consume commercial crap that soothes their souls to the point that they can be effective consumers, nothing more. While the rest of us sit patiently in shows that demonstrate nothing but masturbatory pandering to a small audience who is there more for a social outlet than to expect any kind of artistic revelation.

Artists are doctors of the soul, and being an artist should have all the rewards, and all the responsibilities, of being a doctor. It should be a high-paying, white collar, upper-middle-class living, with its practitioners trained for years and licenced to practice their art by their competence. They should be pillars of their communities, respected, perhaps venerated, but never truly worshipped and paid like celebrities. Proven incompetence should result in revoking an artist’s licence. How do you prove incompetence? Well, there are facts in the arts just like there are facts in anything else. Writing and distributing a song with only three chords should be banned unless the artist derives special permission from an Art-Review-Board for such a dangerous practice. So would any painting of a ship, or any improv comedy. Artists who want to create avant-garde work should have to obtain a licence in which he or she demonstrates competence, outlines the project, and all the potential expenses, from which the review board would issue a grant based on the value they deem to it.

Artisans should be nurses, trained to fulfill the directives of the artist in the safest possible way, and remunerated with a solid, middle class living (though would that all nurses made a solid, middle-class living…). Artisan-nurses should be able to go to school for a bit more time and become an Artisan-practitioner, with all the directives of a non-specialized artist. Upon graduating, artists would do a residency within their field, and the field could be as general as composition or painting, or as specific as bassoon composition, or wax figurines, or sock puppetry. The artists could then collaborate with other artists in other fields to realize projects that require the competence which they have not attained.

As always, there will be giants and stars within every particular field, who have more opportunities than anyone. But the playing field will be so evened, and the product so much better. Please, somebody in Washington, find a way regulate the arts already and put us all out of our collective artistic misery!