Monday, March 8, 2010

Democracy of Art

Happy International Women’s Day, which I’m doing nothing about for the first time in I can’t remember how long. Very strange. (The photo is from an IWD protest in San Antonio, organized by a multiethnic coalition. Why can't we have that? They've been doing it for 20 years. Read about it.)

On my way back from Montreal, where I spoke at an excellent panel and a queer workshop organized by Tadamon, QTEAM and other very well-organized Palestine solidarity groups, I was thinking about my little self-publishing venture.

Someone was saying at a party the other night that they never go to movies any more because they have a friend that can download every movie as soon as it comes out.

My friend’s boyfriend said, “Well soon there won’t be any movies to see any more, since no one is willing to pay to see them. Only big Hollywood blockbusters will get made; no one else will be able to get any financing.”

I thought about that.

“Or maybe,” I suggested, “filmmaking will become more a labor of love, and more interesting stuff will get made because people’s ideas won’t be being stifled by the commercial gate-keeping establishment.”

My friends, who are young counterculture types, quickly agreed.

“But,” objected an older friend, “artists should be able to make a living from their art, and not be forced to slave away at meaningless jobs. In other countries, art is state subsidized.”

I’m sure a lot of great art is subsidized, but I can’t help wondering how much great art is also stopped at the door, even in those progressive European countries we love to compare ourselves to. One of the amazing things about the process of seeking agents and publishers is accumulating proof that “good” and “bad” are subjective categories. How can one reputable agent say she “loves loves loves” my main character (but she can’t do anything with it right now) while another rejects the manuscript sight unseen? One feminist publisher says, “We found it very well written and well researched, but we feel we cannot adequately market it,” and recommends another publisher who responds tersely, “We do not want to publish it.”

Nothing can make you go so quickly from Cloud 9 to the Slough of Despond (boy, a Pilgrim’s Progress reference – not something I ever thought I’d use – must be all those years rereading Little Women).

So what do I do with all those homilies about “The way to get published is to write well?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that assertion. Here are a few examples:

“Good writing LEAPS out at editors (or interns) who sift through stacks of unsolicited articles.”

“Publishing is changing — all entertainment media is changing — but good writing tends to find a home.”

“As Micole Sudberg, Assistant Editor, Tor Books says, "...the best way to get your manuscript looked at is to write well."

Okay, so if my manuscript hasn’t found a home, that means it didn’t LEAP off the page, right? Or does it mean, as a friend of mine wrote on his blog, that “the editor … is crabby and hung over when it rises to the top of her to-read list”?

We have the same arguments about the radio show I work on, Women’s Magazine. Some people say it’s terrible, some people say it’s the best thing on the station. We are constantly talking about how to improve our “quality,” but the fact is that we don’t agree on what is good quality. There are certain things that most of us agree aren’t good, and fewer things that we all agree are good, but there’s a huge range in between that depends on what we’re interested in.

What might happen to the art world if we removed the emotional highs and lows that come from that quest for external validation? Sure, it would probably mean that you wasted a few minutes looking at something that should never have seen the light of day. But you might also find a diamond that a bunch of editors and agents mistook for a lump of coal. It would democratize the art world, and some of its denizens don’t want that. We’re taught not to value publication in journals that print all submissions, or books that are self-published. But some of those categories are starting to blur. I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between “self-publishing,” which I heard described the other day as a form of the newly fashionable “DIY,” and “vanity press” which still has a really negative connotation. But why do we assume that a person who paid to have their book published is doing it for “vanity,” while the person who got paid to do it isn’t? Aren’t both doing it because they believe they have something to say?

A friend of mine who’s been taking art classes for the last several years just gave a show for her 60th birthday. She sold her paintings and drawings, nearly all of plants or flowers, to her friends, and the proceeds went to a relocation fund for a friend who is about to get out prison. By the time I got there, nearly everything had been bought up. Now I don’t know, maybe if she had submitted her work to a gallery, they would have said, “Oh yes, these are exactly what we’re looking for.” But they also might have said, “Sorry, not good enough.”

A movie that has just come out, Budrus, which is winning awards all over the place, includes a couple minutes of footage that I shot in Palestine. This is the third film I’ve sold footage to. Although the money I’ve made is negligible (and I always donate it to Palestine, as my opinion is that the footage belongs to them), it’s way more than I’ve ever made from writing. And yet I know that my camera work is not very good and I believe my writing is not bad.

So what’s the lesson of that? I suppose it proves that utility might count more than aesthetic quality. Or perhaps it’s that art that is collective can make the best of material that isn’t that “good” by itself, that art, like many other things, is more than the sum of its parts.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What's the line between hope and fantasy?

Okay, so one night last week, I was driving home and as usual, I had on KPFA but the fund drive pitching was annoying me – I already gave so I felt justified in turning it off, so I switched to KALW, and they had on that boring legal show – well, it’s not always boring, but their guest was condescending, so I switched to KQED. I was just in time to hear a debate from Intelligence Squared US on the proposition “California Is the First Failed State.” I was riveted to the radio, such that when I got home, I sat in my car until it was over (Brian Edwards-Tiekert taught me to call that a “parking lot moment,” the epitome of good radio.) The team in favor won by a landslide.

The first thing that was interesting about this debate was who was arguing against the proposition. The team included Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC, former governor Gray Davis, who was ousted by the right-wing recall that brought us the Schwarzenegger disaster, and Van Jones, former Green Jobs Czar and erstwhile revolutionary youth leader here in the Bay. Says something about where Van might be, or at least thinks he is, headed.

The second thing that was so intriguing about this debate was that everything the yes team had to say simply proved their opponents’ points. Gray Davis emphasized the fact that Californians are using the initiative process, the one that brought us Proposition 13 and ultimately the huge budgetary quagmire we find ourselves in now, not to mention 3 Strikes, English-Only, the anti-immigrant Prop. 187, and don’t forget the all-important (not) anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8, to call for a Constitutional Convention to, presumably, reform this initiative process. Okay, we won’t even get into the convoluted logic of using the tool that created the failure to solve the failure. Instead, I’ll just mention that one, the Con. Con. probably won’t even be on the ballot because it’s been put on hold for lack of funds, and two, as the debaters on the “pro” side kept pointing out, the fact that we need to “Repair California” – the name of the organization formed to promote the Con. Con. – proves that we’re broken. Not to mention broke.

The crux of the Van Jones-Gray Davis arguments was, “We Californians are good, creative, smart people, who want to fix our state, so don’t give up on us.” Van used the word “optimism,” I can’t remember exactly but it was something like “don’t kill our hope,” by voting for the motion. Now first of all, it’s not people voting for the motion that’s killing our hope, it’s the brokenness of our failed state. The fact that kids have no art supplies or music classes in school, that college students can’t get the financial aid or classes they need to graduate, that there’s a generation of young people who have never had a job, that people are getting thrown off of the inadequate General Assistance that was keeping them in their SROs – those are the things that are destroying hope. No one is saying that Californians are not good, interesting, hard-working, smart, talented people, any more than we are saying the people of Zimbabwe are not all those things. That doesn’t disprove the fact that our state is not fulfilling the functions of a state, which is to nurture and protect, house and promote the health of those creative, smart, talented, hard-working people.

It’s more of that magical thinking that conflates believing in something with the ability to make it happen. (Okay, reading this over, I realized that I shouldn't dis magical thinking. I'm a witch, at least some of the time, so I am supposed to believe that believing in something means we can do it. But I guess I would say magic can help create the conditions under which change can happen but it doesn't make change on its own.) Do Californians have the ability to turn our political system around? Of course. But having the ability doesn’t get it done. We have to have the will, and we have to have the movement, and right now we don’t seem to have either, although we have the kernels of them. Notably, while the Con. Con. is on hold, the campaign to repeal the 2/3 majority rule to pass a budget or raise taxes, is gathering signatures and has a chance to make it onto the ballot if EVERYONE who supports democracy signs it at DO IT TODAY AND TELL ALL YOUR FRIENDS.

The other interesting thing about the debate (which in my opinion spent too much time on the question of what “first” means) is that many people seemed to accept that the mess the initiative process has led to in California proves that direct democracy can’t work. I argued when Hamas won the Palestinian elections and I’ll argue in the face of the Tea Parties and the Taxpayer Revolt that there’s no such thing as too much democracy. There is such a thing as false democracy. Unfortunately, none of the debaters pointed out that that’s what we have in California, as we do in the U.S. as a whole. Just because you can vote doesn’t mean you have a democracy. Not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Iran and not in California. To have a real democracy, we need a level playing field, and we’ve never had that because all our elections are financed by corporations. Every election season, I fantasize about putting up a billboard that says, “If they can afford a billboard, they’re not on your side.” But of course, then people would assume that I’m not on their side.

So what do you all think? Does the “failed state” analysis do anything to help us find a way through?