Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Circle of Art

At one of the summer book readings for SHINE, during the Q&A period, an audience member asked me about my process, then made this comment:
I read somewhere that in the creative process, the cycle of creativity is not complete until the work has been shared. In other words, when a book finds a reader, or a piece of music finds a listener . . . or a work of visual art finds it's viewer, THAT is when the process is completed.

(I am totally paraphrasing, so my apologies, dear commenter, if I've butchered your statement. If you should happen to stumble upon this post, please claim it as yours and make any clarifications in the comments!)

This idea has been pinging around in my brain ever since. Sometimes faintly in the distance, but recently, with a resounding clamour that I just cannot ignore. The more I surf online and read about how difficult it is for people to get stories out there -- stories that are from traditions not understood, dismissed out of hand, or that are simply unfamiliar to the people who make decisions on whether to acquire them and send them out into the world, the more I try to conjure up alternatives. It is a loss not just to the public at large (which loses out on the beautiful diversity of experiences around us--so many different ways to see the world!), it is also a kind of stunting of growth for the writer.

When that creative force charges through an artist/writer/composer, and she feels compelled to vomit it out (sorry), it's in a rush -- a frantic outpouring of emotion and poetry, both festeringly ugly and painfully beautiful. The artist then shapes that into the best work that they can (after spending however many years learning and honing their craft, reading how-to books, going to conferences, crit groups, etc.) and hurl it with all their might into the ethersphere.

I can speak only as a writer: a lot of writers live in the silence of creation. But if/when a work comes back without an answer, without being read or heard, without making any kind of dent or impact in the lives of other people, and this happens repeatedly, that silence can be unbearable.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it is absolutely necessary for an artist to get their work "out there." It's not just about needing/wanting recognition as some might claim. And if TPTB don't understand the work that is submitted, aren't familiar with it, or, based on values of their own traditions decide that it won't sell or that there is no market for it, many, many artists are having their work returned without finding its audience.

That is the reason women's presses, feminist presses, LGBTQI presses were popping up all over the place during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It was abundantly obvious that TPTB didn't, and generally were not willing to, open their doors to under-represented voices. Most of these presses didn't close their doors because there was no interest in the stories they were publishing; they ended up closing their doors because the larger publishers started noticing that there were, indeed, untapped profitable markets out there, ready and waiting to be recognized.

When I talk to my husband about this, he puts it within a framework he understands: Hip Hop music. He tells me of how, in the early days of Hip Hop, when no one thought it would sell and that the only market for it would be urban Black youth, Hip Hop artists would sell their CDs out of the backs of cars. They would lug around cardboard boxes full of CDs on the streets of Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and they would develop underground followings that way. Some of these artists would become famous among people who were flocking to the music (which, at the time, was far more politically charged and challenging of the status quo than it is these days) -- it was a music that spoke to them, to their experience, to the silence and suffocation of their lives, as well as to the celebration and joy that unchained them. It was a music born from a tradition; a music that was not yet understood by the corporate powers up in their plush Manhattan offices -- powers that were quick to dismiss a music that, in their eyes, was unmarketable, had no audience, and couldn't possibly turn a profit.

Every time my husband frames it in those terms, I am inspired. I look at the global Hip Hop explosion, and realize that ALL major inroads by people outside of the mainstream have been created that way. They began on the fringes with a few, frustrated voices calling into the wind for change. And when those voices turned away, they decided to create their own change. They knew there was a market for their work. They knew their communities, and knew the language of their families and friends. They created their art, and then they went out and did the call/response that is part of the Circle of Art. The response came back full, and the process created a kind of cypher that has been, to this day, influencing youth, music, fashion, and culture on a global level.


Zetta said...

My high school English teacher once told me that if I had a great idea but never shared it, it was like the idea never existed. And I was so upset by his remark, b/c I'd always had ideas that I kept to myself and they were REAL to me, and valuable. So I'm torn on the question of audience. I think each artist has to know her own ambition for her work. Sometimes the act of creation itself is enough; it teaches us something about ourselves, and prepares us for what will come out next. With hip hop, you're right--it came out of the community, and for a few years it only served those marginalized people who created it--find a lamppost, hook up your turntable, throw a block party, then sell the mixed tapes. Once your ambition becomes larger than "serving the immediate community," things start to get out of your control--and that's what happened to hip hop. Corporate executives saw potential profit, and the art became a commodity that largely lost its subversive power. So when I hear young rappers say they're rapping about guns b/c that's what will open doors, I remind them that doors will open in their own community if they "keep it real." With You Tube, and Garage Band and all the new technology, artists no longer have to rely on executives to get their work out into the world. And if that's your goal, you're set. But if you want to make a lot of money off your art, you'll probably have to make some compromises. Too many young artists want fame and fortune, and not to use their art to somehow serve their community...

Neesha Meminger said...

"Sometimes the act of creation itself is enough; it teaches us something about ourselves, and prepares us for what will come out next."

Zetta, I agree. I have several manuscripts that will never see the light of day, but those manuscripts taught me a lot about myself, and they were windows into my own psyche. They healed me, gave me answers, helped me stretch, expand. But it was a different kind of growth when SHINE went out into the world. That call/response was healing, expanding, in ways I never could have imagined. I didn't mean to imply that one is better or more important than the other--I think each is critical.

Anonymous said...

I think that the fringe is the only place where progress truly happens. Thank god the courage of those early hip-hop pioneers to propose that all one truly needed to make great music was two turntables and a microphone, for the comic writers like Gaiman and Moore to make art out of dime store pulp, for Zora Neale Hurston who had the audacity to suggest that African-American folk tales might be worthwhile anthropological studies, for Cory Doctorow who suggested that open creativity might win more readers than grasping piracy paranoia, for Kutiman and all the other amazing artists on Youtube who remix the banal and somehow transform it into the divine.

Call me a hopeless romantic and optimist, but now, more than ever, the fringe has a platform. They can attempt to commercialize it all they want, but the Internet can be, and always will be, for the people.

Neesha Meminger said...

@jonnyskov: EXACTLY. The internet has opened up SO many venues and platforms that have never before existed.

"Call me a hopeless romantic and optimist, but now, more than ever, the fringe has a platform. They can attempt to commercialize it all they want, but the Internet can be, and always will be, for the people."

YAYAH!!! *cheers*

Anonymous said...

Hi, reading your column makes me want to start my own press. Wait! That has been my dream for a long time. But not just for me. Like you said, for all the voices.

Thank you for writing this. I will be tweeting this on @LatinoBookNews If you have a twitter name, I'd appreciate knowing it so I can use it when I twit about your writing. Thanks
Jo Ann Hernandez
BronzeWord Latino Authors

Zetta said...

I agree with you both, and I didn't mean to suggest that the only legit art is what you're doing for no profit or recognition...I think today, more than ever, artists can occupy multiple spaces--the romance of the starving artist is just that: a romantic idea. But the reality is, we need to eat and if WE ARE IN CONTROL of the various stages of production, distribution, marketing, etc.--or if we work with those who aren't only profit-driven, then I do think we can have it all. And we should remember that the fringe includes right-wing nutjobs; the internet is largely unregulated, and we should be aware of how our message counter those on the other end of the political spectrum.

Neesha Meminger said...

Jo Ann, I'm @NeeshaMem on Twitter. I just started to follow BronzeWord! Thank you for your comments :).

Zetta, definitely *nods vigorously*. It's less the recognition that drives me, than wanting to connect. Writing is my way of saying the unsayable, expressing what's so far inside me that even I don't know it's there. And then, it's putting it out and seeing people nod, or their eyes widen because I've identified something they recognize exists in themselves. And there's this moment of connection. You realize you're not alone, and that's when the universality of it all hits home. To me, *that's* when you realize that all this separate-ness is all an illusion, and we're more connected than we even realize. Sorry--off on a ramble :P.

Laura Atkins said...

I totally agree, there's great power in people doing it for themselves, especially when getting things out through traditional channels is so difficult. I'm totally up for supporting any collective groups of authors from outside the mainstream (especially people of color or other marginalized groups) by offering editorial services. With blogs having the power that they do, and the ability to print smaller quantities or on-demand, this must be possible. You just need a group of people who are passionate, committed and willing to share resources and ideas.
Laura Atkins

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