Thoughts on Artistic Expression
I was recently, once again, in discussion with my father about the students in his high school video production workshop. He teaches one segment to a student body in an impoverished high school and another in a more privileged magnet school. He mentioned that his students at the poorer school had completed numerous scripts and a few videos, while his students at the magnet school dithered around posing questions about the form of a script and the nature of script writing. When they finally produced a script, the material turned out to be abstract in sharp contrast to the other school’s life-based scripts.
The difference between the two groups work production leads an observer to ask, Why? Why would one group be producing so much more than the other? It could be a coincidence, of course. Or it could say something about the relationship between class and art.
My father decided to show the magnet school students a video the students from the poorer school had completed. In response to the video, which dealt with one student’s choice not to engage in violence, the magnet school students expressed awe. “Wow, that’s real,” one of them commented.
While my father agreed that the video was indeed real, he was concerned about the latent commentary in the student’s observation. He cautioned the magnet students against aligning realness with a certain class of people.
We, as human beings, have a strange habit of seeing ourselves as “people” and other people as “types of people.” Most often a “man” in a mainstream newspaper will be a (white) man, whereas if the man is black, it will be written as a “black man.” When reading, I tend to naturally read the characters as black unless explicitly stated or implicitly suggested otherwise. Likewise, I tend to write my characters black. Without stating it, I assume the reader too reads them as black. But while at a writing workshop with white writers, there was confusion about the race of one of my characters. “Just so you know,” one of the white writers said, “I tend to read characters as white unless otherwise stated.”
This tendency to see self as person and others as “other,” plays out in class too. Middle class people often see themselves as neutral, not having a certain flavor or characteristic. While they see poor people as “raw” and “real.” These labels exoticize poverty and create fetishes of the economic and social realities of poor and working class people. It also falsely suggests that—for middle class people—”real” is aligned with “other,” not with self.
Ultimately true art strives to be a real expression of life. True art strives for authenticity. Yet the desire for authenticity often shuts down many artist’s attempts to create. When they sit down (or stand up) to create, their hand is stilled by questions of relevancy, power, and importance. They see self as “normal” or “average” and other as “interesting” and “real.”
“Keep it real” has become an excuse, a justification, a battle cry, an explanation, a creed, and a straight jacket. “Keeping it real” as come to define work rather than instruct artists on a path of action. Now when folks say, “keep it real” it is unclear if they mean “be authentic” or follow the model of what’s going to sell. In trying to keep up with the pace of the times, many artist confuse the badge of authenticity with the act of being authentic.
When you read/see/hear work that was created in keeping with a preexisting definition of realness, you know it. It is unconvincing, uninspired, a pantomime of creativity. When work springs from the heart of the author, it shoots right to the reader/listener/observers heart. There is no preexisting set of externally defined conditions that defines art that is real.
One of my favorite lyrics is from a song by—I believe—Roberta Flack. “Keeping it real,” she sings, “but compared to what?” Compared to what, indeed. No one group of people has a premium on keeping it real. Every single human being has the capacity to create REAL and relevant art. Perhaps we don’t all fulfill the possibility of realness when creating our work, but each life (and therefore each artist) has authenticity, relevancy, and value. The question is how real are you ready to be? Realness is a choice, not a definition. It is an act, not a fact. The realness of art is not based on how much violence the artist has seen or how few dollars are in her or his bank account (if the artist has a bank account). It’s about the artist’s willingness to get to the bare bones of it, to strike down to the heart of the matter every single time.
In musing about the relationship between realness and poverty, I decided perhaps there’s a reason why “keeping it real” became related to working class art and artistic expressions. Not because people with less money are, by definition, more authentic people, but perhaps because they are willing to be more authentic. Yes, each of us breathes, eats, sleeps, shits, and screws (to paraphrase Phife of A Tribe Called Quest). Each of us lives a life that gives us the merit, the material and the right to create real art, to create righteous art. But how many of us are willing to reveal the real? Perhaps, people with less are simply more ready to get raw. Perhaps they’re more willing to strip down and reveal their drawers, while people with more are too concerned with propriety to show the cracks in their china. But we all have them, cracks in the china, drawers (dirty and otherwise), and the minute we decide to reveal our real selves and express our souls authentically, then we’re all—no matter the subject matter—keeping it real.
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : September 2002 – present : : :
During the month of September, I forgot to mention a rejection. A fellowship I applied to at the last minute was won by someone else.
A few weeks ago I got a phone call from a magazine I’ve written for in the past. Apparently, they want to run an article I wrote a year ago. They also invited me to pitch some ideas to them. I have done so, and as usual, heard nothing in return.
No acceptances or rejections this month.
Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4