But Is It Expedient?
Notes on Personal Survival in an Expeditious World
— IRS representative as guest speaker at a festival of the arts
Finding that quotation in my notebook of a few years ago made me relive the audience’s anxious discomfort. Our timid hisses, our repressed anger. It was an unforgettable little speech: not because it told us anything we didn’t know, but because it made what we know sound so official. So matter-of-fact. So obvious and normal. What’s more, the IRS speaker was a comforting, nice guy— he really sounded as if he wanted to be on our side. His most disturbing statements didn’t come from overt malice but came streaming out of an apparently benign pool of societal assumptions about the marketplace utility of a person’s life and work.
In the audience’s anxiety I think there was an even deeper pool of self-doubt, and the speech heightened our feelings of ambivalence about our place in society. How dare we assume a privileged position among our struggling fellow-citizens! We at once felt foolish and angry at having to feel foolish.
Alas, most moments of righteous indignation come as delayed reactions for artists, in little seedbeds of insight during moments of tranquility. Did he say expedient? our inspired voice queries. Then more loudly: Did that SOB really say expedient? And now the voice spreads its wings for lofty flight. Imagine what would happen to our grossly indebted national government if it were given the expediency test! the voice shouts as truth and beauty collide in a moment of pure, though obvious, insight. Never mind that cultures are eventually judged by the artifacts of the imagination! it declares. And that a country’s greatness is one day measured by the extent to which it cultivated! and guarded! the pursuit! and creation! of the beautiful! Is it expedient indeed!
At this point the voice, not fully satisfied with mere bolts of inspiration, looks for a little more grounding. A critical appraisal of what it intuitively knows to be right. Some ordinary information, perhaps. Say an etymological dictionary. Expedite: rooted in the same word as pedestrian, pedal, etc. Expedite literally means to pull your foot from a trap quickly. So expedient came to mean offering what is of use or advantage rather than what is right or just; guided by self-interest. Another moment of insight bursts into being. The unstated policy in our society is that art and artists be expeditious, speedy, more concerned with immediate advantage than with what is good, right, just, true! So let them hang Hallmark cards on their bank walls! the voice shouts in a final outburst of unequivocal anger. And may every character in every novel they ever read be named Prudence! Relieved, the voice directs the artist now to dress up funny and go out on the street feeling smug. Thank god I am not one of them! it says.
— old Japanese proverb (trans. W.S. Merwin)
But art rarely flourishes during moments of righteous indignation. I am guessing that most of us create our best work typically during moments of grace, windows of contentment, even. When we’re not worrying about our daily bread. When we’re feeling connected to a place, a person, ourselves, or, simply, to our work. During those moments, we may find that little grandmotherly platitudes are sufficient to keep us going: Life isn’t fair, Honey, but it can be good. And as the words flow onto the page, the music into the air, or the paint onto the canvas, for a little while, anyhow, we feel invulnerable and at peace with the world.
— Lewis Hyde, The Gift
Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book reminds us what the creation and exchange of art is really all about. Art comes to the artist as a gift, and when it is passed on, it is first of all passed on as a gift. The making of art in a commodity exchange society necessarily keeps artists off-balance, because we sense that money is the clearest form of confirmation our society has to offer and yet feel that the richest moments of creative expression come at times when we are free from the commodity-exchange mind-set.
For nearly twenty years I have been practicing what I call my survival-shuffle, bowing to the expediency code so that I’d have the freedom to practice my art. Writing. Writing what a poet friend of mind lovingly calls “the best of unpopular literature.” Several times fellowships have given me the time and space to work. At other times, I’ve divided my year between periods of “peace” and “scurry,” double- and triple-dipping during periods of scurry by, for example, simultaneously teaching a workshop, judging a contest, editing a manuscript, and writing a book review. My life weaves through times of involvement and isolation. The balancing act is tricky, to say the least. Many of my friends have long-since become wholly expedient by finding full-time jobs or by turning toward more commercial writing. It’s a real temptation, but it can mean giving up on a life of talent/gift exchange for the world of commodity exchange, the only one that the IRS system and, by implication, our society at large, understands.
Still, when I look at the question of funding for artists broadly, I am convinced funding is only a symptom of a greater issue. Artists in the United States rarely starve, but it’s probably the nature of the beast always to be hungry. The question is, For What? Enmeshed in a society that purports to reward individual talent and to respect what is noble and enlightening, we perhaps naively assume that our hunger will, or at least should, be satisfied with some monetary blessing. No matter how pure we are in the pursuit of our art, we want monetary evidence of our acceptability. We want it ambivalently, but we want it. Proof of expediency. But I would still wager that if you were to ask economically successful artists (and I’m not talking about commercial “sell-outs”) in almost any discipline, What response to your work do you most value? they will not say, “The time I got a bunch of money.” Instead, I would guess it will be closer to my own response to the question: “the time the sister of a man dying of AIDS wrote to tell me that her reading my poetry to him was the most meaningful activity in his final days, or the time a patient at a drug/alcohol rehabilitation center wrote to tell me that one of my stories was used in a group therapy session and that it made its point under a blanket of laughter.”
Damn right, we want money and we need it, but more than anything we want our inner lives to connect with the inner lives of others. The gift exchange. This is our deepest hunger. I believe the greatest pain for artists is not when they have to go on welfare but when they are forced to the hollow realization that so few people invest their own inner lives in meeting them half-way. I’d skip two meals a day to know that the people I meet on the freeway are hurrying somewhere so that they can open themselves to the work of artists who genuinely offer themselves in their art.
And it seems to me that any right-hearted and right-minded talk about funding for the arts should have the perfusive connotation of fostering gift as well as a commodity exchange. The real funding. The real connection. Money at best can confirm but should never replace the primary gift exchange that art can provide.
This essay is published with the author’s permission and was commissioned by the Orcas Conference: “Creative Support for the Creative Artist,” November 1988, sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts.