Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Negativity and the Arts

I briefly debated whether I should write this entry or not - I have decided that it is important to me that I do, and that I will do my best to leave out information that could lead to the persons involved being easily googled. If you are a super internet detective you might figure it out, but only if you have super powers, and if that's the case, what are you doing using them for this?? Go fight crime or put a stop to frakking or something.

Last night I was at a coffee shop somewhere in Pittsburgh (which will remain nameless), sitting at my table, reading my book on prehistoric creatures, when a stocky man entered the coffee shop and sat down at the table across the way from me with a petite, pretty young woman. It quickly became clear that the two of them were there to have a meeting about an arts event that they were working on together. Now, before you think I was listening in on their conversation from the get go, let us be clear - this man was loud. At no point was it difficult for me to hear anything he said.

At first, I was completely disinterested, and actually a bit annoyed because my book on prehistoric creatures was interesting, dammit, and his loudness was making it difficult for me to concentrate, but then my ears started picking up things he was saying that made me sit up and listen rather than try to ignore him. I didn't start writing down what he said until later, so I will have to paraphrase/summarize. Essentially, he was saying that the Pittsburgh arts scene sucks, and there aren't very many good artists in the city.

Now, I'm in the Pittsburgh arts scene and I know a lot of very talented people in the Pittsburgh arts scene, but this guy just seemed - I don't know - sort of like a joke. He was loud (as I said), dramatic, and annoyed in that super-entertaining sort of way, so rather than get disgusted and leave or move, I made a quick facebook post: "The loud guy in this coffee shop is making sweeping generalizations about the Pittsburgh arts scene and it is kind of entertaining due to his drama levels. I think if I could take him at all seriously I would be somewhat offended on behalf of, well, the Pittsburgh arts scene." A couple of my friends commented, and he kept on being loud, so off we went - we both had an audience.

He mentioned that he is "totally over" animals in art (and pine cones for some reason ???), which I just thought was silly (plants are okay though, fyi, as long as they are not the evil pine cone), but then he made this comment: "I am totally over animals in art...Like all the stuff in that show at [NAME OF A REALLY GREAT GALLERY]? I mean, that place is all right and everything, but it's all just so played out". I know the gallery he speaks of. I have been there many times. The person who runs it works their butt off and has done great things with said gallery. Don't say these things in public. No. Bad.

He continued: "artists in this city do not know what it is like to be a real artist...they can mope around and be depressed and still survive...if you're in New York City or Dublin...or anywhere else you can't do that" (ellipses indicate where there was a word or two that I missed - I was trying to type as he spoke - apologies for that). This statement is A) utter bullshit B) so much an awful generalization that I can't even begin to deconstruct it C) my first concrete clue that he thinks of himself and being separate from and better than the people with whom he shares a city of residence.

So, of course, using a couple other conversation clues (a gallery show he said he curated) I began to try to google him. Obviously.

He also mentioned earlier in the conversation that unlike "everyone else" in Pittsburgh he is morally superior and does not place his own work in gallery shows. I've given this dude's website (spoiler! I eventually found him!) enough hits for one day, so I'm not going to try to confirm this statement.

He then went on to talk about how the cost of living is so low in Pittsburgh that artists here are all spoiled and don't know what it means to suffer. But apparently none of us are allowed to complain, ever, so facebook friends and I have determined that, for this dude to be happy, all artists in Pittsburgh need to sit on the corner holding this cardboard sign:

Real artist. Starving, but not bitching about it. Don't give me money. This is just a PSA

Then they talked a bit about the event that they were actually having a meeting for, and it became briefly less interesting. Just when I thought that the show was over, though, he decided to take a completely innocuous bit of conversation (discussion about the deadline for turning in juried work) and use it to, yet again, bash all artists in Pittsburgh, and, of course, toot his own little horn. Before I could start typing, he began talking about how all artists in Pittsburgh (yes, he was saying "everyone in this city" - I am not making this part up or being hyperbolic in any way) do their work hastily at the last minute. Oh, but he doesn't. "Some people call me an over-achiever," he claimed. The girl smiled and nodded the whole time, making affirmative noises.

It was at this point (the over-achiever line) that I lost it and began laughing hysterically in the middle of the coffee shop. The guy next to me clearly thought I had a brain-related problem.

They then went back to talking about the event, and as I listened, because now I was invested in his stupidity, dammit, I realized that some of the ideas he has probably don't suck. The problem is that he was talking like such a self-centered, egotistical pain that I don't think I can appreciate any of his ideas or vision.

Then they started talking about gathering work from artists and he said this little gem: "[The organizers] are being protective over me calling people...I don't know why...Everyone loves me...They're all like "It's so cool that you're from [city that would potentially be too identifying]!"... I guess everyone is just intimidated by me." I did not know that real people talked like this in a serious way.

And then he went on a few minutes later "I'm a little burnt out on Pittsburgh...doing all these events takes a little bit of my one appreciates all my work...I mean, I have a fabulous life here...I get to work in film and everyone loves me." No dude. No they don't, not if this is how you act. They really, really don't. But the girl agreed, saying "Oh yeah - I totally understand. I mean, I lived in New York and in L.A." Because LA is the hub of all that is genuine art in this world.

This set of quotes is what really gets me, I think. This mentality that they're better artists, more dedicated, and more talented merely by virtue of having lived in cities like New York and LA. I see this a lot, this desire to trumpet being from New York in particular. Now, I have a good number of artist and poet friends who are from New York who do not do this. They are lovely, amazing people and this is not directed at them. This is not something I see in all New York artists, just the obnoxious ones, and those obnoxious ones are in the minority. There's this idea they have of "I am from New York and therefor know more about art/writing/life/the world/ monkeys than you do, and my art must be better and you are a peasant from - ugh - Pittsburgh. If you were dedicated to your craft you would move to New York like me."

There is nothing wrong with being proud of where you are from. There is something wrong with acting like you are better than someone else because of where you are from.

At this point, the coffee shop was closing and I had to leave. I wanted to say something to this guy. I think I should have. If this is what he is willing to say in a very public place, then what does he say in private? How does he treat people who have probably helped him and shown his work and befriended him? I wish that I had said something. I did figure out his name (it turns out we have friends in common on Facebook - a decent number of them) with a bit of help from a friend, but I was then forced to sign a verbal non-disclosure agreement and promise I would not share his name. I am honestly conflicted about this. I feel like the kind of talk and behaviour he exhibited (and per my friend, this is not the first time he has done this) needs to be punished socially. Also, while my friend is "good friends" with him, I have to wonder - when someone says "everyone sucks... except me and you" what is the likelihood that they are saying that to everyone and being nasty behind your back? I think it's pretty high.

I am not immune to negativity - when I was an undergrad I said some not-so-kind things about slam and spoken word poetry in a decently public setting. I am really fucking sorry I said those things, not because of the social backlash (though there was a bit of that), but because it was stupid and childish of me. The social backlash, however, was part of what helped me to recognize my childishness for what it was. People like this man are a cancer. The attitude he has is a cancer. The fine arts and literature are not money makers (even in Pittsburgh - surprise!) and it is very difficult to be an artist and be true to your art and, well, eat. It honestly bothers me that this man is getting away with this. I feel like I have failed somehow in not saying anything, because that is what people like him count on - nobody saying anything.

What to do? I hate to sound like an after school special, but we need to root out negativity in our community. Our city is small. We cannot escape each other and we should not be able to say mindless, unkind things with impunity. So please, think about what you are saying. Don't let someone you are in a conversation with get away with being endlessly mean. Appreciate the good in the arts scene of whatever city you are in, because I guarantee you that the good is there. Oh, and if you must have a nasty, self-congratulatory conversation in a trendy coffee shop keep your fucking voice down because there might be a creepy-ass poet sitting close enough to hear you who will write down the offensive things you say and post them on the internet.


Wayne said...

Wow... now I wish I could've gone out with you last night.

This whole issue of negativity has been a topic of discussion in my life for a while now. On Facebook, message boards, and obviously in the store, I have been stunned by the tendency some people have to simply bash the things they don't like rather than celebrate the things they do. It's also easier to do this than to actually contribute anything of value yourself. This type of cynicism prevents you from seeing the magic in the world, and if you can't see the magic you simply can't create art of any kind.

To quote myself from my birthday post:

"There are positive things in the universe. There are negative things in the universe. At the end of every day ask yourself, “Today, did I contribute to the sum total of positive things, or the sum total of negative things.” Decide what kind of world you wish to live in, then contribute to that world."

Margaret Bashaar said...

Wayne - I think a lot of the negativity in the arts scene (and, I suspect, this man's negativity in particular) stems from insecurity. We artists tend to be a sensitive bunch, and because money is so scarce, and fame even moreso, there is a lot of worrying - am I good enough? am I doing enough? does anything I do matter? And this can lead to being bombastic and nasty about other people. Somehow.

It's no excuse for this kind of absurdly bad behavior, though. Don't be a dick.

Jay Snodgrass said...

Is it really up to you fix this person/situation? It is sad, and we have all been judgmental. When I lived in Butler I dreamed of moving to Pittsburgh, so I packed up and moved to Richmond VA. Go figure. There will always be negativity and pettyness and bitchyness. Maybe the best thing you can do is try to make some great art which will always make you feel better. As i saw on a tshirt somewhere, the best revenge is to be a better writer.

Margaret Bashaar said...

Jay - No, it is not up to me to fix this individual, but what I saw in this conversation is a bigger problem, and it got me thinking about what we do when confronted with such blatant negativity.

The health of the greater arts community is dependant on attitudes like his being changed/called out. I don't want revenge on this guy. I want him to stop biting the hand that feeds him and I want to make people aware that you can't wantonly say these kinds of things, particularly in public.

My art does make me happy, but I want a happy, healthy community, too, hence why I am respecting my friend's wishes and not naming him.

Maybe I am doing the wrong thing here, but I felt like my silence last evening was also the wrong thing.

Margaret Bashaar said...

Let me also say that in an ideal world, this man and I would be friends. We have very similar interests and influences as artists and as human beings.

Gary Alan Jackson said...

Who does this guy think he is? Doesn't he know that I and the most important person in the Pittsburgh art scene.

My point is: my fear is that artists may start to believe that this is the acceptable way to promote oneself and continue to be, well, ridiculous. I, from now on, will say something next time I run into one of "these". Which is a lot, especially when I have my instructor or performer hats on. I call it "The Diva Complex". It must be stopped, or people will stop giving them work. It's intolerable.

There's a comment that said there will always be negativity, etc., and yes, you are correct. As an artist though, every public appearance could lead to work. EVERY ONE OF THEM! Only a very "green" artist does this to some extent till they are burned by their own mouthiness. He'll get his. Just sayin.