On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Politics · Uncategorized

The Terrible Thing Has Happened: Three Questions About Creativity in the Time of Trump

steinterriblething

The terrible thing has happened.

This is what Roger Langeron, prefect of the Paris police wrote in his journal on the day when city was handed over to the Nazis in June of 1940, part of surrender/compromise by the French government. I copied it into my own journal, both in the original French (l’affreuse chose s’est realisee) and in translation at the Mid-Manhattan Library on November 16th, 2016.

Like the majority of American voters who did not vote for Donald Trump, on that dark afternoon I was reeling from the election of the crudest, coarsest, most unqualified disgrace of a person to the highest office in the land. I was, and remain, deeply terrified of his fascist and authoritarian proclivities.

So, at the library, I was continuing an urgent project I started on the morning after election day: researching life in Paris during the Nazi occupation. I needed to know how to survive an authoritarian regime in a large city with a deep history of creativity borne of the freedoms that dictators abhor. I figured that this project would help me pick up a pointer or two.

World history is replete with authoritarian regimes. So why Paris under Nazi rule?

The Nazis were an easy pick, since they’re the authoritarian regime I’m the most familiar with. I’m from a family of Holocaust survivors and have read a lot about it throughout my life. Like most people of Jewish descent, I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if I was there, if now was then. Of course, in these imaginings, I’ve always cast myself in the role of public enemy number one. I’ve never seriously considered what life was like for everyone who wasn’t in immediate mortal danger.  Since I’m not a Muslim, Mexican, disabled, an illegal immigrant, or, I guess, Meryl Streep, I assume I’m not on the tippy top of the Trump hit list.

Paris was also a natural choice.  As a cosmopolitan city, Paris had many residents that Hitler wasn’t terribly thrilled with — but weren’t marked for immediate murder. Hitler also had a special feeling about Paris — he didn’t want to destroy its character, which he had no problem doing in other cities.  In fact, he wanted to show the world he could “keep Paris Paris.”  I have a feeling Trump nurtures similar sentiments about New York City. Also, I’m particularly interested in how  artists and writers survive in authoritarian regime, as my immediate decisions will be about resistance, creative expression of protest, and economic self-defense. Few cities are as identified with the arts as Paris.

For a few weeks, I wondered whether Paris was the best analogy, because there’s a difference between a foreign occupation and a democratic-ish election by some of your own citizens —  but since we’ve since learned that the Russians were deeply involved in the outcome of the election, and because the French government brokered the occupation of Paris, I now think the fit is quite comfortable.

Anyway, what I’m learning from this study is what I think are the right questions to ask. So in the weeks ahead, as my research progresses, I’ll share these questions and some of my answers. Let’s hope I’ll be able to continue to do so.

Question One: Should Writers and Artists Still Do Their Thing?

The first question I wanted to address in the wake of this catastrophe was whether to keep on creating: writing, making art in any form. Is this the right way to spend time now? Are there better, more practical ways to spend my time?

In easier times, creatives also struggle with this question, which is really one of permission: who am I to write, or make art? Why do I take time away from people and other worthy causes for my art? In good times we excessively worry about causing offense — or, for the particularly dramatic, that we’ll die, just die, because of something we make.

In times of political repression, when you actually could face severe consequences for self-expression, the invented drama becomes more real. But in crisis, the arts become much more obviously important, urgent, moral.  We’re chronicling, we’re bearing witness. Picasso, upon returning to work at his studio in Occupied Paris, said with evident self-admiration:  “It was not a time for creative men [sic] to fail, to shrink, to stop working…there was nothing to do but work seriously and devotedly, struggle for food, see friends quietly and look forward to freedom.”

The very important question, then, isn’t whether you work. Creative people are going to create, drawings were scratched into the walls in Gestapo prison cells. And it’s important that they do so for future generations,

The real question is what you do with your creative output — how, or whether to make it publicly available. And so…

Question Two: Should Writers and Artists Share Political Criticism Publicly?

In most dictatorships, political criticism becomes illegal and dangerous. So, every creative person has to think about her own tolerance for risk.

There’s actual risk — what the law says. There’s practical risk — are there extra-legal consequences for making critical work public, such as financial retribution?  Certainly there’s some sense that this currently exists, as PEOTUS rails against the cast of Hamilton, Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, Buzz Feed, although it’s unclear what that will actually accomplish.  And then there’s an assessment of future risk, which gets weighed against how much trouble you’re already in for actions you’ve already taken.

When it became apparent on election night that Trump would win, I thought about the “Fuck Trump” stick pins I made in filigree vintage metal during the campaign. I wondered if I could take them off the web and hide that they ever existed. That’s a question of future risk, I’m in no trouble for these right now. I’ve learned that people are now afraid to wear them, so that’s a bit of extra-legal consequence already occurring. The real question here is about the risk I’ll face in the future if the Trump regime cracks down on critical expression.

In this, I’ve become fatalistic. I don’t think I’d easily shed that electronic trail, so, why stop now? In other words, if I’m going to be screwed by this, I am already.

With this is mind, at this moment, I decided to keep making art that directly comments on Trump’s policies and is explicitly opposed to Trump and Trumpism. At about this time, I was asked to participate in Unstitched States, a digital quilt of reactions to the election. For it, I embroidered a vintage handkerchief with the “terrible thing” quote I referenced at the beginning, Donald Trump’s anti-democratic tweets on flag burning, an analogous passage from the Nuremberg Laws, and my own notes from visiting the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (This was my inspiration.)  It’s pictured above.

Questions Three: Should Writers and Artists Continue to Make Non-Political Work Public?

There’s always a demand for art that is non-political. In Nazi Paris, the presses kept printing magazines, newspapers and books, movies were screened, theatrical and dance productions were staged. This required the participation of creative people. Is this unacceptable collaboration? And if so, and if you make your living in the arts, what are you to do?

The writer Jean Guehenno, whose journals became Diary of The Dark Years, 1940-44. Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris, decided not to publish anything during the years of occupation, when all publications were controlled by Nazis. His translator, David Ball, writes this:

“He was one of the few intellectuals in occupied France who sensed that what one writes takes on its full meaning only in the context of a historical situation, and that its meaning depends in part on where it is published, and the conditions of its publications.

For writers to accept Nazi control of their publications is a fundamental choice — not to publish at all is another — and it is far more important than the choice of words in their writings. When Paul Valery, whom Guehanno admired enormously published a new poem in the most important literary review in France, which [was] edited by a fascist, Guehenno writes in his diary “I can’t help being sorry to see him go along with the ploy of our occupiers who want everyone to think everything in France is continuing just as it did before.”

 

In our current terms, this is the question of “normalization.” (Colloquially, “this is not okay.”)

Personally, I don’t have an answer to this one at this moment — I need more information about what forms of expression become legally restricted, if any, what becomes practically dangerous to publish or make public. But I will say that while I do admire Guehenno’s absolutist answer to this question: “…never, ever play {the} jailers game, never do what he hoped we’d do, appear in print, for example — appear as if we were still living and enjoying ourselves as we used to, in the time when we were free,” I’m not sure that silence is the most effective response.  My initial thought is that should it become difficult to make critical work, it’s possible to subtly communicate criticism in any form of art that could pass under a censor’s nose. (I’m thinking here of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, nominally about the Salem Witch Trials, actually about McCarthyism.) So I suppose the next question is, is it worth the appearance of normalization to communicate a subtle message?

More as I have it.

 

 

 

 

 

In the Studio · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · Uncategorized

On Creative Productivity in Fragments of Time

This week has been nothing but interruptions. The major hole-blower in my schedule: my ex-husband filed for bankruptcy.

As our business is far from concluded, and there are lingering connections between our financial lives, this has created many complications for me. Lawyer meetings, prep for these meetings, phone calls to and from various financial institutions, brooding, interrupted sleep.

I haven’t gotten into the studio all week. I have gotten a couple of other things done that I could do out of the studio: photographing new pieces — that’s what’s below; setting up my new ecommerce website; writing. But these projects I’ve been doing in fits and starts, squeezing them in the available gaps in time.

   
 
  
This has never been my preferred way to work. Or so I have always believed. If you’d asked me, I would have said that for maximum creativity and productivity, I require silken bolts of uninterrupted time. (I really would have said it like that, drama queen that I am.) 

Musing on this on the subway on Tuesday morning (en route to my lawyer, having left my kitchen table photography studio in medias res,so we wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast there the next morning) I wrote in Evernote: 

I find it wrenching to leave a project incomplete and switch to another. One of the benefits of freelance creative work is that supposedly that if you get stuck on one project, you can start pushing on another. This is true, but the reality for me is that the project switch doesn’t happen because of stuckness, it always happens because something else encroaches. Another project, a lawyer, a doctor, a freaking Indian chief. A cat throws up. It’s getting late and you want and need to see your beloved or eat or pee. This life business, it’s just so aggravating. 

Initially I thought this post would be an old fashioned rant against multitasking — not hard to do because science says it’s terrible— but then I realized I was totally full of shit. 

After all, I was writing on the subway, having first moved away from a very large man with wild hair who was growling about angels, then trying not to breathe in the heavy cologne of a bowler hat wearing dandy who sat down next to me. I was writing in the fragments of available time, which I have continued to do this week, and now, as my train crosses the Manhattan Bridge. 

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” I posted that Vincent Van Gogh quote over my desk for many years, and I know it to be true about writing.

No one can research or write a book, article, essay. You can only make a list of research and reporting questions, and track down the sources with the answers, one by one. You can only write one word after another.  (For anyone who’s ever read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, this is essentially the distinction between what he calls “projects” which can’t really be accomplished in on step, and the “next actions,” or tasks, that lead to a project’s completion.)

I’m not that precious about my writing — I know much of it can be done anywhere, as long I’ve got something to write with. At a certain point, I’ll want to have a long period of time without interruptions to complete a draft. I’ll want to do that on my computer, where I can type quickly and work most efficiently.

But I don’t need to a precisely designated writing time to get going. In fact, it’s better if I don’t. It’s better if I establish a general framework for the piece I want to write, to think about for a while. On an assignment, the editor sets the framework. But for creative writing projects that are amorphous at the start,  I like Montaigne’s  “On X Topic” formulation. 

For this essay you’re now reading, the first framework was”on multitasking,” then it switched to “on interruptions” and now it’s “on creative productivity in fragments of time.” This all has been tumbling around my mind all week, and so I jotted thoughts down as they naturally occurred —  waiting on line at the bank, lying in bed, walking down the street, sitting at my kitchen table while the coffee brewed. So when I sat down to pull the whole thing into shape, much of the writing battle was already fought and won.

The struggle for me now is how to translate what I know about one area of creative work to another. Obviously, jewelry making isn’t nearly as portable as writing.(Although I do have a mini-butane torch, it’s not practical to squeeze in a little soldering on the subway.) I’m working on a few thoughts on this, and I’ll share what I come up with next week. 

In the Studio · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · Uncategorized

On Creating What You Love Versus Meeting Market Demand 

Do what you love.

Depending on who you talk to, this is either the best or worst advice for creative professionals. Doing what you love leads to authentic, original work. Nothing’s wrong with that. Except for the scorn of business experts, who will correctly say in some fancy way that success relies on figuring who your customer is, and what they want, and giving that to them.

Creatives who end up selling their work usually hit on something that is both beloved in their own eyes and hits a customer need. A sweet spot that’s easier for some to find than others. But still, eventually, most will find themselves somewhere inside this dilemma– what people want to pay for isn’t what they want to make. Or they used to want to make it, and now they don’t.

Art and commerce have an uneasy relationship, its rockiness best explored in The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Personally I have spent a career considering this situation, in the writing realm and now in jewelry, as I pound the words “fuck this shit” into metal for various bodily adornments. 

I made the first iteration of this line for myself, and then people wanted it. Then I got tired of making it — and I fell in love and was so so so happy and it was springtime — so I took a break from making and selling Fuck This Shit. But people kept asking me for it, and luckily (?) life kept fucking with me in various shitty ways, so I renewed the making. And expanded the line in various ways, as customer demand, well, demanded. 
One day I won’t want to make them anymore again, and what then? I’m thinking about that. 

    

I’ve also made things for myself that haven’t connected with customers. I mean, at all. For example, I really am excited by upcycling, and Mr. Alison loves craft beer. So one day I figured out how to make earrings from the wire caps that hold in the corks on fancy beer bottles. (These are called cages.) I love these earrings, they’re in my regular rotation. I’m wearing them right now, actually. I made some others feeling very convinced that they would sell, you can see a few of them in the photo above. And what happened was….pfffft. Crickets.

 
Another example, slightly less of a failure but not exactly a success were my vintage NY glass necklaces, also pictured above. 

These, I will confess, were more calculated on my part, although I started with pure motivations. I gathered the vintage glass because I loved it, and in fact this glass collection is what led me to take my first jewelry classes, because I wanted to wear it and I didn’t know how to do that.

But when I made a bunch of these necklaces this past summer, I was primarily thinking that people would want to buy them. I do think they’re beautiful. I did make one for myself. And a few have sold, but it can’t be considered a commercial success. 
So what to make of all this? Here are my provisional theories: 

  • There are no guarantees in this world. you make things and you don’t really know how they’ll be received. I don’t care how many degrees you have or established you are. There’s no formula, like percentage of pure inspiration = so many goodies, whether that’s dollars, awards, universal love. 
  • The market doesn’t care if the maker continues to be authentically inspired, and neither does the bank account. Demand exists long after the creater is finished with the thing. It took me some doing to kill off my business writing career once I lost my mojo for it in 2007, and it would have been harder if the economy hadn’t tanked at the same time the media business transformed. Fundamentally it’s hard to turn down money when you need it. 
  • The more experienced you are, the more you can get away with pandering to the market. After a couple of decades of work, I can write a story I don’t give an itty bitty shit about and it will sell and be read and no one will suffer but me, when I’m writing it. I’ve done it enough to know how to fake it. In jewelry I can’t pull this off, and I know it. 
  • We are all humans so what moves one person will move others. Makers don’t stand apart from the rest of humanity. If you make something you really adore, others will too. If something isn’t connecting, you just haven’t found the market yet. This could be because your market is literally three other people on the entire planet, so when you wail no one likes my work! for all practical purposes, you’re right. Your audience is a rounding error to zero. But probably more than three people will also like what you’re doing. Because seriously — how much of a special freak do you really think you are?

 

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Alligators in the Sewers, and Pigs, and Octopus, Oh My

As a writer, I’m happy when I can do the following in a piece: Reference a favorite book from childhood, which I still have; Learn a new word, to wit, paradoxography. Use phrases that delight, such as: erratic alligator, bestial libido. While “bestial libido” should need no definition for my readers, “erratic alligators” are alligators… Continue reading Alligators in the Sewers, and Pigs, and Octopus, Oh My