Sunday, January 26, 2014

Prole Art Threat?--open Letter to Amien Essif of The Guardian (Modern Day Artist Likely Surviving On Food Stamps)

 (0pen Letter in response to a piece a friend forwarded me in The Guardian)

Dear Amien Essif:

Yes, the U.S. should greatly increase its public support for the arts and journalism—and not just because if we don’t “many artists will continue to need welfare aid.” The welfare provided does not, in most cases, provide enough for adequate food, shelter, healthcare (even with Obamacare), whereas the public funding would create more job opportunities for artists—many of whom would be content to live on a modest sustenance in order to contribute to the economy to the best of the ability. The crisis is not simply that artists are underpaid, but that we are under-used.

The starving artist is not alone in this economy. As you astutely point out, this demand for public funding of the arts is no different than the demand for free public primary education (or secondary education for that matter), or other areas that promote the general welfare. The public support is there, the need is there—what is lacking is a voice in the media as well as in the government that recognizes this fact and translates it into public policy. Sure, lip service is paid, but even in the areas in which government (rather than the privatized corporations) still has some say (artists-in-the schools and artists-in-the prisons programs, for instance), funding has been severely cut.

If art does not pay in an era of increased deregulation of monopoly capitalism (unless the artist is commissioned specifically by the de-regulated corporations to, in essence, create a form of propaganda for the interests of global capital), it is the government’s responsibility to be made accountable to “we the people,” and I know many artists who would be more than happy to work, in one way or another, for a government that has the welfare of the vast majority of working class Americans as a fundamental concern.

The issue is not simply an issue of hedonism, as you put it “using my college education to do what I love.” Yes, it’s important to love what we do, but there is a responsibility in what the artist does: whether it’s to tell the truth (especially the truths that are usually censored from the corporate, or mainstream, media), to create beautiful, functional or practical living artifacts that can entertain or educate, provoke or entice, uplift the spirit and bring people together and contribute to nation building (or rebuilding), and even become a cultural export contributing to the economy. The deeper question for artists is what can we give back to society, what value we can create to earn our keep and serve the general welfare of the people (and I don’t mean to say we have to change our art to do this; if it already was the kind that benefitted the plutocrats, odds are you’re not on “public assistance” in the first place).

Likewise, the government should provide initiatives for small businesses, minority owned businesses, and community colleges rather than continue its policies of trillion dollar bailouts to banks, and other forms of corporate welfare that are taken from taxpayers money (deregulation of the mass media so that its owners may do “what they love”—i.e. profiteer and censor--without responsibility to the people who are given no alternative to them but to turn it off, or set up a private blog or “soundcloud account” that they cannot promote or lure listeners to for the same reason they are on food stamps). These bailouts have not improved the economy for over 99% of Americans, and do nothing to repair this country’s ailing infrastructure, as well as its cultural infrastructure, except to create a “members only” plutocrat’s paradise.

When Obama was first elected, there was an upsurge of hope that in fact that government would step in to at least regulate monopoly capitalism with policies that resemble Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA programs, which helped bring the country out of the great depression, and furthermore created a “commons,” a civic infrastructure that came the closest to a “social democracy” America ever had, a more equitable society that actually created a middle class of small-business owners, and a national culture that was the envy of most of the world. Policies at least as comprehensive as that are needed today, given the great crash of the financial and housing markets of 2008, and they unpaid war debt that continues to suck money, and real wealth, from the American working class.

We delude ourselves if we do not see that the advances in civil rights and human rights that were made in mid-century America were not themselves a direct result of such “New Deal” policies (which were themselves a result of collective protests after the 1929 Stock Market crash). This is what the right wing has known for a long time; when the deregulated AM radio dials in the 1980s became overtaken by corporate mouthpieces such as Rush Limbaugh, they made it very clear that undoing many of the social policies of Roosevelt (including funding for the arts) was their primary objective. The gradual erosion of arts funding over the past 30-40 years is thus linked inextricably with the decline of the middle class, the working class. Meanwhile, the corporate media, tells culture workers to value originality, and individualism, as if it’s a form artistic freedom (you may be broke, but at least you’re closer to doing “what you love” than allegedly those are who send young men off to fight in wars for their oil, which of course you really need to live).

I myself am an artist, who had achieved enough success to make a modest living through it (either directly through album sales and arts grants, or indirectly through college teaching jobs I was able to get because of my writing resume), but who fell on hard times in the last ten years due to the reallocation of priorities and the increased price of healthcare, and rent, etc. As a result, I become homeless. The shame, self-hatred, and self-doubt and isolation that has resulted from this situation is immense. Old friends and colleagues turn away; I become increasingly useless, a so-called “Charity Case” (though the busking sure is cute, a momentary diversion from the ‘real’ (corporate run) world, as I watch well-intentioned people who try to help (or throw the equivalent of a dime at the ‘bum’ in this inflated economy) are themselves struggling not to end up like me (which is one of their biggest fears!).

Many of these well-intentioned people tell me to “try to pull myself up by my bootstraps,” as I was once able to do as a younger man, and work in isolation again as an artist and play the artist lottery game in hopes of surmounting this situation (some Mythical Warren Buffett-esque venture capitalist who will see and understand that long-term profitability of our proposals)---yet, without money (and being older and with some health issues), it is much harder to do this alone! And, frankly, we don’t need to do this alone. I cannot adhere to the idea of the artist as “bourgeois individual” as it is often presented in American culture when the reality of my (and most artists) situation starkly contrasts with it. We artists need to focus on our common ground with others who struggle to do “what they love” and what they need to survive.

This struggle is so prevalent that even the notion of a cultural institution or venue that is independent from corporate sponsorship (at a price) becomes near impossible unless we can form some grass-roots way of linking our forces to make demands to the government, or to the corporations through the government—who we theoretically still have the power to vote in or out of office, and not merely by “outspending” the opposition; the artist can help aid the election of new politicians through our ability to articulate the issues and provide alternatives to the “business as usual” that has driven most of our livelihoods into ruin.

We need to form a united front with other artists (even if we don’t like each other’s work) and culture workers, and beyond, to show our common interests with the many others who increasingly suffer in this economy: thinkers and doers! Many of us are better thinkers than doers, but there are some doers who understand their need for thinkers as much as we need to work with them (not that it’s a clear-cut distinction). It may sound cliché to say this in this highly individualized age (“I got mine, don’t worry ‘bout hers”), but there can be strength in numbers, and unity in diversity (and not just diversity as understood in terms of surface identity politics that doesn’t get at the root of the exploitation of the 99% by the 1%). Had the coalition that got Obama elected not taken the pressure off (or had it usurped by the creation of the Trickle-Down “Tea Party” and its Dick Armey), had Occupy Wall Street been able to survive the first winter, maybe this united front could have translated into real electoral power, with a real possibility of effecting public policy to make such funding for the arts a reality, and one that is fiscally responsible.

In short, I agree with you; we need more public funding, but I think we could argue more persuasively if it’s not simply begging for pity (in the form of food stamps that don’t even get us “Section 8” housing). Rather, we need to fund the arts, or there may be riots, or a revolution! That worked in the 1930s, and even to some extent in the 1960s. We should at least consider that threat pragmatically as a bargaining position, but first we have to recognize how our fates are linked with garbage-men, and underpaid nurses (who themselves die because they can’t afford quality healthcare) and then organize, how to use what little means we have to organize, via the web, etc. This is of paramount importance….and, yes, the process of thiscan be fun! (entertaining, artistic), in every locale, real or virtual, in which we find ourselves. If the word “Community” has become increasingly less a reality in this corporate-dominated, atomized, and post 9/11 culture of fear environment, for many people (community is not something we can take for granted; we’re not “born into it” as our grand-parents were), it’s still something that could be recreated, even if we must use “virtual” means as well to counter gentrification in cities, while de-centralizing culture by re-centralizing (so artists don’t feel they have to move to NYC or Hollywood or Nashville, for instance, to find any culture that isn’t the equivalent of McDonalds in their small towns). Yes, work locally, but think nationally, and build a network.

The lobbyist-run government isn’t going to listen to an argument about pity. And though Food stamps are criticized by the right wing media as a hand-out, most of the corporatists would still rather offer those than on their own consider more public funding for the arts. This is a way to shut us up on sustenance, filling our mouths with supermarket food that in many cases is poison (at least that which we can afford on that pittance), and from which they can doubly profit: making their enemies (and we delude ourselves if we don’t realize we are their enemies, even if we do nothing but dabble and scribble our mumble-core in our little harmless art bubbles) weaker in our unhealthiness while gouging us on low-quality over-priced “food” so we need their over-priced low-quality “medicine.” (these, along with prisons, remain the one of the few “growth industries” America has). We must appeal to the people, the working class of which we are a part (however petty-bourgeois we may appear), in the creation of our art and/or journalism. This can still be “loving what you do.” Otherwise, American culture will continue to be dominated by the corporations who create less wealth than the artists, and may not even be very good at organizing (though their ancestors were, so they don’t have to). And let their libertarians tell us we “need to be punched.” and let the debate resume, more focused than before. We got something to give each other, even if they take it as a punch.

Chris Stroffolino,
January 2014.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Failed Eulogy For Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)--Draft...

What to say?
Too much to say…too much that needs to be done…
I am humbled, inarticulate...
How to deal with this loss, this pain….
I stumble…and can not do justice….
But I must write something now….even if it is all wrong….
And please feel free to criticize….

I first got into Baraka’s work in college during the 1980s, through white establishment literary anthologies. Both the Poulin Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and the Norton Modern Poetry Anthology included his poems---more from the “Le Roi Jones” era, but at least some from the Black Nationalist period; a tremendous range of work---from the more subtle lyricism that endeared him to the white avant-garde establishment to an internationalist revolutionary didacticism he had to fight and sacrifice for.[1]

His performance of “Wailers” in Naropa’s Poetry In Motion movie showed me another dimension to his art---the combination of music and poetry much more effective and deeper than, say, Ginsberg. While some of my teachers refused to acknowledge Baraka’s direct political didacticism and songs could qualify as “poetic art,” Baraka managed to open up these genres as viable possibilities in poetry and letters. Baraka came at me from all angles. Before I had even seem him perform live, I saw the film of The Dutchman….But one facet….
In December of 2011, in Rochester, New York, Baraka spoke of his intentions in his 1964 play, The Dutchman: “The play becomes clear if you focus on the time it was written….Because he’s actually killed for what? Leaving [the white woman, Lula]…’I’m gonna leave. I ain’t gonna be with you. I’m gonna be with who I want to be with….’ What I was trying to say is that there was change coming, and what you thought you were dealing with when you were dealing with the black and white thing was not reality because black people’s thing had never come out yet….When Clay comes up after he’s been fooled around with all that time…it’s the opening of a revelation.” Here is the climax to Clay’s speech from the play:

But listen, though, one more thing. And you tell this to your father, who’s probably the kind of man who needs to know at once. So he can plan ahead. Tell him not to preach so much rationalism, and cold logic to these niggers. Let them alone.
Let them sing curses at you in code and see your filth as simple lack of style.
Don't make the mistake, through some irresponsible surge of Christian charity,
Of talking too much about the advantages of Western rationalism, or the
Great intellectual legacy of the white man, or maybe they'll begin to listen.
And then, maybe one day, you'll find they actually do understand exactly
What you are talking about, all these fantasy people. All these blues people.
And on that day, as sure as shit, When you really believe you can accept them into your fold, as half‐white trusties late of the subject peoples, with no more blues, except the very old ones, and not a watermelon in sight, the great missionary heart
 will have triumphed, and all of those ex‐coons will be stand‐up Western men,
With eyes for clean hard useful lives, sober, pious and sane, and they'll murder you.
They'll murder you, and have very rational explanations. very much like your own.

Almost immediately after Clay says this, Lula stabs him, as Baraka puts it in 2011:

Why is he killed? Because he wants to do that by himself. “I’m the great Black poet. I’m here. I’m going to express myself.” You can’t make change by yourself. You either get killed, put in jail, or get robbed. So that was the lesson that I was trying to teach….”

Clay’s “revelation” is similar to Jones’ (Baraka’s), but Clay speaks of “these blues people” in the third person (“My people. They don't need me to claim them. They got legs and arms of their own”). The revelation that Jones/Baraka had about “the black and white thing” during this time made it clear to him that he couldn’t speak of “his people” in the third person, and of himself as an isolated individual, especially after the death of Malcolm X in 1965. As he puts it in 2011, “Black people’s thing had never come out yet….” Moving to Harlem, and forming the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, and aligning with the Black Nationalist movement, could effect this change, by helping to create economic self-determination; to bargain with the dominant white society from a position of collective strength….or as he puts it in a later poem:

“Self-determination…to build on that Malcolm sense…self-determination as self-relaince and self-respect and self-defense…then we can talk about being American”
Why Is We Americans?

As in Clay’s speech, Baraka also engaged in one of the most adept and astute critiques of the philosophy of “logocentric” (and Euro-centric) rationalism, putting in words much of what was expressed non-verbally in the jazz, blues, and r&b he loved and theorized—but not from the perspective of the “irrational revolt” so touted as the spirit of 50s/60s counter-cultural intelligentsia in middle-brow venues, nor from the perspective of post-structuralism. Rather, like, Fanon, for instance, such critique (whether in a ‘rational’ mode, an ecstatic mode, or an angry mode, to name but three) was rooted in the class relation and always in the service of re-constructing a new reality.

What primarily distinguishes him from most Marxists is his analysis of music, not as mere transcendence, but also as political/cultural expression. In his writing about music, from Blues People onward, he out-theorizes his detractors on both the “left” and the “right” in part because his theory grew out of his practice as much as the practice embodied the theory. Not “officially” a musician himself, Baraka learned from, felt solidarity with, and even taught many of the best musicians (from jazz to soul to hip-hop). His lectures and “poetry readings” at their best approximated the “structured improvisation” of jazz. He’d take his solo and then trade licks with a musician or verbal interlocutor on stage, pushing the boundaries of an “interview” or “panel” format. More than anyone I’ve seen, he opened his performances up to the audience, inviting hecklers. He listened, responded, contemplated and wrote, furthering the American (and international) political/cultural discussion on both a macro and micro level: seeing forest and trees (if not necessarily at the same time).

Baraka used his status as a poet sanctioned by white society, to bring a more decisively black vernacular lexicon into poetry than had previously been permitted. At the same time, he restored poetry to its pre-modern specialized role, as a practical art (encompassing theatre, history, religion, philosophy and, of course, music), even while being firmly rooted in the 20th century and the ever changing same of the present (the continued legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, the economic racism of the north, and the prison-industrial complex).

He worked on so many fronts, spoke/wrote (from so called ‘high’ to ‘low’) to help build the necessary coalition, the united front.

As he pointed out repeatedly, The English Department is one of the last vestiges of imperialism, and even while black music made strides in mid-century America as American music became less segregated, Academic English (and Creative Writing) Departments still makes less room for the “Black Art” aesthetic(s) than even this commercial corporate mass culture does. Many whites acknowledge the greatness and influence of black musician (even if it is distorted as Baraka points out) more than white poets and literary types acknowledge an analogous influence in literature, for instance.  Alas, rather than seeing progress in English Departments on this front, we now see even the mass-culture has become increasingly re-segregated in the past 35 years. This is clearly part of the work Baraka did that needs to be continued, and he provides us with many of the intellectual, rhetorical, and artistic tools for that struggle. 

It’s one thing for English Departments to remove the Shakespeare requirement, but why not replace it with a Baraka requirement in an interdisciplinary team-taught class with sociology, political science, and music departments. The syllabus could include DuBois, John Coltrane, James Brown, Sun Ra, Marx, and Stevie Wonder for starts. And if Academia won’t do it, start one’s own school and cut out the white academic middleman and their increasingly less valuable degrees---in the spirit of self-determination a la Malcolm X.  This is not simply “Black Studies,” for Baraka understood that in America, Black Studies IS white studies…..

Understanding the time in which it is written....true of so much of Baraka's work. His criticisms of Italians when they ran the power structure of Newark never offended me as an Italian-American. And the laughable charges of anti-semitism because of a few lines asking questions about Sharon's knowledge of the 9/11 attacks....

He has influenced my work, especially my work in the classroom, but also in prose essays more than in my published poetry (for instance my piece, "Sly Stone And The Not-So-Great Fillmore Whitewash," is deeply infuenced by his theoretical framework established in Blues People)....

I had the great privilege of attending the events he and Amini hosted in the basement of their home (The Spirit House) in Newark, and vowed that someday I'd be in a position to help continue something like that....It may never happen now, with me....but I am heartened to see his spirit live in so many amazing, beautiful, and intense younger writers in these bleak times...

[1] In subsequent editions of the Poulin Anthology, Baraka had been removed, and many of the “Black Arts” writers who had appeared in the 1972 Norton Anthology had been taken out of the next edition in 1988.