I’m fortunate to be connected with some inspiring and hard-working artists and musicians that happen to also be impassioned and eloquent thinkers, speakers, and writers. One of those guys is Dr. Jonathan Lorentz, a talented jazz musician I’ve had the privilege to work with on some music projects. He’s currently the Executive Director of New Hampshire Jazz Presents, and will be presenting at the 2014 Transition Economics assembly in St. Louis this coming May 2014.
The Transition Economics assembly is billed as an “intellectual jam session” that will “assemble some of the world’s most brilliant minds on what to do about economics, governance, education, and culture in a moment when our traditional institutions cease to be up to the challenge.” They’re asking some big questions, and I’m glad that Dr. Lorentz will be taking part, as I’ve had the opportunity to talk with him about some of these issues — in particular, we've spent long hours discussing the state of the arts, and current support for it (both in terms of public interest and actual financial support).
Lorentz is a savvy guy who draws from great personal experience when it comes to the topic of making a go of artistic and musical ventures in the current economic climate. He's been on the scene as a working musician, performer, and promoter long enough to have seen how the changing social and economic environment has affected the ability of independent artists to produce original art and music as a viable means of making a living. The diminishing role in America today of art as an experience — going out to see live original music, an independent theatre production, or a gallery showing of new original art, for example — is felt by artists who struggle to have their unique voices heard above the roar of more easily commodified big-business entertainment that can be piped right into our living rooms.
Like many of us on the “front lines” of creating culture in our communities, for Lorentz, the issue of discussing what it’s like surviving as a working musician with real life bills and an education to pay off isn’t just theoretical. You try making a living as an original musician — even a highly trained, ultra-talented one like Jon, who holds a PhD in jazz studies — in a place like New Hampshire, and you’ll see that the shit gets real pretty fast. There just isn't a whole lot of decent work, and wages for working musicians have actually decreased over the last decade. It's a direct correlation to what we as a society deem to be valuable: it's amazing how many people won't pay a $3 cover charge for good, original music in a local bar or club. Eventually, the opportunity to have the experience of that live music vanishes from the community as a result of dwindling support, but many people won't look up from their television long enough to notice that it's gone.
Dr. Lorentz recently wrote an article that was published on the Transition Economics web site, titled “Decide Now If You Want The Arts in the Next Economy” — it’s a hard look at the economic realities that many (most?) working artists and musicians face today, and its worth a read. He discusses in detail the viability of new, original art in an economic system that pumps out commodified, recycled entertainment for the masses, and he proposes some ideas and solutions for individuals and communities seriously interested in ensuring that art as an experience has a continuing role in the economy.
The problem, as Lorentz (and anyone out there making original art) knows from personal experience, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for original artists and musicians to survive and compete in a social environment that favors “super-sized entertainment options” and that profits by continuously repackaging what’s familiar and known for re-consumption by the mass public. Our society today, he argues, "no longer seeks to be engaged with new sounds, images, stories and experiences." Digital entertainment, social media, and big-budget Hollywood films “fills the hole where the arts used to be.”
The result, Lorentz states, is that for most artists, producing original art is no longer viable as a vocation. “It’s just not a thing, meaning it’s not a trend, or commodity,” writes Lorentz. The problem is amplified when coupled with a higher education system that charges biggo-bucks training would-be artists and musicians for careers that largely do not exist anymore, leaving young and talented creatives with enormous debts and worthless degrees. Artists must decide whether they can commodify their work and talents in such a way that they can compete, or whether they must resign themselves to “art-as-hobby” and find other ways to support their endeavors — and individuals and communities alike must decide whether the arts are something they value enough to support with more than just words.
In the debate over art as commodity vs. art as experience, the simple fact remains: Somebody has to support art for it to continue to exist in our communities, and to flourish as a part of our culture. The question is, who? Society today (and as Jon argues, specifically a society rooted in meritocracy) often replies that artists are on their own. Works of art that cannot easily be commodified — even though they may have great cultural and intellectual value to society — simply do not get the support they need to remain viable, and so they go away.
The fact that so many working, original artists struggle to get by is indeed a great social dilemma, as Jon makes clear — and at the heart of the issue, I believe, is the notion that many of us in society have simply lost the capacity to understand, appreciate, and therefore recognize the great social and human value of the arts. We’ve forgotten that it’s something we care about and need, in the same way that we’ve forgotten that caring for the environment is essential to our long-term survival. In both cases, the majority of the population may not remember until they are sick and dying (physically and/or spiritually). Some will remember sooner, and there are those who never forgot.
This problem of the lack of support for the arts lies, of course, with our society’s values — or more accurately, the notion that we as a society have all-too-readily handed over the responsibility of value-placing to entities and systems that are incapable of measuring anything’s value in terms other than dollars and cents. By and large, we have allowed ourselves to be conditioned to be consumers of those things whose values can be measured in dollars — leaving to wither in anonymity those things that have great aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual value but otherwise are not easily turned into commodities. As a result, much of society now only knows how to consume those things that are fed to us by money-making mass media machines, and it is not any great surprise that funding for the arts has dwindled, and that most people don’t believe it to be up to them to chip in to support the arts in their own communities. We have forgotten that the arts are a social service essential for healthy, vibrant communities. For many, the arts are just not important enough to be supported as a civic duty.
The paradox of this whole conundrum, I feel, is this: it is the artists of the world who, if anyone, can inspire us to be freed from the constraints of a materialistic, short-sighted society of our own making and reclaim the vibrancy of our communities. Despite that it is unpaid work, it is the creators of original art who have the unique ability and vision to teach us to see for ourselves again, and remind us of those sublime qualities of existence that have been collectively forgotten, and that cannot be bought or sold. In endeavoring to create art as experience, the artist seeks to deliver the intangible, and the intangible can never be commodified — and therein lies the complication of placing a dollar value on it.
For many artists, the lack of support for the arts in our current economy is indeed the death knell for their vision of creating original art, and perhaps the world will never know of their unique vision and their unrealized potential. Others will find a way to keep the lamp of their creative vision lit through the stormiest of weather. In their drive to tirelessly perfect the means with which to communicate their unique vision, many artists simply accept the terms of poverty. Amidst great suffering oft comes great art — perhaps it is the price the gods extract for it. But more likely that's just shifting blame: a society that recognizes the inherent social value of its art and culture will support it, period, and be healthier for it in ways that cannot be counted in dollars.
Someday, we may collectively remember that the arts are as important to the overall well-being of a society as are healthcare and sanitation, roads and public safety...and as such should be provided for and fostered in the same way. It’s a world I hope I get to see. In the meantime, I am happy that folks like Dr. Lorentz are discussing these issues, and continuing their work...as artists and as inspirations to their communities.
Dave Kobrenski, March 2014
Check out Jon Lorentz's current work at www.jonathanlorentz.com
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