Show Your Pride and Fight?

This past weekend I travelled to Austin in a big, white 14-passenger van filled with student organizers for the first Equality Across America Texas conference, “Unite and Fight: Strategizing for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Equality,” which was followed by a march and rally at the Texas State Capitol in honor of Harvey Milk Day. I heard grassroots organizers speak about the need for action and strategies to promote policy change. I learned about issues from transgender discrimination to the struggles of gay immigrants to racial inequalities in the LGBT community, and I felt galvanized: “Harvey Milk was right, show your pride and fight!”

This weekend was a reminder of something that constantly plagues me about my choice of profession. Lately I feel like every time someone asks me what I’m studying I end up having this conversation:

“What do you study?”

“Music.”

“Wow, that’s so cool! I study [nursing, engineering, medicine, political science, social work, law].”

“And you think music is cool? You’re going to help people, make a real, concrete difference in the world somehow, whereas I’m going to lock myself up with a piano and feed my gluttonously selfish desire to create art. Your choice of profession is so much nobler.”

This probably explains why I haven’t made any new friends lately. But, more importantly, it hits on something that’s been bothering me since I read the Chekhov short story “Gooseberries”: creating art for a living is a selfish indulgence. Sometimes I want to switch majors, transfer to community college and do social work. I won’t, because I feel a real, genuine calling for music that I can’t ignore and I am positive that it is what I want to do with my life. But sometimes the guilt and, quite honestly, the sense of privilege are overwhelming.

A few times when I’ve had that conversation where I scare away potential new friends they’ve responded with the argument that music is a gift that brings happiness to people when you share it. This thought nourishes my burdened soul a bit, as does the act of teaching – of giving back. But at the same time I’m afraid that teaching music merely perpetuates the idea that this selfishness is O.K., and encourages a leisure-class lifestyle.

Do you think I’m being too hard on myself about this? Does anybody else struggle with this paradox, or have any advice or life experience about how to reconcile it?

11 thoughts on “Show Your Pride and Fight?

  1. philmusic

    well..
    “..creating art for a living is a selfish indulgence…”

    Only if you make it so. One can be self indulgent in any profession.

    Saying that all social workers care is like saying that all artists are creative.

    Phil Fried Phil’s page

    Reply
  2. jcharney

    I’ve thought about this before too. I think that it might be inherently more “selfish” but we all know that to ignore the pull of music would provide a detriment to our own happiness. As for altruism, what we give to the world, and what we should strive for, is providing happiness for others through our work – like a social worker might. Maybe Milton Babbitt might disagree, but I think touching someone emotionally or even challenging them to think in another way through music makes the “selfish” time we put in worth it.

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  3. ydandaman

    meaning
    I think that art is one of the things that makes our lives worth living. A doctor might save a person’s physical body, but art is what makes that life worth saving. Who’s to say which is more important? They are both equally essential to human existence.

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  4. jonrussell20

    Joelle, this is such an important issue for us to consider and come to grips with. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot, especially since my significant other is devoting her life to international development and helping the neediest, most desperate people in the world. In the face of that, how can I justify this selfish enterprise of writing music? A few points:
    1. While it’s true we’re not saving anyone’s life, our music, assuming we do it well, can slightly improve many many people’s lives. I don’t know how you can make an equation to compare these – how many slightly improved lives equal one saved life. It’s pointless to try, but I think it’s clear that both are important and worthwhile and do make the world a better place.
    2. What’s the point of saving anyone’s life unless life is worth living? Our work and artistic contributions to the world make life a little bit richer and more beautiful, and are one small contribution to creating a world that’s worth living in. True, if any single one of us stopped composing, the world would barely notice; but if composing music stopped period, the world would be a far poorer place for it, and all those lives that doctors saved would be less worth living. We are all making a small, but important, contribution to a richer, more beautiful world.
    3. Maybe there is something else we could do that theoretically would be more beneficial to the world. But if it is not what we are passionate about, would we really be any good at it? Would we really be doing it as well as it ought to be done? At least with music, all of us, I assume, believe with all of our beings that it is what we are meant to be doing, and we are putting everything into it we can and doing it the very best we can. We serve the world far better as devoted, passionate musicians than we would as bitter, jaded doctors.
    4. All this said, I think the thrust of Joelle’s post should also make us all very humble. We need to be realistic. There are others out there also doing very very important work. Our life’s work IS, in many ways, an extravagance. The world doesn’t owe us anything for what we are doing, and we should be full of humility and gratefulness that we have the basic needs met that enable us to pursue our passion. 90% of the world is not that lucky. But there’s no point in going around feeling guilty. We have chosen our path, or it has chosen us, and the best thing to do for ourselves and for the world is to pursue it with all the vitality, passion, and dedication we can muster.

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  5. colin holter

    Maybe Milton Babbitt might disagree, but I think touching someone emotionally or even challenging them to think in another way through music makes the “selfish” time we put in worth it.

    I don’t think he or anyone in his or her right mind would disagree with that.

    Reply
  6. philmusic

    “… While it’s true we’re not saving anyone’s life, …”

    Music has saved many lives and given them direction and meaning. That I know as an elementary instrumental instructor. Its our job. For me being a composer/improviser/ teacher of children is all of a piece. So, I’m a little offended by the self-indulgent moniker Joelle, as well as David saying that he is a fraud.

    Not to mention dragging Milton into this.

    Phil Fried
    Phil’s Page

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  7. rtanaka

    Nice post. I’m glad to hear that composers are thinking about these sort of things because I think it’s really important for us to understand what we are really contributing to society when we put on a concert. Regardless of what profession or how much money people make, life can throw a lot of curveballs and it’s not all that uncommon to hear people say that music has helped them to get through some of the rougher patches during their day to day existence.

    I’ve actually been interviewing some musicians lately about this question — most of the ones interested in playing contemporary music say that they do it because they feel its important to have music that comments on the specifics of living in today’s society. Older musics can give a historical perspective or maybe comment on human existence in a more general sense, but in order to move forward we do need new works.

    One thing that good musicians say, though, is that there needs to be something in the work that shows that muscians (especially composers, who’re working with larger systems) are thinking of something beyond just themselves. I’m not talking about the kind of “hey everybody look at me, I’m socially conscious!” self-serving attitude, but something that shows that there’s something bigger happening behind the notes that are being played. The nice thing about art is that the intensions of the artist usually comes through whether they want to or not. Money, power, and prestiege will sometimes cloud the issue, but in the end, self-indulgent works will quickly fade to the background because it won’t connect to anybody in any meaningful way. You can’t fake this sort of thing.

    I mean, if you want to write about how sad you were when your girlfriend dumped you that’s fine, but nobody really has an obligation to care about that kind of stuff unless you can connect that experience with a larger framework — maybe a commentary on how modern relationship works, how you were able to resolve the situation, how you able to move on, etc. It’s pretty disconcerting when you see some artists (who are otherwise very intelligent, well-mannered people) use the stage as a place to gripe about their personal problems but at the same time don’t understand why people aren’t giving them the recognition and respect they think they deserve. Something’s not right with the way art education is working right now — the things above I see as common sense, but I certainly didn’t get it in my schooling, anyway.

    Reply
  8. Jeremy Howard Beck

    The Hardest Reconciliation to Make
    I could have been a scientist. If I had gotten better at Calculus, I could have been an engineer. My older sister–who has gone on to become a public interest attorney–once asked me how I can go into music when I could be putting my brains toward curing cancer.

    I didn’t have a good answer for her then, and I still don’t. And I refuse to be one of those artists who uses art as a means to ostrich him/herself from the problems of our world.

    My solution was to start writing music about life , rather than using music as a means to escape it. For me, that meant writing a lot of music about Prop 8, including a multi-movement trombone quartet that’s going to be played at the International Trombone Festival at UT Austin in July. The important thing, if you’re going to be writing “political music” (a term I loathe), is to keep it as personal as you possibly can. Make it about your emotional and physical response to these things. Or, if not yours, then the responses of those who were affected.

    If your music is about, by, and for real human beings with real hopes, fears, angers, joys, and sorrows, then you too will be bettering the world in your own way.

    Reply
  9. pgblu

    I have heard a lot of music and thought about music in a lot of different ways in my day, but I cannot imagine what a trombone quartet about Prop 8 would look like. It’s fine if such ‘program music’ makes you feel better about what you do, but can you perhaps clarify how these things are, or might be, linked in the listener’s mind?

    Space and time permitting, of course. (I don’t live in Austin, otherwise I’d definitely want to hear your piece.)

    Reply
  10. Matt Marks

    Personally, I think guilt is an inspiration-killer, unless you’re writing a piece about guilt I suppose..

    I find there’s no reason to consider ourselves either an integral part of society or a useless part. We just do what we do and we try to break even. If it makes you feel better to write music to help heal the world’s ills go for it, but it’s absolutely not part of the job description. We’re entertainers, no more no less.

    If you feel that being a musician “merely perpetuates the idea that this selfishness is O.K.” then realize that you are also looking down on every other profession that isn’t inherently selfless, which is most of the jobs out there.

    Reply

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