Saturday, March 20, 2010

Does Creativity Require a Day Job

About ten years ago I had a conversation over a beer (or a few) with the poet John Greiner, who is also a very close friend of mine. Actually some of the thought provoking conversations on art, philosophy, food and drink have been with John on a Friday afternoon in a bar in Manhattan.  This particular lament was over the fate of the poet as an occupation. I had assumed that John was unhappy by the fact that it is impossible to make a living as a poet. This seems unfair from a values perspective to me. Poetry has always been one of humanities purest ways of communicating the personal, the natural, the political and the spiritual. If you were to judge a culture; its sculptures, paintings and poetry are of fairly equal importance. Doesn’t Homer tell us more about the ancient Greek imagination, and Dante of late medieval Italy than any business of that time? In 20th century life cinema has also made a lasting impression in the artistic landscape.  All of these other art forms though have the potential of making the artist a lot of money. The artist Jeff Koon’s is a muti millionaire from his contemporary sculptures. Even playwrights like David Mamet are very wealthy due to royalties from plays. Steven Spielberg is a billionaire. There is an obvious difference with poetry, which is that the sales of poetry don’t fit into the capitalist incentive structure of these other arts. It is hard to build reputation with a poem, even with sufficient hype, that can be monetized. Sotheby’s doesn’t auction off the latest book of poetry. Poetry readings aren’t shown on prime time television. So, the inability of poets to make a living writing poetry is fair in a market system, but such economic theory rarely gets in the way of John and my utopian dreams of the purpose of art. What he said surprised me. He said that it is better that the poet can’t earn a living with poetry. TS Elliot worked as a banker and editor. Many poets work as teachers. John said that even though he is a poet, he didn’t resent not being paid much for his poetry. From what I remember, (sorry John if I get this wrong) he said that by not having a financial motivation, the writing was uncompromised by money. Also, working other jobs keeps you an active part of society, which feeds the expression in the poems. This conversation, which we have had more times throughout the years, has not only stuck with me, but in some ways inspired me to publish my own poems.

Since that time ten years ago, much has changed due to technology, which puts other more traditional types of writing in much the same boat as poetry has been. Journalism is no longer what it used to be, as newspaper revenues suffer, and staff is being eliminated. Writers are turning to new media, like blogs, where they are not paid. There is original thought, and a very democratic freedom to this expression, but for millions of people writing essays, commentary and criticism, it is for the pure love of doing it, not to make a living. Photography is another example. A high art, where photographers were rewarded well, has become a vehicle for amateurs. Or perhaps the amateurs are becoming professionals, but just aren’t getting paid for it. The open source movement in software design is even like this. All of this concerns me in some ways, as I have always said that the ability to sell art is important in validating art. This is not to say that the amount attached to the acquisition is equal to the quality, just that it is one way to show that the artist is dedicated to an audience. This is one of the biggest questions of our time. How do incentives affect quality, and how do they reflect our values as a society? I don’t know the answer to this. Perhaps John and I will solve this over a few pints when I return from Paris.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

You Are Not Your Avatar

I responded to an article in the New York Review of Books about James Cameron,  and his exploration of what it means to be human. I have not just heard this talked about with Cameron lately, but it is an old, tired, but still somehow mainstream philosophy-light concept. I have mentioned in my blogs before that I think there is no place in modern thought for mind body duality. We know one thing with near certainty, which is that the mind (the brain) is an organ in the body. A separation from it has been speculated on by philosophers such as Plato and Descartes, but neither of these brilliant men had the tools for understanding the brain the way we do now. While the big question, the one of why we are conscious at all, is still being debated and studied, the neuro-physical partnership is well understood. I was in Athens this week and had the strong feeling that despite mythological gods and beasts, and Plato’s elevation of the mind over the body, the Greeks in general did understand the physical nature of being. The sculptures depict athletic beauty in ways that are so convincing that it is impossible to remove the mind from the physicality. In fact I would argue that theatre itself is a dedication to mind body singularity. The transformation of characters to people, is an example of muscular and memory cognition. It is also why two actors never play a role the same way.

It is understandable that we are questioning these ideas again. For once a virtual world seems actually possible. Even contemplating the downloading of the entire brain seems one day likely, as computer memory increases. The Avatar in Cameron’s film is farfetched, but not impossible. I would like to propose that a very different outcome though would occur, if it were possible to separate mind from body, in the Avatar sense. The resulting person would be nothing like us. Imagine how we change even in our own bodies. When we are sick for instance. Or when we are drunk. Or when we break a bone. To speculate on having a whole new body, other than brain is hard but not impossible. A paraplegic who was paralyzed in an accident essentially takes on a new body. The one thing that they don’t do however is take on a new brain, whether that brain is biological, as in Avatar, or a computer. If this were to happen axons would be farther from certain receptors, synapses would happen differently. Memory would last for different amounts of time, as all tissue behaves differently. Perception would be different. In essence we would not be ourselves. We could not remove our body from our mind. This doesn’t mean it would not be a fun thing to try, and I am game if anyone wants to try after my demise, but I just don’t think the new me will be my charming self.

This actually came to me in a rather decadent moment, while I was sitting in a spa in Athens. Sitting in spas in Athens is a great experience, because wrapped in those towels, with a foot bath, you really do not feel so far away from the baths Sophocles may have been taking while listening to Plato ramble on about a better republic. What I thought though, was how much the relaxation of my body affected my mind. Surely the Greeks thought of this too. When the water is bubbling, or you are having a message, it is nice to be yourself, not an Avatar.