Sunday, March 27, 2005


Maybe it's superstitious of me, but I see synchronicities as good omens, as signs that my mind is getting in flow, perceiving glitches in the Matrix. For example, when I hear on the radio that Ute Lemper will be singing at BAM with the Brooklyn Philharmonic on Saturday, and I pout and say aloud that I wish I could afford to go, and check my email to find that the Not Only Brooklyn newsletter announces "Special Promo for NOB subscribers, 50% off tickets to hear Ute Lemper." Then when I decide at the last minute to drive instead of taking the train, because BAM has a parking lot and I can listen to the News from Lake Wobegone on the way, and upon arriving I discover that BAM's event rate parking is $13.57 plus tax, payment of which would more than nullify my 50% off ticket price, I drive hopefully around the crowded streets listening to the NFLWBG, and a gigantic parking space appears in my headlights right across the street from BAM, and, bemused, I park and listen to the end of NFLWBG, then go on in and hear Ute. On the way home I listen to New Sounds, where John Shaeffer is playing selections from Ute Lemper's album, "Punishing Kiss," because the special guest produced it.

Ute was so worth it. The Brooklyn Philharmonic wasn't too shabby, either. I stayed for the "question and answer" period afterward, not because I had any questions, but just to get full value for my evening out. Ute was in conservative, Philharmonic mode; she sang a lot of Weill and quite a bit of Piaf, and "Ne Me Quittes Pas" with the ironic edge softened to near-extinction. I shed tears. Hearing her live made it clear what a consummate professional she is; every nuance, gesture, expression, breath and syllable was perfectly considered, judged and articulated. In the interim I eavesdropped on people with European accents discussing how "the satire is much softer and more ambiguous than I would have thought," regarding her rendition of Weill's "Seven Deadly Sins," and they were right. Her range of emotional subtlety was incredible.

On a perhaps irrelevant note, upon reading the program notes I discovered that I somehow managed to purchase Ute's latest album, "But One Day," a full three months before its official release date. You can find anything in the East Village if you know where to look.

Today, thinking back on the concert, I realized what a profound influence it has had on my views about art, having a mom who is a trained classical musician. Let me amend that; having a mom who is a classical music SNOB. I won't say that the snobbery rubbed off, although it probably did. But growing up with symphonies and Anglican choir music and Van Cliburn contestants stampeding through our household, along with being chained to the piano keyboard every morning at 6:30 AM until I rebelled in the tenth grade, gave me a healthy respect for artistic discipline. The classical music world may have its politics, intrigues and injustices, but by and large it is a strictly hierarchical meritocracy. People with talent who practice seven hours a day usually get somewhere. People without talent who don't practice usually get booted out of the orchestra. There may be a certain amount of jostling and whining about racism and sexism and chair placement, but, particularly with the instatement of blind auditions during the last decade, if you sound good you ARE good. End of story.

And then, god help me, I went to art school in San Francisco.

Another female friend, who shall remain nameless, freaked out on me lately. Things are probably okay, though she hasn't returned my last phone call; I think both of us need a break. This female-friend-freakout thing seems to be a regular occurrence with me; so regular that I've gone through and beyond taking-it-personally-with-severe-emotional-distress, and out the other side. I've started noticing patterns.

By and large, female friends who freak out are 1)close friends of mine, supportive almost to the point of cathexis; 2)involved, or trying to be involved, in creative careers themselves. Problems arise when our different creative careers start to evolve out of lock-step. Then, instead of being the loving, supportive friend I have come to rely on, they suddenly pick fights over trivialities, start calling me arrogant, lose my web address, forget my birthday and the name of my boyfriend, and have an important shopping engagement on the date of my opening. Hmmmm.

Not all my friends do this, of course. There are lots of folks, thank god, who come to the openings year after year, buy art, agitate on my behalf, cheer at good news and send care packages when I get dumped. These people Get It. They get that all of us struggle, all of us need love and support, all of us are on different paths at different paces, and that's Just Fine. We can wave at each other through the trees.

But it is the cathected female friends who Freak the Hell Out, and I'm tired of it. I don't mean to cast slurs on my own gender; guys freak out too. But with guys it's more straightforward. They want to sleep with you, you say no, you say yes to some other guy, they freak out. Then either they get over it and are your buddy forever more, or they don't and ride off into the sunset. I won't say that guys don't get professionally jealous, but the professionally jealous ones don't get close to you in the first place, unless they married you before you got famous. They show up at your openings only to get an in with your dealer; then they stop acknowledging you. Jerkish, but simple.

My views on my own career are pretty straightforward. At the age of twenty I realized I could either be an artist and possibly be happy, or not be an artist and definitely be unhappy. I knew it was going to be hard. I didn't know just how hard, but I have never had any regrets. I have often been lazy, but I've never lost sight of what I wanted to be, and I have ordered my life around this goal. I've prioritized studio space and studio time over money, family, lovers, social status and (to some extent) friendships, although I value my relationships highly and put a lot of energy into them. At the age of thirty-seven I have to acknowledge the probability that I will never have children, for lack of time, money and commitment; objectively speaking I don't have much to show for it. I'm often frightened, lonely, tired and in pain.

What I don't understand is why so many of my friends think I can carry them. Maybe they don't consciously think of it that way. They THINK they are being supportive, 'collaborative,' community-oriented, and politically correct. But I have literally had a friend call me up and say, "Serena, we should collaborate on a children's book! I'll write the story and you can illustrate it. My English isn't all that good so you'll have to help with the writing. Then we'll get it published; I don't know much about that so you'll have to do the research and networking and correspondence, since my spelling and grammar are so bad. Then we'll donate half the proceeds to abused children! How about that!" Or, "Why aren't you including me in your business plan? I know I'm not very good with money, and really disorganized, and don't know anything about bookkeeping or project management or grantwriting, and I've been under a lot of stress lately and have more than I can cope with, and I'll be busy with other projects for the next nine months or so, but it's really unfair of you not to include me." Or simply, "You sold another painting? You're making out like a bandit!"


Listen, friend, for every juried exhibition that I got into and you didn't, there were twenty I got turned down for. For every painting sold I spent ten times that amount in tuition, studio rent and supplies, and worked a thousand unpaid studio hours. My "successful" gallery cost me a year and a half of capital, another thousand hours of unpaid labor AWAY from my studio, and an excrutiating amount of heartbreak. I'm out of capital and I'm hanging onto my career and my equanimity by the skin of my fingernails.

Any more of this and I will become a fucking Republican. I'm starting to notice that a lot of people who talk about justice and collaboration and community really mean "I'll take the control and you can have the responsibility." Or "You do the work and I'll take the credit."

Then I listen to Ute, and I realize that she's brilliant because she PRACTICED. She studied and trained for years, and became fluent in French and English and German, and studied dance and acting and voice in three countries. That's why she brought down the house at BAM. Not because she blackmailed the Brooklyn Philharmonic with threats of discrimination lawsuits, or wept all over her 'best friend,' the guest conductor, until she got onto the program.

I apologize for moralizing.

1 comment:

badgerbag said...

aaaaaaa! the guilt! I'm sorry I'm one of the flakey ones... cavalier and careless...