Art vs. The Artificial

I’m taking a brief break as I try to power through an all-nighter to catch up on work (since I actually have work available, and since I may well just get canned any time now.) I’ve just cracked open a Rockstar energy drink — making me suddenly and sharply nostalgic for the season I spent as a stagehand.

I spent those days fueled mainly by Rockstar energy drinks, cheap pizza, ramen, and a unique combination of overexertion-adrenaline, panic-adrenaline, Art-endorphins, and acute social anxiety/shame. I was never not working, it felt like, and I was never remotely good at those things I was working at (being too short, too weak, too slow, too uncoordinated, too afraid of heights, and otherwise too terrible.)  But I was backstage again, and helping make theatre happen again. Even though I tended to end up doing the simple gofer oddjobs so that the useful people weren’t wasted, and even though I still think 95% of people there hated my face, even though I was in copious pain most of the time, and even though I wound up wounding myself as well as getting laid off at the end, and even though the pay was a slap in the face.  Especially when we were working La Boheme, an opera all about impoverished artists.  La Boheme, with its brand-new set with ridiculously huge and overelaborate scenery, meticulously designed to look like bohemian squalor.  La Boheme, for which we were paid minimum wage with no benefits, so that the rich patrons and donors could watch it and continue to fund future shows (and the wages of future bohemians.)  You could’ve smothered in the layers of irony.

…And I still think of it as the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.

I remember stumbling home from the bus stop, boneweary, sneezing black from the dust of ancient drops, peering at my arms in the sunlight and finding the day’s fresh bruises and scratches that the stagelights didn’t show.  I remember how my cheeks and ears felt forever burning with guilt and fear of my inadequacies, from all the simple tasks that were so disproportionately hard for me, whether carrying a flat or climbing a ladder or not stripping a screw. Forever torn between a fear of being seen as the worthless weakling and the overly-ambitious tryhard – that is, when I thought the rest of the crew noticed me at all.

So why was I doing it?  What was the appeal?

There’s an ambiance in a theatre that’s not matched anywhere else.  It’s a place where the borders between Art and Reality are both so blurred and so knife-sharp.  Scores of people do nearly impossible things with wood and paint and cloth, with voices and bodies, with lights and gels and props, all day each day for months.  Blood, toil, tears, and sweat.  Dashing ourselves against the limits of plausibility, possibility, and damned common sense.  Against our own fourth walls that divide our perceptions of ourselves from what we might be seen to be.   “It is what it is” was the eternal mantra. Whatever It was, It was never quite enough, never quite right, never quite good, never quite anything. The directors always wanted something else, things never quite went together as they should, something always went wrong, and after a point you just had to throw up your hands and surrender to it.  It Is What It Is.

And I saw myself as the same – never quite enough, never quite right, never quite good.  Never quite anything.  I felt my limits so acutely, and in such fine detail, so self-similar and self-containing that I could swear it took on fractal dimensions.  Finding shallow solace only when I was so tired that I couldn’t care anymore, and all I could do was surrender.  Surrender to the limits of my petulant body, surrender to the absurdity of the directors’ demands, surrender to the drama, surrender to Dionysus or whatever mad muses haunt the modern stage.

But somehow, that very hollowness seemed to make me more fulfilled.  The gulf between expectation and reality seemed miles wide — until the show itself.  And then, even from my post backstage, even though I’d done so relatively little to contribute… that great theatrical Something swept in.  It filled in all the gaps in me, even and especially the gaps I didn’t know I had, until I felt myself brimming with energy.  Cheeks flushed and neck tingling again, but with that ineffable aesthetic thrill, those chills, that invisible electricity that made the small hairs stand up, made the goosebumps rise.   So autonomous and unthinking, so much an animal response, but so much a sublime one as well.

In that moment, It still was what It was.  I was what I was.  A whole and very finite thing.  But the perception had flipped, the suspension of disbelief had been triggered, the aesthetic surrender was underway.  And for those few moments, those limits – that border between Art and Reality, Self and Other, Transcendent and Immanent – could be felt so distinctly, so minutely, that I could feel how imprecise it actually was – how it contained itself within itself, over and over again.  A finite area with an infinite border.  To the point that it didn’t dissolve, but took on a dimension deeper than any simple line could be.  The fractal fourth wall.

Those moments of electric aesthetic surrender – whether they’re from theatre, a particular swell in a song, finding just the right note as I try to play something by ear, figuring out just the right word to write, hearing or reading some evocative speech, whatever – are some of my favorite moments in life.  The ones that I have helped create, even in some small way, even moreso.

For all I know, nobody else feels that, and I sound like some sort of lunatic because this is just more neurological miswiring, and my brain actually short-circuits itself if I let it get too happy.   But that’s how it is, and it’s marvelously affirming – not just self-affirming, and not just giving faith in humanity that these things exist, but an almost completely abstractified Yes.  I want to make things that give myself that sensation.  I want to make things that give other people that sensation, presuming they’re similarly wired!   Since I’m already imagining things, I want to be able to afford to make such things without being evicted or starving to death!  Even if I -were- evicted and starving on the street, I’d be hauling my filthy carcass to the library computer lab and STILL writing every day; still seeking out ways to have, generate, and possibly inflict that sensation.

But you can’t always get what you want.  A song which, I might add, gives me that very same sensation.  Here!  Have some!

But what am I doing now?  I’m taking a break from a job that has me home every day, sitting in a chair in my pajamas, being paid to be overly analytical about the Internet.   A job of strict guidelines, of pedantic distinctions, of interpreting a world of information and expression in accordance with criteria.  A job devoid of all art.  A job where even the analysis is not my own.  A job that leaves me exponentially more poor than I was when I was working minimum wage on stage crew – financially, socially, mentally.  Feeling useless, soul-sapped, and self-reviling, my worth subject to so many factors beyond my control, all of which are almost completely external.  Most of which are arbitrary.

I find the job – find myself – reducing myself to the same kinds of criteria.  Am I useful?  Am I of sufficient quality?  Do I answer what I ask of myself?  Or am I misleading myself? I keep telling myself that this is just what adulthood is – being stressed, being miserable, being bored, being unfulfilled, being tired, being ashamed, being guilty, being serious, being practical, being rational, and putting on the act that we’re all okay.  Feeling artificial.  Feeling guilty for not being conventional enough.

But which is the false self?  Which is the act?  Which is art and which is artificial?

I have an idea of myself as a writer, as a potential creator of some kind.  As a thing that may have Art in it.  But then there’s the idea of myself as someone who could – in fact, SHOULD – be content as a cubicle drone or similar functionary. Playing the role of a Normal Human Adult, striving to work in an office, wear the business casual costume, recite the lines.  Every day the same blocking of bed, car, cubicle, lunchroom, cubicle, car, bed.  Same cast of characters to deal with every day, all of them following their own routines.  All for an invisible audience, and someone hidden in the distance – watching, judging, giving us notes – if we’re lucky.

One act certainly seems more practical than the other – but if it leaves me all gall and wormwood, what’s the worth of me?   Have I set myself up to accept that I don’t have worth, so that I never actually address the questions of who I am and what I want out of my life, and never feel I’m worthy to know, or to seek it out?

I’ve been sitting on this post for two nights now, trying to answer all of that.  Knowing that I can’t; that if I could answer it, I wouldn’t be asking it.  That if I knew what to do about it, armed with that answer, I wouldn’t be asking it.  That if I felt like I was capable of doing it, armed with that knowledge, I wouldn’t be asking it.

For most of my life, until quite recently (and even still I frequently backslide,) I’ve thought myself utterly undeserving of happiness, a sense of self, or any but the most basic and biologically necessary interactions with the world.  I tell myself that I have a duty to other people, and to myself (whatever that’s worth), to be smart and responsible and rational and to never take stupid risks and never make mistakes. To avoid bothering or inconveniencing others at all costs. I tell myself that it’s infinitely better to miss an opportunity by inaction than to pursue and opportunity and fail. I tell myself that happiness is a privilege to be earned only if that duty is fulfilled. That it doesn’t matter if I did get to spend all my time writing or creating – I’d still be awkward and discontent and unworthy and self-loathing because that’s just the kind of person I am, because I’m just not the kind of person who can do things right. End of story.

But maybe that’s all somebody else’s lines. Other peoples’ idea of my character. People long past, who knew and judged a person who isn’t even Me anymore. All an act, in short, and one that I’ve become a little bit too good at method-acting – and one with all the makings of a tragedy.

After all, the times I’ve felt most like myself – and, strangely, all the times I’ve seemed to gather the most friends – have been those times I was intentionally playing around with my identity and behavior. No lies, no bullshit – just intentionally disregarding my old ideas of who and what I “should” be, who and what I think I am, and instead trying to write and talk and behave like the person I wish I could’ve been.

Was it an act?  Kind of.  But, oddly, it seemed to let in more truth.  By acting like someone who was maybe allowed to be happy and strong and funny and powerful and smart and capable, and by not poisoning the well with my honest self-opinion, and by not getting those concepts shot down, I began to feel like I was – or could be – that kind of person after all.  And maybe it’s true.  Maybe I can fake it ’til I make it. Maybe I can eventually earn the right to deserve some sense of fulfillment – if not aesthetic, then maybe just a sense of accomplishment.  Maybe I don’t have to be a drone.  If I try to write more (that is, more things that aren’t emo type rambling like this crap), or try to paint more, or otherwise try to art more, suspending the search for justification and just sincerely letting myself do it anyway… then who knows.

I’m not going to be so selfish as to say that happiness or self-worth are needs, but still:

If you try sometimes, you might find….

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