Deity or Destitute

In the comment section of yesterday’s post, Carter Gillies warned about succumbing to the temptations of survivorship bias and only holding up a few successful cases as examples to emulate.

The tales of college dropouts that became millionaires as an argument against education, for example.

On the other end of the spectrum, I wonder if there is a way to tell a compelling story about being an artist that doesn’t involve angst and disaster.

We hear stories about successful celebrities who are secretly plagued by depression and self-doubt.

There is idealization of the starving artist that suffers at the edge of poverty, but occupies the moral high ground because they never sold out and became commercially successful.

Zen Pencils, one of my favorite sites for illustrating inspirational ideas, featured the words of self-taught pianist James Rhodes. There was a link encouraging people to read the whole piece from The Guardian on which the cartoon was based.

Amid the inspiration thoughts was Rhodes’ confession that he didn’t approach the cultivation of his skills in the most constructive way:

I didn’t play the piano for 10 years…. And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven – to be a concert pianist.

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure…

While I appreciate that the inspirational idealism of the piece was leavened by a recognition of reality, this hardly recommends the life of an artist.

As I was riding to work recently I heard an interview with someone who talked about the value of experience of live performance over recorded performance in the context of something going wrong on stage.

I will admit that I have spoken about experiencing a performance live in these terms myself. When I heard this expressed on the radio, I wondered if we really should continue to use the opportunity for something to go wrong as a selling point for live performance. Can’t we find a more compelling rationale to convince potential audiences that they should invest time, money and energy in being present at a performance than the promise of seeing someone screw up?

People who work in the arts inevitably says how fulfilling their lives are despite the challenges. There is often a sentiment expressed along the lines of not being able to imagine working 9-5 behind a desk.

I understand all this. I can identify with it having lived it and spoken in these terms myself. I know sex, danger and suffering sell. But as people in a creative industry, isn’t there an interesting narrative that doesn’t involve incurring physical and psychic scars along the way?

Or won’t we allow ourselves to have a relatively mundane experience? Does our narrative have to involve suffering of some sort in order to be valid? A little bit of martyrdom to make us special for not having settled for a conventional life?

I will openly admit to participating in and perpetuating some of these narratives. I have only just started to think about how to craft a compelling narrative about the arts that doesn’t evoke the blessings of unnatural talent or noble suffering, so I don’t have any clear answers in that regard at this point.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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