UPDATE: Jason Berry has uploaded the Culture or Commodity video which greatly helps put this post in context. The phrase used was “find a way.” I wonder how many artists get lost while “finding a way?” Also, while everyone did a very good job on the panel I want to single out Deb Cotton and Brian Boyles for their insight. /UPDATE
Full disclosure: I help organize the Rising Tide Conference. I have more of a role in the presentation of the conference as a whole and a smaller voice in the nuances of programming.
In hopes of continuing the conversation in reference to the Community or Culture panel of the past weekend’s Rising Tide Conference, I seemed to be left wanting a lot more. More along the lines of contrasting New Orleans versus a pandemic of cities throughout America that are destroying their culture and providing paltry assistance to the arts. Here in New Orleans, we have one that is showing some interest in it as a viable and sustaining part of its future and that’s being poo-pooed by folks because they don’t want their sensibilities in regards to that culture tarnished.
I get it. Commodification of the culture is bad. All bad? How bad? Any good?
Where is the line? What’s the difference between investing in the arts and commodifying them? I don’t have the answer. The lines haven’t been drawn. But, like pornography, you know it when you see it.
While current second line issues and bar permits are certainly making the natural spontaneity of our culture quite viscous, I’m not entirely sure how that really reflects on the corporate commodification of the culture. The culture’s being fucked with, sure. But how it is being fucked with in regards to profiteering is not clear to me. Does it exist?
Now, Ho-Zone? Yes, that smelled like corporate commodification.
But the very real issue of having a robust community of viable artists who can pay their bills and are free to pursue their craft full time and are equitably rewarded for that is just left out there on the vine. And when given a chance to address it, a panelist on the Culture vs. Commodity panel said artists will make do like they always have done.
To be honest, making do, or getting by, or whatever the usage was during the panel, is quite suggestive of not having anything left after the bills are paid each month. And that’s not exactly good enough. We have to have an underfunded musician’s clinic here in New Orleans because getting by isn’t good enough. The “day job” exists because getting by isn’t good enough.
I understand that no one wants some corporate Disneyland representation of our culture depicted by insensitive companies throughout the city. But, letting the artists eat cake sucks too. Artists die, get on drugs, lose all their money and so on.
Take playing guitar as just one example of many. Playing just standard guitar in a band takes skill and practice. Maybe not a lot but, at least as much as, say typing or tailoring. More than bartending. But even the best guitarist, the ones who are naturally talented and then have added years of practice and skill and mentoring to their skills are still doing as they have always done and just getting by.
Of course, there is always the joy of it right? But what does that commodify? Happiness. If something you do sucks, you get paid more. If you enjoy it, you get paid less. Somewhere in there a truly sinister commodification exists. If you suffer for us, we will pay you for it. Minimum wage.
And how about I get a little personal?
My wife is an amazing jazz singer and songwriter. She is also a very good Standardized Patient Coordinator for Tulane Medical School. But while a number of people could be brought up to speed and trained in her job at the school, far fewer could provide her vocals and songwriting to the New Orleans music scene.
She is also a homeowner here in Algiers. Our house is in better shape now than when we moved in. She has the sensibilities to buy a nice old house and to care for it. She’s a very good cook who frequently forgoes Wal-Mart for Rouses and the Gretna family-owned supermarket Casey Jones and while at these places, buys all manner of local products like beer, canned goods, hot sauce and so on and so forth.
So she is a great New Orleanian. She’s not a native, but she’s contributing across the board to many of the best parts of our culture because she is an artist herself and can discern the organic stuff from the corporate shit. And that helps the rest of us, a lot.
However, rather than having the comfort level and security to use her voice to make her way here in New Orleans and contribute to its ongoing cultural legacy, she too, even with a day job and her night gigs, is “getting by,” “making do,” “finding a way.”
So, while the selling of our culture by corporate entities is indeed dirty and whorish. The main ingredient in the argument must always be the continued viability of those who contribute to it. And not just getting by like they always have but actually prospering, having health benefits, raising children, buying homes, getting resources, tools, supplies to better contribute and perhaps even inspire?
While locals do their best and certainly supplement a lot of incomes, corporate, tourist and civic dollars help tremendously. Musicians may bemoan corporate gigs, but they take them and sometimes, they even have a good time there. And most of the time the corporate gigs pay far more than the local establishments like, oh I don’t know, Balcony Music Club for example.
My wife was taught early by a local trumpet player that $50 makes “a gig.” You may show up and put a tip jar out and get a percentage of the bar but if you make under $50, it wasn’t “a gig.” Corporate gigs are always “a gig.” Now understand, we are talking about $50 fucking dollars for a night’s work by what we like to call the best musicians in the country.
Sometime’s my wife comes home and shakkes her head and says, “It wasn’t a gig.”
So is an artist supposed to forgoe health care and a mortgage and “get by” simply so someone’s sensitivities to what they think the culture should be won’t be offended?
The thinnest line in this battle was brought up after the panel on Saturday. Certainly a Mardi Gras Indian with a tip bucket in front of him in Jackson Square feels wrong. There was a notion that these Indians are rogues who got their hands on a suit of some sort. There was a notion that the Big Chief of these tribes would put a stop to this if he only knew. How the Big Chief is supposed to have missed someone in his feathers in the busiest square in town with picture after picture being taken of him for a few years now was left out.
But if this isn’t some rogue element, and it’s real Mardi Gras Indians out there, then that means that members of some tribes are also simply trying to get by as well.