Never to be Taken for Granted

Never to be Taken for Granted

For most individual artists, the subject of grants and awards can touch sensitive nerves. Whether one retains a philosophical distance to the possibility of winning one, or gets knots in the stomach wondering if a grant will come, we are all subject to the psychology of validation that awards represent. Toiling at creative work in which so much of our individuality is interwoven, being recognized—or not recognized—for this hard work has deeply affected many an artist’s soul.

Every artist secretly hopes his art will make him attractive…But alone in the workshop it is the soul itself the artist labors to delight.—Lewis Hyde, The Gift

John Kennedy

And how many panels look for soul? I wonder if there isn’t a better way. Certainly, some of the bigger awards—the MacArthur, the Alpert, the Heinz—know that there is and spare artists a competitive process, instead bestowing surprise upon a lucky few. But for most of us hard at work with little hope for such a prize, there are competitions and grant applications which are mostly administered and judged with care and thoughtfulness. Yet when looked at from a distance, they often do have pageant-like qualities and unseemly variations of hoop-jumping.

I shudder when I think of the hours we spend writing applications instead of writing music. Yes, it is the business side of our work, but when we consider the number of field-wide hours devoted to a single award—by the applicants, administrators, and panels—think of the other things that might have been accomplished with that energy. Has a granting institution ever evaluated itself by quantifying the hours devoted to merely asking for its money, and determined the community hourly rate for this labor as a division of its prize pool? This, before the funds are disbursed for the intended artistic work?

What is good is given back.—Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk)
A grant is a gift, bestowed in exchange for the artist’s gift. But how do our field’s granting programs measure giftedness? Isn’t the concept of technique a cultural variable? What value is placed on the non-technical parameters of emotion, social or metaphorical function, or kinds of accessibility to performers and audiences? What is artistic "quality" in those oh-so-heavily-weighted recorded work samples that are listened to for three minutes? It may be a specialized and intellectualized process, but it seems primitive that such systems can have a deep and lasting influence on not only individual careers, but the very path of our art form.

I’m afraid that when I look around the field of new music, I’m not convinced our precious grant programs have reached their best effectiveness. There is so much good, deserving, and yet-unaccomplished work to be funded, but our processes for giving tend to be based upon long-used models that bear examination. Many of the grant programs in new music are unique as sole national sources for certain kinds of commissions or performance assistance, yet few have long-term goals or a sense of enlightened community investment. By that, I mean the trend in philanthropy which looks at life-cycle funding, nurturing complementing components of micro-economies, and the notion of community development even in the subculture of an artistic discipline. Instead, our granting programs are mostly annual competitions in "artistic quality" judged by revolving handfuls of peers, who can’t be expected to envision the wider interests of the field in their brief deliberations. We are trusting that great art is going to rise up from individual initiative in a free market system, which we do little to shore up at the base.

Does this really serve us best? Are one-off awards, with the gamble the awardee moves "up" the system and gets funded again, the way to sustain artistic excellence, nurture creators, and sustain the reach of new music into the larger community? While it is absolutely imperative that we have programs that support the independent work of individual artists, isn’t the tenor of many competitive grant programs an outgrowth of competitive social constructs that celebrate the cult of the individual? How does this influence the psychology of our successful artists, and the meaning of the art they give the world?
Our own era seems to be producing increasing numbers of artists who are content to receive their stamp exclusively from the power apparatus…and who, in their mode of life, reproduce the ideology of the society that molded them. Adapted to and perfectly at home in the system, they understand the language of these conditions and how to handle them; the world does not impose on them any mission beyond the realization of their own professional aims.—Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?
We might also ask what kinds of music and what types of applications are successful in competitive processes. It is certain that in the past 25 years, different measures and standards of professionalism have evolved, and composers and performers are expected to be capable of marketing their work when they seek funding. There are courses for this now in our conservatories, and the general cultural zeitgeist around us approves of people who present themselves with polish—even generic polish. Where does this leave eccentrics, people with less than perfect handwriting, spelling, and presentation skills, who may write brilliant music? Are panels sensitive enough to this? Do we really want a world where being a successful artist also requires one to have demonstrated other cultural modes of success and approval? We need to always have ways to defend and support difference, experimentation, and eccentricity; the history of music and its creators beseeches us and reminds us so.

Another cultural trend which has increasingly weighed heavily in arts policy is the concept of merit, as difficult to measure as that may be, particularly in judging art. Affirmative action has been so thoroughly railroaded and mischaracterized since the Reagan era – cast as reverse discrimination against talent – that it is no longer conceived of as a core component of democracy’s social contract. Maybe it can be reconceived in the terminology and spirit of Access to Artistic Excellence, one of the NEA’s present programs. There are many ways to actualize the spirit of affirmative action as a means to spread participation in and an awareness of any endeavor. If our art is to be embraced by the rich and diverse society within which we live, how can we not care about ensuring equal opportunity for access to the creative life—regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, or economic station? How can artists support equal opportunity as social policy, but ignore it or resent it in their own spheres?

In the absence of a concern for equal opportunity, the profile of those who attain access to the creative life will become synonymous with the general cultural profile of privilege. And we know what that looks like and who those people will be. Becoming an accomplished performing or creative artist usually requires a long and expensive education, and increasingly, the only young people who can afford to sustain their pursuit of the arts are those who come from privileged economic backgrounds.
The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person. Works of art are drawn from, and the bestowal nourishes, those parts of our being that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, from the group and the race, from history and tradition, and from the spiritual world. —Lewis Hyde
Funding in the arts, whether to institutions large or small, or to individuals famous or unknown, is more than ever critical to our cultural health and intellectual diversity. The people who work hard to secure it and share it, and those who generously provide it, need thanks, encouragement, and the return rewards of daring artistic excellence. The foibles and faults we may see in granting systems are the shared responsibility of all participants in the game, and modifications should be pursued by imaginative administrators and artists who speak out.

As members of the arts community, we know that our larger society is not satisfactory and that the arts can play an irreplaceable role in opening minds and hearts. We need to stand together as advocates for the social possibility of the arts, treasure the resources we can draw to our work, and share these resources generously—always remembering that art and the soul are rejuvenated by the unexpected.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.