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Rising Tides and Floating Boats

Humans are tribal animals. We carve out teams and we despise enemies and we build fences and we assign names. Our evolved biology is sublimely equipped to nomad ourselves around in groups of about 150, combating other bands of wanderers and generally raising hell. However, as you may have noticed, you live in a city, and us humans will continue to do so in greater proportions as time marches on. All of which is to say our evolved biology isn’t quite as effective at navigating the modern world as it was at navigating the nomadic plains. Now, there are a whole HOST of ways in which this severely bones us (more posts coming in the future), but I want to specifically address how this affects artists.

Small tribes in constant competition tend to see everything as a zero sum game. If your tribe has MORE food, my tribe will have LESS food. If you drink too much clean water, there won’t be enough left for me. If you impregnate that reproductively-fertile woman, I will NOT impregnate her. And so on. As it is basically unchanged, our biology encourages us to approach the modern world in this same way – and sometimes, it can be effective. After all, not everyone in the world can eat healthy food, not everyone can be wealthy, and not everyone can impregnate Salma Hayek. However, many things in the modern world, such as love, generosity, creativity, and freedom certainly are NOT zero-sum games, though we often treat them as such. Through our nations and states and civic groups and political parties and sports teams and extended families, most of us have managed to corral our animal instincts in order to navigate these modern waters, but there is one group that is terrible at it – artists. We don’t really tend to like each other very much. More specifically, we tend to see other artists as competitors.  Rivals. Not part of “our group.” Artists form theatre-club cliques and rival improv groups and painting schools and opposing schools of thought and specialties/sub-specialties/sub-sub-specialties in the school hallways of their PhD programs. Writers don’t talk to magicians, dancers don’t interact with painters, musicians don’t deal with actors, post-modernists scoff at modernists… but we’re all the same team. We certainly have enemies, but they ain’t other artists – we have an entire culture to wrestle against. Somewhere along the line we let biology get the best of us and we decided that art is a zero-sum game, requiring divisions and competition and backstabbing for true success. In small ways, this is true. Only one actor is cast for every part. There are only ten books on the NYT Fiction Bestseller list every week. There (thankfully) isn’t room in the market for two Biebers. But I promise you this: every artist you’ve ever met is on your team. Every single one. They’re on your team because the inspiration they can provide FAR outweighs any competitive repercussions. The dancers, the authors, the painters, the musicians – they will infuse your thinking and jolt your process and if you make them your enemy, you will lose. If we, as creators, expanded our “team” up a level or two, if we were all “artists,” then the friends we resent or the strangers we are jealous of become suddenly helpful to us. Those people making it, that’s OUR TEAM doing well and, as we know, that confers all SORTS of benefits to us as individuals. Increasingly, as art education and music education and theatre classes are gutted, slashed and eviscerated, we need to fight back by producing great work and defending the boundaries of our team. How do you defend art? By defending artists. Your friends, your connections, your network. Your team.


As a postscript, what I wanted to say here was that I am inspired by you, my friends. Many of you are more successful than me (like, a LOT more), many of you share my struggles, but all of you create and you work and you cause things to exist in the world that weren’t there before. I support you as my team in this fight, and by wanting more for you, I want more for myself. It’s not selfish, it’s not altruistic, it’s friggin’ biology.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Jo Perez #

    Well said. Ok for me to share that w/my school’s drama teacher? Or put it in the school paper w/some judicious editing?

    April 17, 2012

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