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Worst time in history to be an artist!” James, an impeccably-dressed gentleman, said this to a circle of friends one evening a couple weeks ago. Inside, the Art Auction benefit was happening; outside, the artists themselves were drinking spiked punch, smoking, thinking big thoughts, passing judgment on the state of the world.

Artists, I responded, are like cockroaches: you can’t get rid of them. Not many appreciated what I meant by this statement; surely, said another, I could have chosen some better creature to represent the artist. But no, hear me out.

The Cockroach is my spirit guide. Cockroaches were here before the dinosaurs; and if our planet is one day made unfit for human habitation, the cockroach will probably survive. As any honest exterminator will tell you, cockroaches will never be totally eradicated. A spot of grease in a dark corner is all they need.

Make no mistake, artists are an endangered species; or, at least, what I call art is under threat. The reason is obvious. Art is a gamble. We follow our bliss, do what we love, but those things seldom pay the bills. Thus the creative person stands a better than average chance of ending up broke and homeless. Artists, poets, writers, musicians, dancers — Did I leave out anybody? — are, like homeless people, often imagined as parasites; unless, that is, they get lucky, and become the one in ten thousand who gets rich and famous.

The myth of the Tortured Artist (antisocial, “nobody understands me,” wears dark clothing) is obsolete, we hear. Once upon a time, people superstitiously believed that artists had to suffer for art, but that old-fashioned stereotype doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. The New Dispensation promoted in creative circles (which apparently originated with their psychotherapists), goes something like this: suffering is out, money is in. According to this reasoning, the Tortured Artist just needs a prescription for antidepressants and a good business plan. With the right help, they can tap into their creativity and find commercial success.

This sounds to me a lot like the Prosperity Gospel nowadays being preached in a certain brand of religion. You artists, we don’t mind your acting all artsy-fartsy, so long as you don’t overdo it. But stop your whining. Don’t be so gloomy. Try to make positive, upbeat stuff. Nobody wants to hear bad news. Tell us something bouncy and cheerful.

Above all (and here’s the rub), stay on message. The Suits may be tone-deaf, and regard art and truth as products to be bought and sold, but it’s the Suits that control the flow of money, so if you want some of it to flow your way, better suck up and do what you’re told.

Call me crazy, but artists aim to change perceptions. When the art world is hijacked by the Suits and made a tool of propaganda, then it is the duty of artists to bite the hand that feeds them. Sometimes professional suicide is the only way to stay true to oneself.

When government and big business pursue an unhealthy agenda, then (that is, NOW), we need artists to awaken us, to bring us back to the real reality. When somebody tells us that it is legal, and therefore right, to take away somebody’s home, for instance; or that it is illegal, and therefore wrong, for somebody to live in their vehicle or to sleep on the street, when they have nowhere else to go (see the first part of this sentence): then it is the job of the artist to set things right.

Art used to be both practical and magical. (Look at prehistoric cave paintings.) Art was neither the special province of elite individuals, nor merely decorative. Art was used to change reality, to acquire what was needed for the survival of the whole tribe; namely, to attract the animals that were hunted for food. Everybody in the tribe was a some kind of artist or another, because art was necessary. Dancing brought rain and fertility. Songs were used to bless and to curse.

“When the art world is hijacked by the Suits and made a tool of propaganda, then it is the duty of artists to bite the hand that feeds them”

 The problem remains: How, in the modern world, to make a living by art? What gives the artist an edge?

While I was mulling this over, a musician friend of mine supplied an answer; one, at any rate, that works for him. He plays classical guitar in public spaces, and somehow, I hear, makes a living.

Now, if you want to make money in the music business, received wisdom is that beautiful women have to get up and dance. (If they don’t do this spontaneously, hire some to dance for you.) Still, I thought, he must have some killer chops, if he can play jazz standards and J.S. Bach and make money.

Once he mentioned ordering silver make-up, but my mind was on other things. Later I thought … Wait, why the silver make-up? Well, he said, I wear a gorilla suit when I play. I ought to mention that he has recorded a CD, and has been noticed in the press before now. You can find him online by searching for Marzipan the Classical Guitar Jukebox Monkey.

Does it really make a difference? Yes, he said. He makes ten times as much when wearing the monkey suit.


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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