The utility of art as a life-changing vehicle does not interest certain artists, and if that's how they feel, so be it. But the scarcity of resources in communities of color demands that every educated adult become active in some way in altering the status quo. This especially includes artists, who have historically been the most passionate voices of longing, of dissent, of protest in their communities.
As a published journalist from the age of 14 and a budding playwright, I studied with writers from the Watts Writers Workshop in the late 1960s who impressed upon me the need to integrate my artistic impulses with everything I did. This meant creating opportunities to use my skills in every facet of communication, ensuring that personal and universal truths resonated everywhere.
When you do this with integrity, following a socially trained conscience where it may lead, money will most likely become available. If it does not, you may need to develop new skill sets that allow you to communicate ideas with clarity and passion. What you must never do is compromise the truth as you see it or forgo a commitment to use art to fully explore the human condition. That's what art is for--to illuminate the darkest corners of life and to help others appreciate the beauty of the human spirit.
Eschewing money for its own sake, or posturing as an "artist," is a pathetically empty gesture. On the other hand, selling out by promoting ideas you don't believe in passionately, or beliefs that degrade humanity, is a cardinal sin for an artist. Other sins would include the propagation of false messages; failing to speak out against violence; and undervaluing your art (and therefore everyone else's) in the marketplace.
Another sin is listening to the mocking voices of those on the sidelines. If you make money with integrity, people less successful will often accuse you of selling out; if you don't receive attention or make much money, they'll say you're no good. And in this town, if you use your art to take dead aim at both the conservative and liberal establishments, pointing out their obvious hypocrisies, you'll be blasted from the left and the right.
That's when you'll know you've made it--not by the size of your bank account but by the symmetry of your criticism.
Mark Anthony Rolo: Last winter my late Ojibwe mother spoke to me in a dream: "Guess what, son? Creator doesn't do fry bread over here!"
"Yer showing up in a vision just to tell me that?" I asked.
"Hey! Don't push me. I didn't like you in that life, and I could easily not give a shit about you over here," she warned. "Listen: What's all this 'being Indian is as good as gold' bull going around? You know, when I was a kid, the only thing being brown got me was a thick ruler on the knuckles from Sister Heid."
"Oh, but these are modern times, Mom," I told her. "These days Indianness is a commodity. If I played my application check-boxes right, I could unseat Jim Northrup as this state's Native darling. Imagine me draping a string of beads around my neck, sticking a feather in my hair, and busting into a little powwow two-step. You know, they give big money for that, Mom. It could lead to a solo gig at the Ordway. Even better, what if I wrote a book about how Sister Heid tried to beat the savage out of you? Ouch! That Hurts, Sister: True Boarding School Confessions would have 'em weeping in the aisles at the Hungry Mind. Or I could dig out a few phrases from Cousin Earl's Ojibwe dictionary. Grant applications written in Ojibwe are pretty much hands-down winners around here.
"But fuck 'em. I ain't selling out my red ass for any arts-foundation money. My culture is not an aesthetic. They want feathers? Let 'em go stare at a flock of flamingos at the zoo. I don't pose. And my art is no form of racial therapy to help white people deal with their guilt.
"Hey, if dressing up in Indian drag improves my chances of getting a Bush Fellowship, then screw 'em! This Indian is allergic to buckskin. If the State Arts Board insists on some raw, red ass, then they can fund this photo shoot: I'm stripped naked, in bed, lying in a fetal position, and hugging up to a just-cut white birch tree. Mom? You there?"
Mark Anthony Rolo is a local journalist and playwright.