Can’t Handle the Hustle

I want to write. I want to make art.


I need to write. to make art. to teach, to change minds and ways of thought. I crave input to generate output, but not in an industrial sense. I write better when I’m reading broadly, when I drink deep words and dream the books on my nightstand. I make better art when I hoard found objects and old books and bury myself in the work of James Castle and my former collaborator and artist-educator Troy Passey (both of Idaho).

My art, my writing, my teaching are a reflection of the world within and the world without.

I. Can. Not. Handle. the Hustle.

James Castle made books before bookbinding and bookmaking and altered books were a “thing.” My former elementary students (and some blind students within my school) made hand-stitched books last year, some of which have spent the last 12+ months touring the state of Idaho. I’ve been digging into these arts of late, and the more I learn, the more I feel crushed under the weight of performance, hustle, namedropping, and (dare I say?) circle-jerking.

I want to create, to share, to engage. I want to collaborate and build. Maybe I want to tear some things down in the process of creation. But I see my friends. The friends who put themselves into their art, whose souls I see on the page, the screen, the canvas?

Some of them are dying. We’re going broke in an economy that “corrected” itself this week, as talking heads talk percentages and investments and percentage points that are just numbers on a datastream of using money to make more money.  We’re going bankrupt in a morally bereft landscape trying to scream or throw paint into the void.

I went to the store for paint; that’s the only thing I really want to buy new. I had to wade through a lot of crap to get to the paint. I’m trying to learn from what I see, but I just sat through a 10 minute YouTube tutorial on a certain kind of bookmaking, and if I had made it into a drinking game for every time she had to a) Name drop another blogger/vlogger; b) name drop a product she “just loves”; or c) I don’t need C I am already dead.

My point here is that neither of those things were about creating art in community or collaboration. It was all consumptive affiliate linking and back-patting. Yes, artists need an audience, and hopefully we can sell a poem, or a story, or a painting, and I’d really like someone to pick up that chapbook I just poured my guts into. At the end of the day, however, I don’t want to do art for capitalism’s sake, or for the sake of consumption. I don’t do my job for the sake of the dollar, although I’d die without it. I don’t want to do this just so I don’t die; I want to do this because we live. I want to re-purpose this old shell of the Empire.

But we are dying. Our world is on fire; Idaho rejected (AGAIN, I might add), the science standards related to climate change and human impact on the environment. I don’t want to add to the demand for resources… even though I recognize my preferred media are paper and acrylics.

I can’t handle the hustle. I submit cover letters with no website, because I can’t keep up my blog enough. My health has prevented me from completing my thesis. I’m sick. I’m tired fatigued. I’m pissed, and yet I’m in a good enough place to make some noise. I just have to be my own writer and artist and teacher. Whatever the hell that means. I recognize the privilege I have to NOT hustle. And I will give credit where it is due, but I can not go in these circles where we keep blog linking and back-patting other Crafty Cathy types for making pretties.

James Castle made his ink out of spit and charcoal. We can make our revolution art out of something other than Pinterest-pretty faux-ephemera. Screw your capitalist bougie YouTube branded hustle. That might be the worst sentence I’ve ever published. It’s ok; I’m on steroids. You’ll forgive me.


What Kids “Get”

Content note: social class, classism, art, accessibility

Poor Kids Get Art!

That was the thrust of the piece by Rachel Lu in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks at the ribbon cutting of the Whitney Museum in New York.

I agree. Poor kids do get art. But the First Lady never said they didn’t:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.

And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.

The First Lady understands the both the broad and nuanced implications of power, privilege, and marginalization; this is her lived experience.

From Rachel Lu’s piece, and her lived experience:

I myself once took a group of African-American eight-year-olds through the Chicago Art Institute [sic]. Admittedly, they were from the West Side, not the South Side, so maybe they weren’t as underprivileged as Michelle Obama had been.

Once. She took underprivileged kids to an art museum once.

Later, as she showed them Monet’s haystacks:

The question inspired some rousing discussion among the group […] But eventually they started to get it. “Maybe it would be cool,” one boy remarked thoughtfully, “to see how things look at different times of the day.”

“And now you can,” I told him. “Right here in this room. That haystack is surely gone now, but the whole world can see what Monet saw when he looked at it, just by visiting this room.” We were quiet for a moment as the kids took in the room. I reflected with a tinge of sadness that haystacks and sunsets probably weren’t a big part of their concrete-jungle existence.

Here we have some reflection, followed by pity. She also takes credit for opening the students’ eyes to Monet specifically and Art in general. It reminded me of the short-term mission trips popular among my peers during my evangelical days, a kind of privileged tourism. Those poor kids, were it not for me, would never have understood [blank].

Lu’s single experience taking a group of children to the Art Institute of Chicago was enough evidence to counter the First Lady’s assertion that poor children of color do not see museums and other centers of culture as welcoming places. That is the epitome of privilege: my opinion supersedes your lived experience. In fact, the way Lu positions herself as the gatekeeper in that scenario, as the White, middle-class volunteer with the time and the knowledge, keeps the art she loves inaccessible.

In my own field, the astonished Deaf Kids Get Poetry! should give me pause. Of course they do. As a gatekeeper, I need to make sure that I am not making the literary form even less accessible than it already may be. My students proved to me this year that they get poetry–in English, in ASL, signed or spoken. My students chose their own poems this year. I helped them crack the code, but the “getting it” was in their own power. When it came to translating, I know my students see the world differently than I do. I may have the grammar, but they have the images.

My students also “get” condescension. They are tuned in to the adults around them. They know when someone doesn’t expect much from them. They know when a face or a voice is insincere. They would “get” Rachel Lu, even through an interpreter.

I have my own problems with the First Lady’s remarks. Institutions like the Whitney should be doing outreach not with the hope of reaching the next great artist or the next First Lady, but because all children should have access to the arts as a form of expression, culture, and identity. Art should be seen not just as a tool to “rise above,” but also to simply be. Art should not be reserved for the privileged galleries, although some of it is housed there. Art needs to be in the streets, on our hands, on our lips. Kids get art, they get poetry. It’s the adults who fail to understand what that means when their privilege gets in the way.