Part I: Passion and Ignorance
We talk, in this country at least, about following one’s passion, but I think we don’t mean it. Or rather we mean it only insofar as our passion comes with a 401(k) or can lead to a multi-million-dollar-a-year contract. As long, really, as our passion is a recognizable, definable career -- or just a little hobby that doesn't disrupt our real careers.
My life in art has led me into the camp of those who believe that being an artist is not about expressing oneself. I hold with those who consider art-making a type of public service – whether social-justice-minded or not. That we may be the descendents of the temple priests, helping to intercede with the gods on behalf of the people. It’s a vocation, an office not more divine, perhaps, than many others, but just as useful and necessary as many generally considered useful and necessary.
Lately, however, two masters I respect immensely have told me – separately – the same thing when challenging me to create new work: Follow your desire. But haven’t both of these teachers told me – for years – that art is not about my personal shit? That I should not make it for myself? To express myself? To indulge myself?
What were they really telling me? Or, what had changed?
At the same time, I’ve recently found myself in various conversations about doing work that should be for “the people,” work that should look to do something for people, work that is “socially engaged” or “community oriented.” Art for others. These terms tell me – even if they are also paradoxically a product of a continually evolving market of personalized, immediate, direct entertainment – that there is an inclination even within the artistic and marketing strategies, to reach to people more directly. I like this. And yet, as one of the aforementioned masters – who is engaged in this pursuit – reminded me: I am not a social worker. I should not pretend to be one. I have a particular vocation, particular capabilities, and should not imagine I can do someone else’s job. I think even the en vogue performance descriptors seem to be leaning this way – “immersive”, “interactive”, “site-specific”, “interdisciplinary.” So, how to proceed?
How do these – following my desire and reaching out to others – coincide? I think they stem from the same place. I posit that these are a reaction to the same thing – the same ol’ thing: the ever further commodification of art, its continual blending with a careerist (dare I say ‘capitalist’?) ethos of entrepreneurialism and venture capitalism, and a constant desire for one-upmanship. I think it’s related to our society of high-speed service and high-speed disposability, always selling the “newest” and “most innovative” product (or production) – and making it obsolete in moments, so we that have to jump for the next one.
What effect does this have on some art makers? Our discussions too often center on making something “cool” and “new”, essentially, whether we recognize it or not, to show off. We follow what we think will impress people or satisfy ourselves, but not our deeper desires, our real human needs that might lead us to work that can do something. Working, humbly as we can, from our deep desires in service of something greater. Hermes needed something to sacrifice – he couldn’t just holler up to Zeus; he had to give up the meat he craved to eat, to actually incinerate his deep desire in order to ascend to Olympus – to give up what he wanted for what he truly desired.
I think this is what these masters are telling me. I think they are telling me to reconnect, to engage with religion (in its earlier stages of meaning): either to bind fast (religare) or to reread (relegere). To go to my root, not to look for something new, innovative, never before done – haven’t we known for millennia, at least since Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun? – but to search through my desire towards something universally human: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. I think they have a point: When I get lost in the brambles of artifice and career and survival – and my smart ideas – making work makes no sense. Even think of these terms we use now – “making work” and “producing content” and “generating material” being among the most offensive for a process of artistic creation, taking Fordist-style industrial language for the ephemeral act of artistic creation, capitalist jargon for an altruistic contact.
A new vision is called for from many corners -- and that new vision may come from an old one. Maybe one that doesn’t follow primarily questions of funding, how to make a living as an artist, making society value the artist, how to make something new -- but follows simply our deep, human desires.
Yes, this is impractical. Maybe that’s exactly what we need now -- impracticality. Maybe it’s to reconvene with the practical purposes of art – to join people with each other, wisdom with the unknown, ignorance with passion, my desire with the world. This is where I think these two points come together – my desires and art for others. Or, rather, this is where I see that they are not at odds. What I believe my teachers are telling is that, A, much of our work in New York (at least) has become divorced from our deeper desires and therefore become hollow, and, B, by connecting with that need and connecting that need to other people we might be led to create powerful, useful art – to create rather than reproduce. To sacrifice – to make holy – my own shit.
That’s why I want to keep questioning the careerism through the art I make. I realize doing so is not cool. It’s also not new. It’s not practical. It’s kind of played out, and others do it better than I. Still, I have to do it. It’s what I desire. And it’s the sacrifice I believe I have to make. Is this ignorant? Sure. As a wise friend of mine likes to quote Ikkyu: “without passion and ignorance none of it works.”
Like anyone else an artist likely has to sacrifice to survive – unlike many other vocations I think an artist must sacrifice in order to be an artist. Not suffer; I don’t mean we need more tortured artists, or that all artists should take vows of poverty. I mean to make clear-hearted sacrifice of what she thinks she wants in order to ascend to Olympus. To sacrifice and surrender – and it should be joyous. I think that training the capacities for these actions opens space inside us and provide a kind of perspective on our societies that can allow us to make a deeper work.
But, with inherently bourgeois goals at the fore (making a living, making a name, dining out, vacations, etc), our work, I think, doesn’t go anywhere. This is my struggle. I was born bourgeois, and this run deep; it conditioned my worldview. I fight it because personally, for myself, I need to. I think that that engagement is the source of my art – at least for now.
This is what I think my teachers meant when telling me to work from my desire – emerging from my desire, reaching out to others, and what seems for me a clear mandate to engage my banal, bourgeois impulses and mindset, which I see replicated in many ways in the world around me – even in the theatre industry (we call it an ‘industry’!) And, this should drive the work I’m doing and in fact fight to manifest itself in every facet of my art.
I don’t mean to say I can overthrow a system or even work outside a system – or change it in any way. For me, the challenge is to dialog with the system, rather to engage in a dialog between my ideals and my circumstances. To engage with different systems and a continual questioning of how we do things – and what is needed in each instance and each moment, to see what possibilities I can find in my mind and, maybe, in others'.
I firmly – fervently, zealously – believe in the almost (maybe completely) sacred tasks of questioning, of disrupting, of making impractical choices. To not succeed even in finding answers, but to tirelessly, stubbornly, refuse to do things the right way. And maybe thereby open little spaces to question the way we do things, from the human scale to the societal. I think this is an artist’s vocation. It’s also stupid. Passion and ignorance.
What follows in this series is a sort of journal of my attempts to ask these same questions through practice in the creation and performance of Wistaria, the piece I’m making currently. To struggle to embody these questions in the way of working inside and outside of the studio, to find with my collaborators our own way forward in asking the questions about us and our society that we need to ask. Next: Part II: Wistaria, The Current Case
Jeremy Goren is a theatre artist and Black Studio Fellow. He has performed in more than 40 live works in New York and Washington, D.C., and is a long-time member of Terra Incognita Theater. He also teaches theatre to teenagers at Abrons Arts Center and is currently a candidate for the M.F.A. in Performance and Interactive Media Arts at CUNY Brooklyn College.