Change the Story

Yesterday, in my post “Gatekeepers” about the frustrations experienced by the young Impressionist painters at being rejected for inclusion in the Paris Salon, I asked several questions: why did it take the actions of an Emperor for a group of rebellious avant garde artists to conceive of success outside of the the Paris Salon? Why did it take the most powerful man in France to empower these artistic geniuses?

I find it astonishing that 150 years ago these young artists,  bohemians all living in defiance of acceptable French societal norms, were unable to conceive of a way of exhibiting their work that did not involve gaining permission from a group of eight ancient members of the conservative Academie des Beaux-Arts led by a government aristocrat, the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, who scorned the new artistic forms as “too democratic.” Two years previous, in response to being rejected by the Salon judges, the best they could think of to do was to gather as a group outside the windows of Nieuwerkerke and chant loudly, thus interrupting his social gathering. Pathetic.

But they were stuck.

They had absorbed a story about how to launch a career as an artist, and had never questioned its wisdom or necessity. Had Napoleon III, who was decidedly not an artist, not been up for re-election and seeking to bolster his image as a democratic leader by insisting on the creation of a separate exhibition for the rejected artists, they might have contented themselves once again with pounding on the table of some Left Bank cafe while raging against the injustice of being thwarted by a bunch of septuagenarians. And destroyed several rejected masterpieces in the process!

collapseTen years ago, Fran Korten wrote in an article entitled “Change the Story, Change the Future,” that “Every culture has stories—received wisdom that defines and confines what is viewed as possible and right. When we think about how to change the world, we must think about how to change the stories.” She illustrated the power of these stories by recounting an historical incident described in  Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond told a story, Korten wrote,

“about a Viking colony who for 450 years eked out a living on the southern coast of Greenland. Around 1400 AD, there was a series of very harsh winters that decimated the amount of hay that the colony had to feed its livestock. The livestock, which was the colony’s primary source of food, began to die off. Despite the fact that the local waters teemed with haddock and cod, which could have served as food in place of the livestock, and which the neighboring Inuits used to feed themselves, the colony eventually starved to death. Why? They wouldn’t eat the fish because they had a story in their culture that said that eating fish wasn’t “civilized,” wasn’t acceptable, wasn’t done. ‘Vikings don’t eat fish.’ And so the colony died – killed off by a story they told themselves that undermined their own survival.”

Similarly, the French Impressionists almost saw their own artistic colony killed off by a story they told themselves. They had never found the intellectual freedom to question the necessity a gatekeeper system that was killing their art.

icarus-deceptionOne hundred and fifty years later, little has changed. Artists are still telling themselves a story that that leads them to give away their power to gatekeepers. In a section entitled “Someone Else’s Dreams” in his book The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?entrepreneur Seth Godin tells a “true story,” indeed an all-too-true story, about a performer named Sarah.

Sarah loves to perform musical theater. She loves the energy of being onstage, the flow of being in the moment, the frisson of feeling the rest of the troupe in sync as she moves. And yet . . .

And yet Sarah spends 98 percent of her time trying to be picked. She goes to casting calls, sends out head shots, follows every lead. And then she deals with the heartbreak of rejection, of being hassled or seeing her skills disrespected. All so she can be in front of the right audience.

Which audience is the right one? The audience of critics and theatergoers and the rest of the authorities. After all, that’s what musical theater is. Its pinnacle is at City Center and on Broadway, and if she’s lucky, Ben Brantley from the Times will be there and Baryshnikov will be in the audience and the reviewers will like her show and she might even get mentioned. All so she can do it again. This is her agent’s dream and the casting agency’s dream and the director’s dream and the theater owner’s dream and the producer’s dream. It’s a dream that gives money to those who want to put on the next show and gives power to the professionals who can give the nod and, yes, pick someone.

This is the plot of A Chorus Line, isn’t it, best described in the desperate cry of the opening number: “God, I hope I get it. I hope I GET it!” Pick me.

“But wait,” Godin continues:

Sarah’s joy is in the dance. It’s in the moment. Her joy is in creating flow. Strip away all the cruft and what we see is that virtually none of the demeaning work she does to be picked is necessary.

What if she performs for the “wrong” audience? What if she follows Banksy’s lead and takes her art to the street? What if she performs in classrooms or prisons or for some (sorry to use air quotes here) “lesser” audience? Who decided that a performance in alternative venues for alternative audiences wasn’t legitimate dance, couldn’t be real art, didn’t create as much joy, wasn’t as real?

Who decided that Sarah couldn’t be an impresario and pick herself? The people who pick decided that. When Sarah chooses herself, when she makes her own art on her own terms, two things happen: She unlocks her ability to make an impact, removing all the excuses between her current place and the art she wants to make. And she exposes herself, because now it’s her decision to perform, not the casting director’s. It’s her repertoire that’s being judged, not the dramaturge’s. And most of all, it’s her choice of audience, not the choice of some official, suit-wearing authority figure.

The Impressionists didn’t need the permission of the Academie des Beaux-Arts gatekeepers — they just needed a place to hang their work. Sarah doesn’t need the permission of a director to perform– she just needs a place to dance.

These stories that we tell ourselves about the absolute centrality of the “right audiences” simply serve as self-imposed obstacles to sharing our songs,  our dances, our emotions, our lives.

Creative Insubordination happens when you finally free yourself from these stories and take control of your imaginative activity. The first step is the hardest — the step in which you take back the power you have been giving away and take responsibility for your creation. Once you’ve broken free of those chains, the rest is easy.

Can you do it?


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