Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On "Professionalism"

Perhaps it’s a function of my personality, but sometimes I find myself making large, sweeping generalizations about the world and my place in it, and then spending weeks or months (and sometimes years) working to connect the dots, to see if I actually believe what I’ve said. I tend to act on impulse philosophically, but those impulses are often well informed, and I later find how true they were to my developing character.

Several years ago, I made one such statement to myself: I am philosophically opposed to professional sports. The statement came out of the realization that the “professionalizing” of sports has removed the activity of those sports in large part from the general population. For instance, a century ago people played baseball. Grown people, kids, it was a part of the experience of American life. It wasn’t the “national pastime” because everyone watched it on television, but because people actually played baseball. But how often does that happen now? Not much. The game has become so specialized that there’s no way the average Joe can play, or so he thinks.

Maybe it’s not “professionalism” as such, maybe it’s television, but the specialized skills involved in hitting a ninety-five mile-per-hour fastball, or in turning a double play, are skills that are only developed when you have nothing else to do. The professional athlete spends his time, all of it, honing his skills. He or she often achieves the height of human potential in that sphere. And it is moving, inspiring. I think that’s why it bothers me so much.

One of the few things that can make me well up with emotion is highlight reels. My wife knows that almost my favorite time of the year is right before New-Years when they start showing the year-end recap shows for sports and news and so forth. The “Play-Of-The-Day” on ESPN’s SportsCenter was one of my favorite things for a long time. I love to see people reaching new heights. It’s the whole ABC Sports mantra, “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” (And doesn’t your mind run the clip of Vinko Bogata, the Slovenian ski jumper, crashing at the World Ski Flying Championships in 1970, whenever you hear that line? I can hear the music.) Sports are iconic in that way. They show us what’s possible in ourselves. They used to show us what was available to all, if we only tried hard enough, if we only worked for it.

But the professional athlete changed that. There’s no way I’m going to be Michael Jordan, no matter how hard I try. It’s a combination of his natural ability plus time and money involved. Jordan practiced every day, for hours a day. Early in his career, when he was criticized as prolific scorer who couldn’t play defense, he changed his game. He practiced, and worked on his defensive skills, and only a season or two later was named the NBA defensive player of the year (in addition to leading the league in scoring that season). It’s still inspiring, his story is still a great one, but it’s inspiring from afar now. “That’s great what Michael Jordan can do, with all that talent, and time, and money. But I could never do that.”

Contrast this with the sports figures earlier in the professional era, people like Jim Thorpe, or Wilma Rudolph. People who achieved great things in an era when those achievements were accessible, they could be comprehended by the public. Now, you look at Tiger Woods’, or Barry Bonds’ records (never mind the question of steroids in Bonds’ case) and they’re just incomprehensible.


Brian Eno is apocryphally reported to have said about the Velvet Underground that not many people bought their records when they were first released, but that everyone who did started a band. I’ve seen this same quote applied to other albums, like the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” or The Mission of Burma, or “Bleach,” Nirvana’s first record. The point is that this music was not widely popular but it was immediately, accessibly inspiring in a way that the over-produced hit machine music wasn’t. Britiney Spears may have inspired a million teenage girls to sing in the bathroom mirror with a hairbrush, but the people who first heard “The Velvet Underground & Nico” actually bought a guitar, plugged it in and blew out the windows in their parents' garage. There’s a qualitative difference to the level of “inspiration,” that decreases the further you get from its source.

I realized, almost as soon as I was conscious of my feelings about pro sports that I was on thin ice. I am a musician, a songwriter and performer, and it did not escape my notice that the same forces at work in sports were at work in the culture at large, not least the arts. If I was opposed to the separation that professionalism created between the athlete and culture, didn’t I also have be opposed to the separation that professionalism created between the musician, or the artist, or the writer and culture? Here’s where it gets messy, because people have been practicing these arts for thousands of years. There has been something that could be called “professionalism” attached to many of them for nearly that long (professionalism loosely being defined as the ability to make one’s living from their pursuit). If attaching monetary gain was the harbinger of doom for these pursuits, I was wasting my time trying to “make it” as a songwriter.

I shelved these thoughts for several years. They were a little too close to home. I continued my work in radio, and continued writing and performing my songs in obscurity, which mercifully spared me the ennui of philosophical compromise. However, as time progressed I wound up working in larger arenas, both in radio and the music industry. After a couple years spent on the road tour managing a fairly well-known band, and seeing the effects of the “business” on their life, philosophy and psyche, I could no longer ignore the fact that the same forces I spotted at work years earlier in sports were just as prevalent and just as damaging in the music industry. The fans of these bands were just as removed from the actual practice of making music as the sports fan is from hitting a home run.

Professionalism, or commercialism, or whatever you want to call it, the process of an art form or any practice becoming widely successful in the public arena, reduces it to a spectator sport. In the mind of the average “fan,” why would they participate if they can’t do it at that level? Why play basketball if you can’t dunk or shoot like Jordan or Iverson? Why play music if you can’t play like Prince, or sing like Christina, or move like Beyonce? It’s poison to the arts in culture. The arts (and here I’m including the “art” of athletic performance) were made to inspire not just appreciation, but participation. They lose their power when they are only practiced by a few.

Music through the ages was not just high-art form, it was oral history, it was storytelling and community. It was worship and participation in the spiritual and philosophical life of the community. Nights spent around the piano singing the old songs were ways that families remembered where they came from, and where they dreamed of what could be. The arts are not just means of communication, of pontification; they are ways of seeing. And when we stop practicing them, we stop seeing in that way. The poet is not greater than us in his skill with words so much as in his powers of observation. He does not stand above us and point the way from afar. He stands beside us and says “See? Do you really see?” And he invites us to see with him, and experience more fully. It’s not taking the time to write, or paint or play that creates great art; it’s taking the time to see, to hear, to experience. And from that the art flows.

And we lose this when we give it over to the pros, when the only experience we get of living is vicarious. I don’t want anyone seeing for me, or hearing for me. I want to see and hear and sing and play and run and throw and experience it all myself. Then maybe I will have actually lived, otherwise I can’t be sure.

So what about the question of money? Am I prostituting my art if I take money for it? A lot of people think so. And I’m not one to easily disagree with them. But isn’t my art or my labor or my practice worth something? It certainly is. And I’m not the one to determine the value of that. But I know that there’s art that builds, that inspires and creates more, and there’s art that separates and dulls and elevates itself above the populace. And I don’t think the difference is as simple as some “high-art versus low-art” dualism. I think it lies in the heart of the artist, and in what they intend. If I practice my art with the intention of making money foremost in my mind, then I am not likely to bring life through it. But if I practice my art for its own sake, for the enjoyment of it and for the experience it gives me of seeing the world and myself in new ways, then I am on to something. And whether or not I make money from it, I will be a richer person.


That’s where I am with my writing now. I make a little money off it, now and then, but not enough to support a life or a family. I still hope that one day I might be able to do it “full-time” in the sense that I create a life where I’m fully invested in the pursuits that my art involves. And I am cognizant that writing full-time means not less actual living, but more. You can’t write if you’re not experiencing things, if you’re not involved in and participating with the lives of those around you. That’s one of the great tragedies we inflict upon our stars. We make them rich and rob them of the reality that made their art great in the first place. As someone said in another context, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” I suspect that the life I dream of would look something like a playground, where we would all be doing the things we love, and out of that love would come concern and care for others that would not allow us to neglect the larger concerns.

There are many things I do now for money that are not as “creative” but that I still enjoy like carpentry, or design, or the management of artists (all of which are creative in their own ways). I like to think that if I were practicing my art full time I would continue to do those things, only I would enjoy them more because my income was not dependent upon them. Yesterday I was a little depressed about my songwriting. I wrote this in my journal:

My son never waits for a better time to create something he cares about. When he gets the idea, he does it. His ideas are always fresh and exciting to him. He doesn't second guess himself, or edit or get neurotic about what people will think of him for saying something or writing something or drawing something. He lives in the moment.”

I want to learn to play again. I want to write music that no one will ever hear, and make it beautiful and full of wonder because that’s what I see in the world. I want to run and jump and throw and catch not because I have to keep my heart rate up for twenty minutes, but because it’s exhilarating! Because when I run I feel like a deer, and I’m amazed at how fast I can go. Because when I throw a ball and someone catches it I marvel at the coordination of body and mind to send something up through the atmosphere, into the unknown, and have it come down precisely where I hoped it would. I want to sing not for who might be listening or what it might get me, but because it sounds like the wind in the trees... simply for the sake of the song.

1 comment:

Zara said...

I'll bring my mitt to cycle in July. I like to play catch. I did tryout a few summers back for a womens league in Brooklyn. Apprently I was too good and they didn't have any openings for someone at my level (whaaa???) and they'd put me on the list for next season. Of course I'll never have a summer to myself again I'm quite sure. Too much runnin' around. At least I tried.

But FYI people do play basketball. I know plenty of guys that go out to "shoot hoops" but yes, it definitely doesn't happen enough as it should.