6.11.2010

The metrics of joy and the prison of assumption.

There are some things like joy and love and anticipation, affection and aesthetics that defy measurement which is a dicey proposition since we've devolved into a culture that falls back on "metrics" to explain everything.  Even whether or not we're having fun.  Here in the states we have a history (at least men do...) of buying things based on specifications.  How many horsepower in your car's engine?  How many megapixels in your digital camera?  We also analyze our recreation the same way.  How would you rate this on a scale of 1 to 10?  We're pretty sure now that cholesterol isn't a good way to predict heart attacks but it's one of the easiest things to measure so our doctors do the test and accept a vague and unproven causality.  Cardiologists could measure homocysteine levels but it's more costly and the usual remedy for high levels of homocysteine is more folic acid and B vitamins and nobody makes any real money from that.  But I have digressed.  My point is that we've become a measurement culture and we seem less and less disposed to understand the value of things that can't be measured.

For example:  art, serious music,  live theater, great books,  gentle talks over coffee,  time spent just thinking,  any experience that can't be labeled, "extreme", "intense", "wicked" or "hot".   We're edging that way in photography all the time.  I'm sure someone will soon come out with software that measures the "quality metrics" of your images and gives you a grade for the technical achievements.  83% for that headshot because you didn't have sharp focus on the tip of the nose and the backs of the ears.  97% with the extra credit for perfectly matching back lights.  

But, of course, by the time you create the metrics all you've really done is codify the progress of photographers at the top of the Bell Curve.  Institutionalized a new stasis.  A new middle of the road.  Created a new speed bump for a generation of artists.  If we are to grow as artists we need to accept stuff that looks different and stuff that's not even on the metric radar.  Next time you see art that you don't get, don't dismiss it out of hand.  It might be the next great thing.  Very few revolutions come with their own set of measurable markers.

And that drips over into another thing I've been thinking about today.  The life of the artist.  And the assumptions of our culture.  Which is tremendously aspirational.  We don't seem to aspire to art the way we aspire to make millions, live in a house the size of a factory, drive fast cars, live with supermodels or tip doormen outrageously.   Even though we are, as a culture, aspirational we can be rational and in our pervasive rationality we expect people to expect certain assumptions.  Here in Austin the assumptions go like this:  You WILL need to own a car.  The closer you live to downtown the cooler you are.  You will want to eat Sushi.  You do want to own a $6000 bicycle.  You will go out.  To fuel these priorities it's assumed that you will have a job, predicated by a college degree and you will work at this job for 50 to 60 hours per week.  You will do this with the vague aspiration that you'll strike it big on a start up or an IPO and you'll retire at 40 to go off mountain climbing for the rest of your life in Nepal or somewhere equally cold and cool.

But the rational underpinning assumption, by the time you reach your forties and have the responsibility to pay the mortgage and for kids and their braces and French horn lessons and soccer camps and all the other trappings, is that you better like what you're doing enough to keep at it until at least 65.  Because all that money you've been making seems to be covered with Teflon and slides through your wallet like designer bottled water through a mid-day jogger...... And you work and work and at some point you look over your shoulder and it's too late.

While the storybook artist hits "delete" on all those layers of responsibility and gets directly on with the process of doing the art at any cost.  The material trappings of successful life  don't have the same allure and value to the committed artist.  The reality is somewhere in the middle and everything is a compromise.  I'm unfair because I presume that everyone secretly wants to do their art and they don't want to do it in the two weeks a year they have off from their job or in the evenings when they are already exhausted or on the weekends when there's so much to do that was put off over the course of the work week.  But the reality is that we're all somewhere on the continuum.  You may think that doing art is total bullshit and that you're happy doing just what you're doing.  And I'm good with that.  You may think anyone with a "real job" is a robot moron and I'm not going to say "I'm okay with that".

Somewhere along the line I think nearly everyone buys into the assumption that it's impossible to have a life outside of the 9 to 5.  Not just after the 9 to 5.   I know too many entrepreneurs and artists and swim coaches and writers to totally buy into the "must have a real job" deal.  But you must be willing to confront the idea that you might be miserable doing your art.  Not enough money.  Not enough socializing.  No quick fame.  etc.   Sometimes you trade the job for freedom and the steak for macaroni and cheese.  And trying to juggle both worlds requires incredible discipline.   Everyone has their equation for sacrifice and comfort but it's good to pull out the calculator and check it every once and a while.  You never know when the numbers might have shifted.







It's friday. All I can think about is swimming.

There's this moment when you push off the wall in a perfect streamline and the water is rushing past all around you.  It's the closest that human beings come to flying.  Shut down your computer.  Leave the office and find a pool.  Jump in and push off the wall with your hand locked together and your arms stretched over your head.  Keep you head in line with your body and push off hard.  Point your toes after the push off.  Then feel the glide.  You'll never want to go back to work.

Speedo Vanquisher Optical Goggle, Smoke, 5.5