Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Ad Age

Hear The Ad Age

You can respect the science of advertising.  Reading what the buying public wants is akin to knowing that, seventeen minutes ago, a one-legged woman walked through this stream carrying four pounds of Virginia country ham and a blank pad of paper.  It’s magic.

But it often seems evil magic.  A marketer who finds THE idiosyncratic appeal of a savings account or a kitchen device does us a service.  We might not have money to buy, but it’s our choice and at least those ads seem solicitous, discerning.  The problem begins when we’re sold not this car but the life that would include it, not these clothes, but what they signal… usually that we deliberately spent more than necessary… when we didn’t really have the funds at all.

Adolescents make the best targets, but no consumer is immune. Most advertising appeals to visions of what we’d like to be, and that fiction is always up for grabs.  If you know who you want to be, you can be sensible, but who can be sensible immersed to the neck in pleas, appeals, and promises?  We don’t question what we ought to desire and accept that we ought to desire all the time.  Satisfaction won’t move product, so advertisers pray we hope for more materially rich futures.  They prey on our fear we’re getting out of touch or ossified.

We’re complicit because we accept their assumption that it’s better to be impulsive than content.  We can’t be finished buying.  The beast of commerce must be fed.  It’s our duty to spend.

Maybe it’s always been this way—who was there when someone prehistoric first scratched an arrow on a rock?—but the volume of advertising static seems to be rising.  The traditional airwaves are louder.  New airwaves open up all the time.  Many new instructions to buy are cleverly embedded in innocent signals or foisted on captive audiences.

In comparison, anything un-accompanied by hype seems unimportant or dull.  When everything elicits questions of value or worth, we begin to think everything needs selling.  We’re prone to judge, perpetually assessing good and bad, desirable and undesirable, likeable and not, for and against.  We live among things we rate.

The Buddhist ideal of “living in the now” is reaching an instant free from desire.  The advertising version is finding satiation, the moment we’ll finally be—absolutely, unquestionably, rapturously—full.

Neither “now” seems possible, but at least Buddhists are sincere.  The other “now” is deliberate misdirection, a means to disappointment.

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Filed under Advertising, Essays, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Opinion, Thoughts

My Life As a Painter (Part 2)

indianprincessI missed an opportunity to direct my life’s course when I cheated on an occupational interest inventory in high school.  It was my friend’s fault.  Just before we started, he challenged me to skew every response so the test would suggest “mortician.” For the next hour, I guessed what a mortician might answer, and the test came back saying I should work alone, far away from the rest of humanity, like in a fire tower.

Even without clear results, though, I can tell you—no test would ever suggest I go into sales. I’m a lazy pusher of product and have never wanted to make a million.  I’d like enough to support my family and live simply…  and maybe go-btn-lrg_145x106buy an iPhone.

But I’m in a new reality.  My wife has been out of work for eighteen months. Like so many other families, we’re redefining “essential” and “expendable.”  A teacher’s salary is not enough to pay a Chicago mortgage and eat.  Though we haven’t accumulated the debt many have—we saved for a rainy year—the clock still ticks.  Our savings dwindle.

coriolisechoI’ve been tutoring, teaching summer school, looking for stipends at work, but my means of making more money at my job aren’t great.  Suddenly those Facebook ads telling me I can profit from writing look appealing, and I’ve wondered, can my avocations be profitable?  Can I sell this stuff?  If I can’t, can I afford to do it?

Upstairs I have a portfolio full of mixed media art on Aquarelle Arches 140 pound hot-pressed watercolor block, which costs two dollars a sheet.  I paint every weekend and usually have something going during the week too.  About one of five pieces is successful in my eyes, but as long as I’m stashing paintings in the dark, success hasn’t mattered.  Just the doing.

And, generally, I like it that way.  I prefer not to judge my artwork and think it’s easier to paint when I don’t. I am, after all, a naïve (read “outsider”) artist, informally trained.  Before now, I’ve sold paintings bemusedly, tickled that people value my work in dollars.

zatista-store_180x139But I also know… it feels good to sell artwork. If art is, as Zola suggested, “living out loud,” buying art is hearing—for the artist, it’s verification you’re worth listening to.  For the last week or so, I’ve been uploading my artwork to cite called Zatista that will sell my work for a commission, a project that has created strange salesman feelings.  I’m writing blurbs and pricing.  I’m thinking about marketing (I’m marketing now) and considering my potential clientele.

Though I haven’t used the words “Buy my art,” that message underlies everything I’ve done thus far.  It’s not that I think my art is better—I hope it gives some people pleasure but understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.  I’m not arguing it’s a good investment—who has the money to buy art now and who knows the future?  I’d just like to make a sale.

For me, these are foreign and confused feelings.  In my last post, I spoke of the artist’s faith in reaching a larger audience—but selling your work is taking another step.  Chutzpah like that is difficult duty, and I wonder if I’d enter into it if necessity didn’t push me.  People have sometimes told me not to “hide my light under a bushel.”  It’s an odd expression—I don’t see many bushels these days—but I tell myself I’m lifting one.

To be a successful salesman you have to believe in your product, and, for some of the writers and painters I know, that comes quite naturally.  For me, not so much so.  But I’m saying those words, “Buy my art.”

Maybe I’ll have to answer why I’m saying so more accurately later.  But, right now, please visit Zatista, look at my work, and—if you like it and have the means—please buy my art.


Filed under Art, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Hope, life, Survival, Teaching, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Visual Art, Work

My Life As a Painter (Part 1)

sfeer2“I am an artist,” Emile Zola said, “I am here to live out loud.”  Artists, he suggests, make the internal real.  They speak thoughts others suppress or release in daydreams.  Before we over-glorify art, however, something else needs to be said—in living out loud, artists babble and prattle and blather and blab and generally fill shared air with noise and nonsense. And they can’t shut up.

As I’ve learned on the streets of Chicago, anyone can speak out loud.  You only need to think you have something important to say.  Most artists create because they can’t NOT create.  Perhaps somewhere along the way someone offered a simple compliment—“That’s great,” or the more damning statement, “You’re good at that”—and misery ensued.

nipponThe misery is the artist’s if no one will listen, but—I’ve been on some long L rides—the audience is miserable if they can’t avoid listening.

Where does that put me?  I am an artist on two counts, a writer and a painter.  As a writer, I’d like a bigger audience (feel free to tell your friends) but, if you’re reading this, I’m not unheard.  Someone, I hope, wants to listen.

Painting confuses me.

pinkchina2As a visual artist, I fulfill Zola’s definition by turning my brain inside out.  My artwork begins with protecting a border of one or two inches with masking tape.  When I remove that tape and see the final image framed in white, I’m done.  Between those two moments, I’m not sure what happens.  Starting with a scramble of lines, my artwork pulls references from what I’ve half seen—the doodles, maps, cells, graffiti, emblems, fabric, machinery, foliage, calligraphy, peeling paint, and building faces minds absorb daily and promptly forget.

Then I ask, “To whom am I speaking?”  I enjoy painting.  I love this dialogue with my unconscious and love crafting something carefully. I usually feel making a picture is satisfaction enough and could paint everyday if I had the time and the money for materials.  Living out loud, however, also comes with an urge to show my work.

pckleavesYou’ll notice this post is the first illustrated entry on this blog. I struggle with self-promotion and could never pretend my work must be seen, that the greatest beneficiary of my art is my viewer.  I recognize I don’t have the technical skill of artists I admire.  Still, let face it, I’d love to hear someone say “That’s great,” or “You’re good at that,” and, on some level, I must believe my art speaks or I wouldn’t bother spending hours and hours making it.

Zola may have missed the most important characteristic of an artist.  All humans have the desire to be heard, but a successful artist has something more, a faith he or she speaks for everyone.  I’m hoping my unconscious is your unconscious is everyone’s unconscious.  I mean to commune, not blather, blab, or prattle.

Next Time—Selling Artwork


Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Hope, life, Thoughts, Visual Art, Writing

A Strange House

Reading writers’ journals can be like looking around the house of an absent host.  He or she left you alone, and nothing prohibits your pulling books from shelves, checking addresses on envelopes, scrutinizing photos, or reading notes affixed to the refrigerator. Yet those moments have strange—sometimes off-putting—intimacy.  Worse, you may discover something you recognize.

I’ve been skimming Edward Abbey’s Confessions of a Barbarian on Google Books. Included in Abbey’s journals is this description of a South African named Penelope, whom, Abbey says, he “fell in ‘love’ with for a few days” during a trip in Austria:

Interested in everything, all facets of human experience, she was not always interesting herself.  Mildly talented in a variety of ways but with no genuine ability in any one field, she was like me, the perennial hapless self-amused dilettante, half-worried by the slippage of time but determined to enjoy failure anyway.

Encountering this passage was finding myself between two mirrors looking down a corridor of reflections.  Being interested without being interesting is familiar, as is being a “perennial hapless self-amused dilettante.”  I am both, and, since Penelope is like Abbey and I am like her, by the transitive property… I know what Abbey is saying.

Though fascination is the weather in my life, it never seems to settle into any season or climate.  I paint a little.  I write a little.  I find music, watch documentaries, monitor current events, go to museums, surf blogs, do crosswords, follow professional journals, and periodically read people like Edward Abbey—a little.  Any one, pursued exclusively, might be something, but together they add up to just about zero. They make me a dilettante.  As for the adjectives—“perennial” in this context means “persistent or enduring,” check. As few good things happen to a “hapless” person, yes.

“Self-amused,” duh.

Abbey is disingenuous when he says he is like Penelope—or me.  He was much more than “mildly talented in a number of ways,” as the existence of these journals (this is #20) attest.  Devoted and single-minded, he made himself a writer.  In an interview at the end of Confessions of a Barbarian, he said, “An MFA in creative writing makes a lousy union card” because “thousands of such degrees are conferred annually.”  I have an MFA, and I wonder, as he does, if writing can be taught. He preferred, “A stimulus for students to write on a regular and frequent basis.”  “The most important thing in learning to write,” he said, was “simply writing.”  Not dabbling, writing.

I write and maybe Penelope did too, but the difference lies in the last phrase, “Half-worried by the slippage of time but determined to enjoy failure anyway.”  On the evidence of his prolific career, Abbey didn’t abide passing time or enjoy failure.  That perspective falls to Abbey’s lover.  And me?  Maybe you have to worry about dying to be ambitious. It can’t spur you much to make peace with screwing up.

Penelope might console herself as I do, by saying we’re not as bad as some.  In Abbey’s journal, he attaches himself to Penelope because he’s rejected by the English in his tour party and she, being “on an intellectual par with me,” he finds “delightful and refreshing company.”  It’s nice to be found delightful and refreshing, but it’s hard to miss Abbey’s hinted condemnation.  He isn’t Penelope, and some part of him knows that.

In another response during his interview, Abbey said:

If you have talent and something to say, something that people will enjoy reading, then your work will eventually be published.  In my case, the measure of success I’ve had in being accepted by readers and gaining a fairly high degree of assurance that whatever I’m working on will be published, makes it both easier to go on writing and provides an additional incentive to try harder to do even better.  I haven’t felt any slacking off in my efforts simply because it has gotten easier to get published.

Abbey made it sound as if the only difference between himself and Penelope was that he was hap-ful where she was hapless. If you have something to say, you will be published, eventually.  Yet, he also acknowledged hunger, an “incentive to try harder,” born of approval.  Far from being “determined to enjoy failure,” he embraced its opposite, trying harder knowing he would not, could not, fail.

Perhaps Abbey forgot the drive that delivered him to that status.  The everything-will-be-alright perspective did not serve Penelope so well.  It hasn’t done much for me either.

As you’re wandering around that strange living room, you may pick up a framed photograph of your host that shows him beaming, his beautiful wife beside him, his perfect children around him.  He looks fit and trim despite his age and smart in the just the right clothes for his build and color.

Here, you may think, is being right with the world.  Here, you may think, is something I recognize I’m not.

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Filed under Blogging, Doubt, Edward Abbey, Essays, Genius, Hope, Laments, life, MFA, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Tributes, Writing

Overheard in Silence

You wouldn’t know I’ve played hide and seek in failing sunlight, emerging terrified and laughing just a few feet from my pursuer. You wouldn’t know I’ve lingered in doorways at dawn and then gone on to work full days infected by fatigue and sweet recollection. You wouldn’t know I’ve cried hearing my children’s pain, realizing nothing I do will spare them loss or cruelty.

You won’t see the dangerous or triumphant or stupid or wondrous or regretful in me, but those memories sometimes feel more vivid than faces in front of me.

Every mind houses a similar store, and every instant stands against the past as better, worse… or more of the same. I hide the scenes still rolling in me and feign ignorance when I see recollection overwhelm others.

We’re civil and aloof, but pretending doesn’t hold the past back.  I should be embarrassed, but—if only for an hour or a few minutes—I’d like to say what I’ve seen and let all my memories out.

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Filed under Essays, Experiments, life, Meditations, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Writing