An ugly trait of our society is that we tend to see people’s value primarily in terms of the goods they might produce. We even tend to see ourselves this way, to want to maximize our productivity, to be able to demonstrate ourselves as worthy. As I’ve come to notice this ugliness more and more, though, this has raised a dilemma for me: I know that this worldview is shitty and exploitative and dehumanizing, but I also deeply value art and believe that it’s worth spending time to make it.
Everything that human society has produced it has done at the cost of some portion of a person’s life. People trade pieces of their lives with each other to make each other’s lives more enjoyable, whether directly by means of friendships and other relationships or by spending time on producing goods and services which they trade with each other. Money hypothetically facilitates this exchange, provides a layer of abstraction which makes it easier for large groups of people to exchange pieces of their life in ways which are valuable to each other. In the abstract that’s wonderful, but in practice this leads to Problems: It leads to stockpiling – people hoarding away money and goods, keeping away chips that each represent seconds and minutes and hours of another person’s life, and offering no benefit to anyone. It leads to exploitation, someone with relatively more resources taking labor from a person with relatively few in exchange for the abstracted, liquefied version. It becomes an end in and of itself, a method of power and class rather than of helping people exchange their time in beneficial ways.
A person’s time can be used to create things that are beneficial for others, and that’s beautiful. Unfortunately, rather than us giving ourselves, we are being taken. Rather than nursing, we are being milked. The entire apparatus of creativity becomes implicated in a monstrous crime.
There’s a temptation when faced with this evil to discard its fruits entirely. This is probably the proper approach on a greater structural level, but less so when it comes to specific objects – that is, yes, the exploitation needs to be stopped, but the goods themselves still represent slivers of a person’s life, and that should be treated with respect. The things we make are important. The things we make are still part of us, even if the method of their making is contemptible.
The old promise of automation was that it would save us by reducing how much of a person’s life they had to spend making each individual object. The bulk of the time could be offloaded to the machines, leaving the person to manage the work using a fraction of the time. In practice, of course, this resulted in people simply being let go, and made even more vulnerable to exploitation, driving the trade value of human time, of human life, down. Not down far enough, though: Companies started building factories where human time and life were even cheaper, and then automating those factories so each individual put into them could produce even more. The low price of these goods directly reflects the contempt in which we hold the people who actually produce them, though that contempt is negotiated through the corporations themselves so that we seldom have to acknowledge it directly. We are incentivized to create poverty and suffering so that human life is worth less in some places and we can make affordable trinkets. The old twist about a machine being powered by lost souls has come true, but it’s every machine, brought into existence by sacrificing a small but significant piece of another human being’s life.
Yesterday, at the time of this writing, was Thanksgiving, a holiday about gratitude – a sentiment I can largely get behind, at least in the abstract. When I was taught about Thanksgiving in schools, we learned the story of how the kind native Americans taught the Pilgrims to survive, and so this day became a day of feasting and gratitude. This was, again, an abstract gratitude, and in no way impeded the progress of the subsequent genocide. We mostly eat turkey on this holiday so have a tradition now of the president pardoning a turkey, which is a funny joke about not killing a bird except – was the turkey supposed to have committed a crime? Why are we pardoning a creature to excuse the crimes we intended to commit against it? Surely we should be begging the turkey’s pardon. It’s funny the way crimes and punishments tend to fuse together and cipher for one another.
Today, at the time of this writing, we have another holiday called Black Friday: A holiday about buying things, consuming those fragments of human life that have been shaved off into technological marvels. Mostly, when we talk about being thankful during Thanksgiving, the American version of gratitude is being thankful to be an American, thankful to be here and not in one of those countries where human life isn’t worth so much, and where they make the electronics we buy on Black Friday. Thus we can more efficiently reap the benefits of making other countries worse.
They’re an interesting pair of holidays: Having what you need, and then desperately wanting more.
As an artist, how can I produce in this context, without feeling that I am exploiting or being exploited? The first and, perhaps, most difficult lesson is learning what my creative resources actually are. What can I put into my art? Not just in terms of skill and talent, but in terms of how much time and energy I can capably invest into my work. We’ve been trained to think that eight hours of work makes a complete day of work, but that’s quite a lot. You might be able to put that much in, but maybe you can get more done by putting in 3 and then putting 3 into something else that needs to get done; or maybe by putting in an hour or two here and there; or by going on creative binges that last a few days but leave you exhausted once a month. I’m still trying to discover what my personal alchemy is. The goal is to find what I can produce readily and calibrate my work to that. Once I’ve done this, I can at least and at last know when I am working and when I am not working – I constantly felt like I was always half-working, not really putting my all in but not really able to relax. If you try to put more of yourself than you have to give into something, you start burning yourself, like burning books to stay warm or burning muscle to keep from starving, you’re consuming parts of yourself that weren’t meant to be used this way, and that will have consequences, sooner or later.
Finding a way forward is a matter of balance – of putting the time and energy I have in the places where they do the most good, of finding the art where it’s lying most ready to be found instead of wasting resources trying to hunt it down.
Allocating time that isn’t time for work and then not just spending it sitting around doing nothing is still hard, though, because I have no idea what I want to do with myself beyond make things. I feel isolated in a way that sometimes bothers me, feel a need to make new connections with people, but also simultaneously have a loathing of all the baggage of unfamiliar social situations and potential conflict that comes with meeting people. Even more than working on art, it can be difficult to cut off from spending extra time and energy on a social contact once you’ve already reached your capacity for putting in that sort of effort – and, unlike art, the damage caused by doing so clumsily can have deep ramifications.
Left to my own devices, I might spend forever happily tinkering with my own projects, existing in stasis – but the world keeps moving. Sooner or later, something I rely on is going to break, there’s going to be some sort of disaster that throws me off balance, and if I don’t expand outwards to discover a world beyond myself before that point it’s just going to be that much worse. I feel myself becoming isolated by degrees, and I’m reminded of Edmund McMillen’s game Aether. Aether is a short game where you play a child flying around space on an octopus-like monster. As you visit different planets, there are creatures there with simple problems which you can solve, and as you do the planet blooms. However, each time you do, when you come back to Earth it’s slightly smaller. The game ends after you solve every planet’s problems and come back, and the Earth is smaller than you are, and crumbles when you touch it. It’s a metaphor for getting lost in creativity that I keep coming back to, because I do feel like my connection to the world is very tenuous in some ways, anchored by just a few people and places.
I’m reaching out and trying to touch these two ideas at the same time, of creating things of worth and beauty and of building connections to new people and places. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m at least getting better at making things without completely losing myself to that process. Perhaps once I get really good at that it will make it easier for me to expand outwards. The challenge then will be learning to want to.
We’re all burning our resources and trying to do it the best way we can, to make the best life we can for however long it lasts. If we must burn up, let us at least warm each other in the process. It’s up to you to find out the way you burn brightest, and longest, and kindest.