Sunday, August 2, 2009

ARTISTS IN DEBT : THAT'S JUST THE WAY THEY ARE

AN ESSAY

Sometimes I genuinely identify with stories I read in the news, especially when they involve credit, hardship and creativity. You might think that those three issues do not arise in tandem very often. But they certainly have in my life, and apparently they have for photographer Annie Leibovitz, too. See For Annie Leibovitz, a Fuzzy Financial Picture, N.Y. Times, July 31, 2009. The article tells us that Annie is wrangling with a bank for control over her intellectual property catalogue, which she pledged as collateral for a $24 million loan last year. It looks like she will lose. After all, law favors the creditor; and Annie hasn’t paid her loan back. Pretty soon, a New York County sheriff will escort bankers into Annie’s home. Armed with clipboards, BlackBerries and appraisal books, they will seize her priceless works—all pursuant to contract, of course.

How did Annie sink so deeply into debt? How could such a “successful” artist be so dissolute? The article offers a striking answer: “The mind that can take these extraordinary pictures is not necessarily the same mind that is a perfect money manager.” Put simply, Annie Leibovitz doesn’t think about money. Her head is in the proverbial “artistic clouds.”

And there is nothing wrong with that. Annie may not get along well in this world, but she will live on long after she dies. In the end, people will remember her majestic portraits, not her petty disputes over loans and cash advances in fiscal year 2009. Put simply, “money managers” die and no one cares. Annie Leibovitz’s lender will die one day and be forgotten the next. But “flighty artists” with “money issues” die and leave behind a transcendent testament. It is true: Creative minds do not sit well with the banal concerns of money, credit and day-to-day management. The same gifts that make them unique make put them at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to “everyday administration.”

Yet it may not be fair to simply assume that Annie’s money woes derived purely from her “artistic nature.” Although sources in the article say that she had always been “notoriously bad with her expenses,” that she “never turned things in on time” and “forgot to pay bills,” apparently she faced some genuine hardship, too. According to the article, Annie lost both her parents, her life partner and gained two children within five years. Perhaps she let her finances go because she really didn’t give a shit after losing the most important people in her life.

I can understand that. My father died three years ago and I will never be the same. His sudden death completely undermined my belief in “traditional life pursuits” because I saw that they all come to nothing in the end. Losing one parent is a cataclysmic psychological event, even if you don’t recognize it when it happens. Losing both multiplies the impact. And losing a life partner intensifies it even more.

I identified with Annie because I have suffered similar personal losses in a relatively short time. Within a year after my father died, my life partner suffered a catastrophic injury that landed him in the ICU for over a month. His heart stopped twice on the operating table and his doctors said he probably would not live. He recovered, but he has never been the same and will remain permanently disabled. I have been at his side ever since I received the dreaded 2 AM phone call alerting me that “your friend in the emergency room” two years ago. All this happened before I had fully processed my father’s death. It confused and deepened my grief. More importantly, the two events combined to make me deeply question every path I had chosen in life. They made me question assumptions I made about money, career and happiness. In a word, personal calamities—especially the death of parents and loved ones—force you to fundamentally reevaluate your life. Things that once seemed important suddenly seem ridiculous. After all, when your life’s foundations can suddenly evaporate in an instant, you can never really take anything for granted again. And you learn to doubt every plan, because nothing is certain.

I am a bad money manager, too. Even before I suffered my personal setbacks, I recoiled from money because it always struck me as “petty.” “Making money” requires careful, unexciting, mundane daily administration fraught with threatening financial consequences. Basically, it requires disciplined attention to profoundly boring subject matter, like scheduling and checklists. I certainly do not claim to be an artist on Annie Leibovitz’s level, but I understood what the article meant when it referred to her mind’s natural hostility to “management.” My mind does not naturally germinate toward daily administration, either. I have trouble making phone calls. I hate making appointments. I forget things on the “to-do” list. I detest doing laundry and running errands. Yet I do these things because I must: Left to my own devices, I would probably ruin myself. Why? Because my mind naturally germinates to “more substantial” things, like philosophy or the next satire I want to write. My mind dwells on the absurdity and foolishness of existence. Money and “administration,” however, typify that very absurdity and foolishness. That is why I can’t stand either one. I intellectually abhor them. I push them out of my consciousness as much as I can, even if it makes me “irresponsible.”

I suspect that Annie Leibovitz does the same thing. She doesn’t think about debt; she thinks about the next grandiose photo shoot she wants to do. She is thinking about the exquisite details and social commentary she wants to express through the image. She is thinking about aesthetics, color, lighting, shading and beauty. She is not thinking about outstanding bills, credit scores or whether a loan is 45 days past due. These are “insignificant matters” to an artist’s mind. Of course, this is not a healthy prescription for survival in a commercial world that exults daily administration over creativity. It may lead to artistic achievements that transcend the centuries, but it renders the artist an outcast during his own lifetime.

Mozart was no different. He generated monumental artistic works during his life. But he was a “notoriously bad money manager” who constantly racked up debts and died penniless. His mind was elsewhere. He didn’t think about commerce and administration. He thought about the beautiful melodies in his head. He worked to express his creative impulse, not to satisfy petty creditors and bankers. His commitment to creativity ruined him in life, but it made him immortal after his death. Of course, fame after death pays no bills. Yet artists, like Mozart and Annie, really could care less whether they pay their bills. After all, that is mere administration—who has time for that? In short, artistic genius rarely translates into earthly success because the free-ranging mental state necessary for artistic genius typically rules out the mundane mental state necessary for financial “responsibility.” Artistic geniuses simply do not attach importance to matters they consider trivial or petty, even if they suffer for it.

Many great artists die worthless. Then their creditors move in, seize their works and exploit them for all the money they never earned during life. I always find it ironic when banks play Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 when I’m on hold for an agent ready to take my payment. That’s a debtor’s song they’re playing!

It is hard to live a “responsible” life. It is hard to hold your emotions together long enough to survive childhood, go to college, get an education and please private employers. If any substantial misfortune strikes during the journey upward, success becomes progressively more difficult. If anything derails your focus, you will not achieve great commercial goals. If you are creative, you stand a greater chance to be distracted from the “traditional life program.” Success in the “traditional life program” requires unswerving discipline and rigorous attention to administrative matters. Yet those matters are revolting to creative people. They attend to them with grudging resentment, if at all. And if they don’t attend to them, they come to ruin. In a word, creativity is a “handicap” in the quest for “responsibility.” Some, like Annie Leibovitz, achieve success on their own terms. They get patrons and stipends without selling themselves into the “traditional life program.” Creativity may impose a disadvantage on most people struggling to “live responsibly.” But a few break through despite their creative handicap. Nonetheless, they remain uneasy with the demands of “responsible life.” It is only a matter of time before commerce smacks them down. After all, they are not “responsible” enough to fend off creditors and avoid debt. They blunder into financial straits because they do not even really think about what they are doing. This is what happened to Annie.

Combined with personal hardship, artistic creativity makes commercial success virtually impossible. Genuine artistic creativity interposes a natural aversion to the administrative tact necessary for commercial success, while personal hardship undermines the very motivation to seek commercial success in the first place. Taken together, personal hardship and creativity combine to form a recipe for commercial failure. I know this because my own creative impulses predominate over my commercial impulses, and my own personal hardships showed me that seeking “success in the traditional life program” is really a quest for meaningless shadows. For me, “responsibility” and “management” are a chore, not an opportunity. And my personal hardships make me see that success really yields nothing in the end anyway. Recognizing that, I am happy simply to live and to give voice to the ideas in my mind. That may not make me rich, but it gives me a feeling of more lasting significance in a world that actively rewards insignificant lives.

In sum, I was not surprised to read that Annie Leibovitz is in debt. Artists usually are. They simply do not attach importance to “everyday administration” the way “responsible people are supposed to.” Artists just don’t “fit” in the “normal commercial value system.” Their minds dwell on larger issues, not just property. And when I read that Annie suffered profound personal losses, I understood even more. When creative, thoughtful people suffer hardship, money management is the last thing on their minds.

But perhaps that is a compliment. In commerce, it is a cruel truth that uncreative, forgettable people always prevail over creative, memorable ones. Forgettable people know how to handle money and die unknown. Memorable ones are scatterbrained, irresponsible and live forever. No one will remember the banker who seized Annie Leibovitz’s photographs and “owned” them. Yet everyone will remember Annie Leibovitz, the great photographer.

1 comment:

angelshair said...

I loved your last sentence!