Is Social Media Destroying My Artistic Integrity?

I admit I had to take a break without knowing if I’d ever come back to writing these posts. I enjoyed it at first, but then quickly found myself checking the WordPress stats all day. I developed a Pavlovian response to the little dings in my inbox that signified a new follower or like; the immediacy of viewership creating in me a dopamine high that is utterly dangerous. It tells me I’m on to something, I’ve figured it out. It’s that feeling when Edmond Dantés discovers the map to his soon-to-be uncovered buried treasure.

I soon found myself trying to hack the system, reading articles that sounded like: Minute-to-Minute Instagram Posting Metrics, How To Gain WordPress Followers and Influence Twitter Trends, So You Want To Be A Blogger? and even watching YouTube videos with tips and tricks that tell you to post at least twice a day, use hashtags, be honest, be yourself, be patient and soon you’ll find yourself with a loyal brand following! I admit that it took no time at all for me to try and write and post what I thought you wanted to read and how best to get you to read it.

And what began as a great feeling quickly became an obsession.

So I stopped and took a breath. This is the civil war that routinely cycles through my body; the war between the mind and the heart; the need to impress versus the need to express; the ego versus the spirit. It is an ancient war and one that doesn’t belong only to me and the problem is: it will happen again. It’s happening right now. Some days I’m aware of it, other days not so much.

So how can I disrupt this pattern?

Is it possible to be completely authentic to one’s own artistic integrity when literally everything can be measured by some sort of statistic? Is it a matter of living in an acceptable ignorance? Is it swearing away social media forever and becoming an eccentric street painter?

There is something that happens to my brain when I see friends of mine getting hundreds, if not thousands of likes on social media. At first I am in disbelief, followed by jealousy and sometimes anger. “Why don’t I have thousands of followers?” I ask myself routinely, “What am I doing wrong? Am I good enough? Maybe I’ll never measure up? They’re lucky because they have [some magical power]. They’re hot and travel the world and of course they’re going to get followers. I just need to find my audience. I just need more time. If I didn’t have to work so much, then I’d figure it out.”

I’m being embarrassingly blunt here, but let’s be honest, can any of us escape the digital rat race at this point? Or am I the only one with an inflamed ego?

What are the questions I need to be asking? Would I write if only I read it? Would I shoot photographs even if I never posted them Instagram? Do I make films because I need to tell my stories or because you might see it? Does creative work have merit on its own, or must everything be subjected to the public shaming of the digital chorus? And why can’t I simply be happy for my friends that have found success in the public forum instead of jealous?

We’ve made great works of art successfully throughout human existence and we still do. Except now we have focus groups.

Addicted to Myself.

Even though I know it, I can’t stop. I’m addicted to it: the image of myself. And even though the image itself is not static but fluid and evolving, I still dig my nails bloody and grind my teeth dull until it makes me sick.

One moment he is a writer somewhere in Westchester wearing an old charcoal cardigan, collecting baby dreads of lint, sitting at an old oak wood desk in the middle of the night tapping away at his typewriter smoking Marlboros and drinking Oban. The next he is a talented writer-slash-director careening down Topanga turns in APC jeans and a black Steve Alan dress shirt and vest helming an entire set of crewmembers and actors destined for top tier festivals and after-parties. And yet he is also a world traveler in cargo shorts and an old plaid short-sleeved button-down, a Nat-Geo freelance photographer living in small villages in South Africa and each photo he’d take would be laced with a thick cream of social justice. And yet still he is a farmer in thrift-store couture watching the sun come up over the mountains in Montana drinking coffee in the early morning standing over his crops and admiring the milky layer of fog between the ground and the horizon.

Someone asked me what I was doing here in California earlier today and I didn’t know how to answer him. I never do. How can I subscribe to one path or ideological destination if even my own ego won’t agree with itself? And how can I possibly make sense of that lack of clarity to anyone else? In my head I often compare myself with other, more “successful” creatives and I wonder if they have a similar fractured understanding of themselves or if they see one clear, concise image.

But maybe yet the question lies elsewhere. Maybe the question is can I transcend those images? Can I let it all go? Can I drop the need to fulfill my ego? To not worry about what you might think of me? Can I not impress you? Can I be imperfect? Can I be messy? Can I always just be “figuring it out?” Can I live without judgement on how I’m living? Can I take me as I am and know that is enough? Can I love that person beyond the constant striving and trying and aiming and goalsetting? Can I look him in the eyes and say, “it’s okay, you’re exactly where you need to be.”

I wonder. I certainly wonder.

Featured image by Joseph Marconi.

Fear.

In March of 2015 I decided to go camping alone in Joshua Tree. I’d just seen “Tracks” (2013) depicting the true story of Robyn Davidson and her solo “1,700-mile trek across the deserts of west Australia”[1] with four camels and her dog, Diggity. Earlier that year I crossed the United States from New York to California — I employed both a car and a friend’s company for the journey — and felt the need to get back on the road. “Tracks” gave me the motivation I needed plus I was in desperate need of some quiet, solitary beauty.

However, in the weeks leading up to the trip, I developed a great fear over the journey. I was heading into Joshua Tree’s backcountry alone for the first time and I had no idea what to expect. I’d camped alone only once before that — along the sandy beaches of the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina — and suddenly I felt completely out of my depth.

I imagined all kinds of things. My mind leapt into gear and found this a perfect opportunity to try and scare me out of going. I spent hours deep diving through horror stories on YouTube. I imagined a desert floor crawling with rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions all out to kill me and by the slim chance I didn’t get bit by something I’d surely get turned around somewhere and die of heat exposure and dehydration. They’d find my sun-dried lifeless body a half-mile from civilization and the Rangers would shake their heads, chuckle and say, “City folk.”

And so in preparation I learned how to use a compass[2], what foods to pack, and how much water to bring. I researched the animal life in the area and how to stay away from them. I took notes. I bought maps. I was prepared.

Still, the whole drive out there on I-10 my heart was pounding: Why was I even doing? Had I death wish? How had other people survived this ordeal? What would my movie be called? “18 Hours?” Would Danny Boyle direct it, too?

But then something strange happened.

Almost as soon as I’d entered the park and walked into the welcome center, all that fear I’d had simply vanished. My heart slowed and my vision and breathing returned to normal. I was overcome by the incomprehensible majestic beauty of the park all around me and I’d easily surrendered over to the experience of actually being there, fully present for whatever adventures actually awaited.

My mind likes to tell me life is a scary place when, most often, if I just put my feet on the ground, I can see how beautiful it all really is.

And, unfortunately, I never saw any rattlesnakes, tarantulas, or scorpions.

 

[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robyn_Davidson

[2] By “learned to use” I mean generally how to hold, sight mountains, and get vague directional readings.

Cover Letter.

To Whom It May Concern:

I am formally applying for the position of goat herder within your company. Do you have a company? LLC? I couldn’t find any mention of you on Google. No matter either way as I am still interested.

Unfortunately, I currently do not have any education or training within the field of goat herding but, you see, I’m looking for a new line of work and since I don’t really know where to start, I figured I might as well try to do something that looked fulfilling from a movie I saw once.

Plus I like goats. Or at least I think I do. I think I petted one once at a petting zoo when I was ten and even though that was — years ago it was a defining moment in my formative years I like to think.

Maybe you’re confused as to why someone with my formal corporate training in marketing and advertising — twelve years of graphic design and art direction, an excellent portfolio working for some of the best brands in the business — would want to leave that salary and herd goats?

Well, you see, this isn’t the future I was promised and since, as it seems currently, that all bets are off, I figure I might as well put all my talent and drive into something a little more fulfilling. Something that has a lot of hours outdoors, working with animals, enjoying the elements. Because if I have to sit in a chair for eight hours one more day I’m afraid that I might implode or spontaneously combust and when they’re selling museum tickets to my mummified room and tourists are standing outside just beyond the velvet rope they’ll see a little charred artist’s recreation of me and the Tour Guide will say:

“He never left.”

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

— J.

 

 

Forget Everything You Think You Know About Greatness.

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”

– Miles Davis

***

Is there a way to quantify the moment when someone transitions into greatness? Can we package it up and brand it? Sell it to the masses or create some vocational school centered around breaking personal creative barriers?

Want to be the next Jackson Pollack? Justin Timberlake? Rihanna? Well you’ve come to the right place.

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell went ahead and tried to quantify it with his ten thousand hour rule. We all know the cited example of The Beatles playing in Germany every night of the week for several years, carefully and painstakingly honing their craft before ever setting foot on American soil and becoming the international sensation forever etched into musical history.

And so, according to Gladwell, ten thousand is the magic number where ordinary transcends into greatness.

I mean it sounds good, comfortable, even “doable” if you’re prone to the occasional manic episode such as myself; amped up on a delicious chemical imbalance, a mental Molotov cocktail of grandiosity and delusion.

Ten thousand hours. That’s all it takes. All I have to do is pick something I’m good at or something I enjoy doing and plug away at it for eight hours a day, every day of the week for three and a half years and I’ll graduate from the Gladwellian School of the Arts destined for greatness.

But Gladwell is a master marketer, and a goddamn fraud.

He presents you with something rather benign and then he raises his nasally voice and says, “Everything you ever knew about that thing you thought you had figured out is wrong!

Your mind is now, effectively and forever, blown.

You lean back in your chair with your eyes wide open and your hand smacks your forehead and you say to yourself, “Oh my God he’s right! I don’t know anything. Please Malcolm, tell me. Tell me now, dammit! TELL ME!

Gladwell is brilliant at catering to one of the most fundamental characteristics of human nature: the need to know. It’s the essential building block to any dramatic situation in story telling: you present a juicy-enough question and the audience is hooked. Will Ross kiss Rachel? Will Walter White get away with it? What does Jon Hamm have in his pants?

The Media use this device every day, except they ratchet it up with a heavy dosage of fear to guarantee viewership. Is this the storm of the century? What you’re eating could kill you. At eleven.

At the same time Gladwell presents you with something that is utterly preposterous yet simultaneously juuuuuuuust out of reach. If Gladwell had said, “These are people you’ll never be like because you’re simply genetically and mentally inferior,” he’d never get close to bestseller numbers. This is a marketing and mass-distraction phenomena Noam Chomsky discusses in his book “Manufacturing Consent” but unfortunately we don’t have the time to get into that because it’s usually around this point I really start to feel the need for an editor.

“Bring it on home, Joe!” she’d say to me, slightly seizing from mainlining a Venti Triple Shot Mocha and tapping her watch.

Exhale.

Gladwell’s not entirely wrong: There’s merit in taking the time to learn your craft. But my problem isn’t with the hours, it’s the assumption that greatness follows.

I’m not sure I know what it means to be great or when, as a culture, we went from striving to live a good life to striving to be the best at every goddamn thing we do. I do know that I’ve tried my whole life to be great and fell short. Over and over again. And that rift between what I expected of myself and reality created more pain than I’d like to remember.

But maybe it’s not even about being great at all.

Maybe greatness is just another marketing tool, a distraction, something to strive for. Maybe it’s about something else entirely. Maybe it’s just about being the being the best me.

***

Truthfully, I think Miles said it best:

“Man, sometimes you takes long time to sound like yourself.”

Oh and I just totally Gladwelled you.

 

Exercising With Billy Crudup.

Please note, Billy Crudup isn’t actually in this story. He appears only as a post-pop cultural manifestation playing the part of my inner critic.

That being said, I exercised today. Sigh. Finally.

Don’t judge.

Exercise has largely remained illusory to me during my adult career. I am unsure as to why, but I suspect it has something to do with the story I tell myself. Or rather it’s that sinister voice inside my head that sounds like Billy Crudup in Big Fish and loves to use my new favorite four-letter word:

Motivation.

That voice—we’ll aptly call him Billy—comes on gently like an airplane floating blissfully over the horizon.

“How ya doing, buddy?” Billy will ask, smiling that slightly condescending yet encouraging smile of his, as if we both share a secret no one else knows. “Hey listen,” he’ll begin, “I have an idea.”

Ugh that smile, I can never resist. “Tell me,” lathered in a faux enthusiasm perfected from over ten years in corporate America’s luxurious bosom.

“Well,” a Pinter pause, “We’ve been wanting to get in shape for some time now.”

“Yeah?” I say, curiously blending my Bulletproof Grass-fed Ghee coffee in my Magic Bullet Blender.

“And so, you know, I’ve been thinking maybe today is the day.”

“Today?”

That smile again. That grin. Thin lips pressed tightly into the corners of his mouth, eyes as honest as Abe Lincoln, “Today.”

“Let’s do it.”

And cue in Alan Silvestri’s heroic theme music to Forrest Gump as I get ready for the run of a lifetime. “This is it,” Billy continues over the crescendoing orchestra, “This is the day we’ve been waiting for. This is the moment where it’s all going to change. Last year—and all the years prior, I guess—was just leading up to this… very… moment.

“It’s time to get,” here it comes…

“Motivated.”

So off I go dressed in an old pair of running shoes, an unflattering pair of lightweight shorts and a tank top, hurling myself westward down Willoughby Avenue, ready to run all the way to the ocean if need be. For I am motivated. Today is the day I’m going to change my physical fitness status from average to athletic. I’ll alter my metabolism down at the genetic level, maybe even start training for a marathon. All is right with the world and I have Billy Crudup and his smile running right here next to me.

But, as is always the case, Billy gets greedy.

“Hey,” he nudges me halfway into mile one.

“What?” I say, pulling my earbud out and putting my motivational Tim Ferris podcast on pause.

“How about we double it?”

“Double it?” dodging a mine field of sidewalk tents.

“Instead of two miles, let’s do four,” he’s showing teeth now. He means business.

“Four miles?” I ask, slightly concerned.

“You’re right. Fuck it. Let’s do ten.”

“All right Billy. Let’s do ten.”

It’s around mile three that Billy and his goddamn motivation go from an airplane hovering gently over the horizon to a giant jumbo continental airliner screaming at dangerous decibel levels soaring right above me and I realize I’ve gotten in way over my head.

Shit. This always happens. Billy Crudup and his big ideas.

At mile four point one my knee starts to feel as if the cartilage has melted away entirely and the bones are painfully rubbing against each other like sandpaper on my nerve endings and I stop to take a breath and tell Billy to go on, I’ll catch up. Without a second thought I call a Lyft and hightail it back home.

And so tomorrow when he shows up wiping the shaving cream off his freshly shaved face trying, once again, to get me to join in on one of his grandiose health schemes I’ll politely tell him to fuck off.

Sorry Billy Crudup, but I don’t need your motivation today.