November 16, 2010

Are You a Sell-Out?

Rasta don’t work for no C.I.A.
Bob Marley, Rat Race

Somebody called me a sell-out…he may have been joking…anyway, if it’s true, I must have sold out pretty damn cheap…

Then, who’s the definitive sell-out? Judas Iscariot? Mick Jagger? Thirty pieces of silver, even adjusted for inflation, wouldn’t get you decent seats to see those heroes of the counterculture, the surviving members of the Stones or Grateful Dead, at your local hockey stadium.

Like lots of people, I tend to idolize Vincent Van Gogh—not so much for the psychosis & syphilis—or self-mutilation & suicide—but the absolute go-for-broke, follow-your-muse-no-matter-what type of spirit. (Not to mention that, y’know, he was really really good at what he did).

He had his brother, Theo, to support him, but still had to keep asking him for cash, and manage that cash so rent got paid, food and paint could be bought, and a little was left over for the absinthe and prostitutes; and, truth be told, he didn’t just paint for God or his own soul, either, but got incredibly frustrated that Theo, the big time Paris art dealer, couldn’t sell his paintings.

So, even passionate Vincent had some sense of balance between transcendent art and crass practicality. Which is not to say one has to compromise everything.

The normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes. It is also the dead stare in a million adults.
Peter Shaffer, Equus

Shortly after graduating college, feeling disillusioned with political activism, self-righteous hippies, and…well, just about everything…I was doing temp work—generally minimum wage crap clerical jobs for investment companies, the kinds of places where I was still far too idealistic to even think about getting a real job. Then, one day, I got sent to work in the mail room in the local office of yet another gigantic corporation, not realizing till I got there that this was in fact the company’s nuclear division.

Not long before, I’d worked for Greenpeace, demonstrated against nuclear power plants, got arrested in the desert protesting nuclear testing. And there I was, wrinkled suit borrowed from my Dad, wondering if I was really cynical enough to simply go with the radioactive flow. If that wasn’t bad enough, the supervisor liked me so much that, there on my first day, he fired somebody right in front of me, apparently for no reason except that he didn’t like her and figured she wouldn’t be needed with me around.

At the end of the day, I went to the temp agency office and exclaimed my moral issues with the gig. The woman in charge said it was too late to get somebody else, so I’d have to go back the next morning. I refused, which seemed like it knocked the wind out of her; “well then we can’t use you anymore,” she said. I said “okay” and walked out.

Later, her superior called me and said she shouldn’t have done that, given the circumstances, and I was reinstated. My guess is that it hadn’t even occurred to her that somebody might stand on principle to the point of getting canned, and so figured she could make the threat with no danger of having her bluff called. Of course, after that, they only called me when they were desperate—graveyard shift labor, breathing dust with skeezy co-workers who never failed to share racist jokes if they’d speak to me at all.

Two decades later, with a PhD, I try to scrape by as a freelance writer and editor, inveterate yogi, occasional teacher, and composer of cynical bon mots. It’s never too late to fuck up your life. Money is far from everything, but it sure is nice to have some lying around, ideally enough to serve as a cushion when you fall. And I sure could use some appliances that work properly.

Perhaps an alternative to that self-hating middle class/pretentious liberal-arts major “sell-out” crap would be to acknowledge the need to find a balance between art and commerce—or, more broadly, that which brings joy and meaning and possibly even some sweet taste of the sublime and that which pays the bills. For a lucky few, the two mingle comfortably—but even they have to worry about bookkeeping, taxes, and other kinds of practical shit that can’t be dealt with so easily in the throes of creative rapture.

At heart I’m an American artist, and I have no guilt. I seek pleasure. I seek the nerves under your skin. The narrow archway; the layers; the scroll of ancient lettuce. We worship the flaw, the belly, the belly, the mole on the belly of an exquisite whore. He spared the child and spoiled the rod. I have not sold myself to God.
Patti Smith, Babelogue

Was reading about a famous yoga teacher who implied you can’t do savasana properly without immersing yourself in a cocoon of holistic merchandise—as if the yogis in India for the past few thousand years had piles of expensive yoga props—though, legend has it, Patanjali himself made a bundle on yoga-themed schwag, even copyrighting the word “sutra,” so that his successive incarnations got royalties whenever anybody else came out with a sacred text. Seriously, it reminds me of books that say I should practice yoga or meditate “in a part of your house that you don’t use for anything else.” To which I say “how about that little gallery between my solarium and indoor tennis court? Or maybe get the servants to clean out one of the guest cottages?” My yoga practice begins with moving stuff out of the way. And, as long as that’s true, I doubt I’m too much of a sell-out….

*developed from a much rougher post at Yoga for Cynics*

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