March 1, 2014

The Rockstar & the Begging Bowl. ~ Paul Weinfield


“You know, the real value of art lies in generosity,” my teacher recently told me.

His words struck me, especially as they came during one of my periodic crises about how to make a living as musician. I thought: What does it mean to be generous in an area in which you already feel so disadvantaged?

I’ve been studying meditation with my teacher for ten years. Through him and the Buddhist tradition in which we practice, I’ve witnessed the power of generosity firsthand. I’ve seen in my own life how daily giving has brought me brightness, focus, and a greater sense of purpose. I couldn’t hold the practice of generosity in higher regard.

That day, though, I wasn’t in the mood to hear my teacher’s words, at least not in relation to my music. I’d just finished an album that had put me about $10K in the hole. With no label or publisher, I had little hope of retrieving that sum. I, like so many artists every day, was thinking a thought that is as true as it is unproductive: I am exploited. I make a product that people consume all over the world, and my primary repayment takes the form of comments such as, “Sorry, there’s no ‘creative budget,’” or, “It’s so inspiring to see you do music for the love of it.”

As I sat with my teacher’s words, I recognized they had another meaning: without generosity, the value of art is lost. In our capitalistic culture, we generally see value as an exchange of goods—in this case, of talent for money.

The problem with this equation, though, is that it leaves out happiness, the very thing that attracts both the artist and the consumer to art in the first place. And happiness, as it turns out, often has nothing to do with either talent or money. Our digital age is proving that a computer-generated drum beat or a collage of pre-existing pictures — all forms of expression that require little skill or money to produce — can bring people immense joy. And while artists do (and should) insist that their practiced talents make for a better artistic experience, that claim carries no force. The day can always come when someone will say, “Sorry, I don’t need to pay for your skills. I can get my kicks for free.”

If art were merely a matter of talent, then its value would always be declining as technology and innovation make it easier to do for free what used to take skill.

The day can always come when someone says, “Sorry, I don’t need to pay for your skills. I can get my kicks for free.” Computers can make music that sounds exactly like Bach’s, and they don’t ask for royalties.

But what computers cannot do is give freely.

This is no small thing. It is through the impulse of generosity that art is born and reborn, and assured of having value regardless of the economic or cultural climate.

As the Buddha said:

What is given freely bears fruit as happiness.

What isn’t given freely bears no fruit at all.

Thieves take it away, or kings.

It is burnt by fire or lost.

So does this mean artists shouldn’t be paid? Not at all. The Buddha himself said that actions that cause harm don’t count as generosity.

It seems clear that our culture’s growing insistence that artists work for free is deeply harmful.

What this teaching on generosity does suggest, though, is that even in the midst of their struggles to be compensated, artists still need to practice generosity to find joy. The more artists reduce what they do to petty transactions, the less value their art acquires in both their own eyes and the eyes of others. In turn, the less people feel inspired to compensate them.

Here are four ways struggling artists can still practice generosity:

1. Give to other artists:

It costs nothing to give other artists your knowledge, support, appreciation, and skill. Donate your talents to someone’s album or show. Stop saying to your friends, “I don’t work for free.” Everyone works for free sometimes, and you most likely got where you are now through many acts of generosity.

2. Give to your audience:

It costs nothing to talk to people after a performance. Learn more about how your art touches them; the more  you understand how others benefit from your art, the value you can create. This makes you both more marketable and more joyful.

3. Give to yourself:

Art has enormous healing properties, yet artists often forget to make the kind of art that makes them happy. It is easy to start trying too hard to make art they think will be remunerated. Ask yourself, “What kind of art could I make to make myself more happy?”

4. Give to art itself:

Art has passed through history primarily through the influence of one artist on another. What you are doing now may well inspire someone in the future. Take joy that what you are doing is helping keep art alive.

In Thailand, monks are supported purely by the donations of laypeople.  As a result, the begging bowl they use has become a symbol of both the freedom and wellbeing that come from living by generosity. However, in the west, artists are subject to the “rockstar model” in which they achieve value by competing against each other (usually for money) . This is proving to be both unsustainable and unhappy for many.  But we can find a middle path.

Between the rockstar and the begging bowl, there’s plenty of joy to go around.


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Editorial Assistant: Lizzie Kramer/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Courtesy of John Hill

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