The Economics of Impermanence

October 19, 20090 Comments

My friend Alexa is the daughter of an economist and quite the fan of many a popularly unpopular cultural icon. My friend Craig is into desert raves and spiritual healing.

They’re essentially opposite in every possible way, besides the fact they both love the outdoors and are incredibly intelligent. Here is the interchange that got me thinking.

Craig and his girlfriend had been living in a house that was set to be demolished. Before the date came along, they threw a big party in which everyone came over to paint all over the house. Walls, floor, ceiling, doors, windows, inside and out. It was mucho fun. (Photos of the results)

I attended this party and painted to my heart’s content. We were reminiscing at work when in walks Alexa, who asks us to explain the story. She was perplexed.

“But why would you paint a house that was going to be torn down?” she asked.

Craig answered, “Impermanence.”

“But you spent all that time on it!” she cried.

“But it was fun!” Craig laughed.

Thing is, they’re both right. I miss the artwork that was torn down, and I believe that creating art that you know will soon no longer exist is a freeing experience for an artist. They’re also both wrong, because they fail to realize each other’s rightness. There’s no need to argue here, because their arguments are not mutually exclusive. Alexa was confused because she failed to the see the personal value in a work of art that–outside of a small house for a very limited amount of time–has zero impact on absolutely anything, anywhere. This perhaps is indicative of a failure to see personal value at all, hence the vicarious definition of self through the creative works of others. Craig relishes this scenario because, to him, his mind is the entire world, and thus anything that affects it in a positive way accrues value.

My answer––which to me seems obvious––is that the only true option is to make art whenever possible, at all times, without disgression. Craig’s impermanent (safe) art helps him grow as a person and as a creator. This is the unspoken maxim of any desert dance tribe, which is that when the music plays and the dancing and hugging begins, the world out there is gone. And drugs and music and sex all contribute to that wonderful apartness. This only lasts as long as it can, this denial, and then a return to the real world, in which many of these beautiful people know not how to function.

Therein lies Alexa’s arguement. “We have not got the time for this, man.” I’m not saying Alexa doesn’t know how to have fun, but she needs validation in the form of concrete evidence that she is having it, so to speak. If she is watching a concert, she wants applause. If she reads a comic, she wants to be in a big room full of thousands of other people who will agree that, yes, this comic is amazing! It’s the economics of counter-cultural appreciation, the popular texts exemplified by the brilliance of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Enis, and so on.

So what does this mean for me, the musician? I am stuck in the middle. On my right, Craig encourages me to go deep within myself to find the truth. On my left, Alexa matter-of-factly states that she won’t even remotely be interested in my output until more people whose opinion she respects have been tangibly affected by it. As I read once somewhere, “Americans love success.”

Craig says back to me, “Dude, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. Just follow your heart.”

Alexa says to me, “Have fun never buying another piece of gear ever again and starving and no one will hear your music ever and you’ll probably die cold and alone.”

Mike Patton, the voice behind Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, and Tomahawk, who is also a resident genius of Earth, says, “If it comes from inside you, it is automatically valid–it just may or may not be good.” (How We Eat Our Young, from Arcana) This to me is the answer to the dilemma of the beauty of impermanence vs. the Economics of These Trouble Times. All art created in truth is valid and helpful to its creators. Art becomes good on a meaningful, quantifiable level when many thinking creatures agree that it is so.

This, I know, sounds quite a bit like selling out. But as Henry Rollins tells us, “Selling out is when you make the record you’re told to make, instead of the one you want to make.” (VIDEO) There is a very big difference between a lot of people liking your output and “selling out.” There is a definite backlash to popularity, and I can’t for the life of me justify such thinking except possibly a combination of bitterness and jealousy. It is exactly counter to its own assumption, in which one overcompensates for a fear of being a part of the masses by making a decision based on said masses.

I frequent a social linking site called Reddit in which people submit links to whatever they like and others vote on them. The links move up and down in visibility based on an algorithm relating to the frequency of votes of approval or disapproval, respectively. Alexa would probably love this site. It assigns a numeric value in a controlled situation to anything possibly represented in an online format.

I took the 25 topmost links in the history of Reddit and averaged the percentage of their scores based on up- vs. downvotes. The top scoring link, someone’s test post, was upvoted over 10,000 times, net, because it became a game. That is hilarious. And still it only had an 89% approval rating, by far the highest in the bunch. The next highest was 87%, all the way down to 66%. The average percentage in the top 25 sampling is an 80.16% approval rating.

This proves one thing: It is impossible to satisfy everyone. Impossible. In the oft-repeated words of Bill Cosby, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” But what it also proves is that there is a verifiable metric to how many people you want to like your music. About eighty percent. If you can show your music to ten thousand people, and eight thousand of them like it, you will be huge. Huge. Like, Michael Jackson huge. Test post huge. But, even if you “only” get a sixty-six percent approval rating, you are still going to reside comfortably in the top twenty-five. Boom.

So both Craig and Alexa lose, because they can’t even cite a percentage. Craig didn’t show his art to anybody, and Alexa hasn’t made anything at all. Hence the solution: make art whenever possible. Then show it to everybody. And if only a small percentage of people like it, refine and repeat. Then show it to even more people. Then you are creating. Then you are valid. And you will, eventually, be good. Believe it.

Of course, in the end, even Craig and his friends took pictures, and now I’m writing about it. Impermanence is harder to come by than you think.

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