Thursday, 13 October 2016

Poetry Sells…?

So, someone opened the debate again today about performance poets “doing” adverts for large organisations. I suspect that this is what they were talking about: At the time when the adverts in question came out, I was very ill, so let a whole bunch of people fulminating about artists “selling out” slide past my eyes without saying anything. But now I’m feeling better...

I have an opinion about this (of course I do). It goes something like this:

Poetry, as an artform, especially performance poetry, is one that is still low-profile and with a real lack of opportunities to make a career in, full-time. Have talent, work hard, get to the stage where people are willing to pay you, promote you, and tell everyone else that you’re excellent, and you’re faced with dilemmas at several turns. These dilemmas apply, I suspect, to pretty much every artform.

Do any job other than your artform and you’re at risk of being accused (even if only tacitly/ in your own head) of not being a “proper” artist, of diluting, of compromising. So how do you follow your creative path, and make enough money to feed, house, clothe, and transport yourself and your dependents, let alone develop yourself as a human?

If someone is willing to offer decent money for your work in a way that will raise your profile and that of your artform, where you’re not asked to compromise yourself by directly advertising the product at hand, I think that’s a good thing, personally. (It’s also worth bearing in mind: Nationwide are not Barclays, or HSBC, or Lloyds (or Monsanto, or Proctor & Gamble, or Nestlé, etc.). They’re not even a bank. On the Evil Corporations Scale, they’re pretty darned low...)

And, as someone who is still not in a position to leave the dayjob (while simultaneously wondering whether not leaving the day job is the thing that is holding me back from just saying “the fuck with it - let’s just go, commit, be awesome!”), and as someone active in promoting the artform more generally, above and beyond my own practice, I’m pleased to see performance poetry given a mainstream platform in a positive way (how many cheesy stereotypes of shit, pretentious performance poetry have we seen portrayed in mainstream media...?), with an admirable diversity of artists, considering they only picked three.

I remember the artsy, talking-heads Barclays adverts made at the turn of the Century, featuring actors who people accused of “selling out” their indie cred, their otherwise edgy images. One of them was Gary Oldman, who openly discussed how he was willing to make the compromise because the money was going to pay for his outreach programme getting children off the street and into community theatre.

Nationwide were going to make money and produce advertising. I’m glad that they decided to produce sensitive, non-exploitative showcases of artists who are ambassadors for my artform. I’m glad they promoted this notion of performance poets as bard, as voices for the nation. I don’t know the other two artists, but one of them is someone whose work (and work ethic, and politics) I admire and support, and I very much hope she got paid well.

Poets used to make their living from patrons, unless they were independently wealthy. Over the years poets have made their living by writing things other than poetry for other people, teaching, or doing other jobs to keep body and awen together. Arts grants are on the decline, commissions aren’t that easy to find, and not everyone has the time, training, or temperament for teaching. I choose to use my non-creative skills to muster a part-time day job to muster stability for the platform under my creative endeavours. I’m still not sure if I want to make 100% of my income from the creative arts, but I won’t denigrate those who sell their poetry to those with the money to pay for it, especially when these modern-day patrons aren’t particularly evil.

What are your thoughts?