The metrics of joy and the prison of assumption.

There are some things like joy and love and anticipation, affection and aesthetics that defy measurement which is a dicey proposition since we've devolved into a culture that falls back on "metrics" to explain everything.  Even whether or not we're having fun.  Here in the states we have a history (at least men do...) of buying things based on specifications.  How many horsepower in your car's engine?  How many megapixels in your digital camera?  We also analyze our recreation the same way.  How would you rate this on a scale of 1 to 10?  We're pretty sure now that cholesterol isn't a good way to predict heart attacks but it's one of the easiest things to measure so our doctors do the test and accept a vague and unproven causality.  Cardiologists could measure homocysteine levels but it's more costly and the usual remedy for high levels of homocysteine is more folic acid and B vitamins and nobody makes any real money from that.  But I have digressed.  My point is that we've become a measurement culture and we seem less and less disposed to understand the value of things that can't be measured.

For example:  art, serious music,  live theater, great books,  gentle talks over coffee,  time spent just thinking,  any experience that can't be labeled, "extreme", "intense", "wicked" or "hot".   We're edging that way in photography all the time.  I'm sure someone will soon come out with software that measures the "quality metrics" of your images and gives you a grade for the technical achievements.  83% for that headshot because you didn't have sharp focus on the tip of the nose and the backs of the ears.  97% with the extra credit for perfectly matching back lights.  

But, of course, by the time you create the metrics all you've really done is codify the progress of photographers at the top of the Bell Curve.  Institutionalized a new stasis.  A new middle of the road.  Created a new speed bump for a generation of artists.  If we are to grow as artists we need to accept stuff that looks different and stuff that's not even on the metric radar.  Next time you see art that you don't get, don't dismiss it out of hand.  It might be the next great thing.  Very few revolutions come with their own set of measurable markers.

And that drips over into another thing I've been thinking about today.  The life of the artist.  And the assumptions of our culture.  Which is tremendously aspirational.  We don't seem to aspire to art the way we aspire to make millions, live in a house the size of a factory, drive fast cars, live with supermodels or tip doormen outrageously.   Even though we are, as a culture, aspirational we can be rational and in our pervasive rationality we expect people to expect certain assumptions.  Here in Austin the assumptions go like this:  You WILL need to own a car.  The closer you live to downtown the cooler you are.  You will want to eat Sushi.  You do want to own a $6000 bicycle.  You will go out.  To fuel these priorities it's assumed that you will have a job, predicated by a college degree and you will work at this job for 50 to 60 hours per week.  You will do this with the vague aspiration that you'll strike it big on a start up or an IPO and you'll retire at 40 to go off mountain climbing for the rest of your life in Nepal or somewhere equally cold and cool.

But the rational underpinning assumption, by the time you reach your forties and have the responsibility to pay the mortgage and for kids and their braces and French horn lessons and soccer camps and all the other trappings, is that you better like what you're doing enough to keep at it until at least 65.  Because all that money you've been making seems to be covered with Teflon and slides through your wallet like designer bottled water through a mid-day jogger...... And you work and work and at some point you look over your shoulder and it's too late.

While the storybook artist hits "delete" on all those layers of responsibility and gets directly on with the process of doing the art at any cost.  The material trappings of successful life  don't have the same allure and value to the committed artist.  The reality is somewhere in the middle and everything is a compromise.  I'm unfair because I presume that everyone secretly wants to do their art and they don't want to do it in the two weeks a year they have off from their job or in the evenings when they are already exhausted or on the weekends when there's so much to do that was put off over the course of the work week.  But the reality is that we're all somewhere on the continuum.  You may think that doing art is total bullshit and that you're happy doing just what you're doing.  And I'm good with that.  You may think anyone with a "real job" is a robot moron and I'm not going to say "I'm okay with that".

Somewhere along the line I think nearly everyone buys into the assumption that it's impossible to have a life outside of the 9 to 5.  Not just after the 9 to 5.   I know too many entrepreneurs and artists and swim coaches and writers to totally buy into the "must have a real job" deal.  But you must be willing to confront the idea that you might be miserable doing your art.  Not enough money.  Not enough socializing.  No quick fame.  etc.   Sometimes you trade the job for freedom and the steak for macaroni and cheese.  And trying to juggle both worlds requires incredible discipline.   Everyone has their equation for sacrifice and comfort but it's good to pull out the calculator and check it every once and a while.  You never know when the numbers might have shifted.


Daryl Davis said...

This week's been uncanny. Do you read my mind before you write?

Either I'm getting laid off in the next couple of months or I'm quitting, but I'm on to other things by September. Some of them may involve photography. I worked and worried my way into the hospital over the Memorial Day weekend, which is not the example I want to set for my children.

Rob Dutcher said...

I don't know nor do I understand the 9 to 5 world. It seems to work for lots of people, just not me. I do what I do because it is what I am. I had to give up a lot to be here, material things I mean, but I still have the love of my wife and kids and friends. My three kids will all go to college, in fact one is there now. I am quite familiar with mac and cheese, its not terrible with a good merlot. Everything is going to be OK, just a bit scary sometimes. I'll just have to work till I die, like most of the rest of the world. And I'm good with that!

kirk tuck said...

Rob Dutcher, my brother! Mac and cheese with Merlot. New trend.

John Taylor said...

As for the mac & cheese, here in Baltimore they seem to have quite the gourmet thing going, lobster mac & cheese, "not your mother's" mac & cheese (three cheeses none orange nor bland with various other fun ingredients as well) etc. That and the boxed wine thing is getting good (seriously!). Life could be way worse

Michael Ferron said...

Gotta be the right kind of Mac and cheese. Don't cheap out. And while on the subject of food if I achieve success can I skip the sushi?

Kurt Shoens said...

Your statements about homocysteine levels made me look: "The American Heart Association has not yet called hyperhomocysteinemia (high homocysteine level in the blood) a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. We don't recommend widespread use of folic acid and B vitamin supplements to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke." Perhaps our culture over-emphasizes objective metrics, but I'm in favor of good outcome analysis.

I haven't experienced the measurement culture applied to art, just to cameras.

Jeffrey Chapman said...

On a scale of 1 to 10, my creativity capacity is an 8.3 today! :-)

The Photophile said...

I normally enjoy a nice piece of boerewors with my braai down here in South Africa (just Google boerewors!) and a glass of 8 year old Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon sets it off brilliantly. (M's burgers suck)

9-5 sucks too, I did it, and other obscure hours, for 16 years and have been on my own time for 14 more years. Don't have to tell you which I enjoy more.

I stopped measuring stuff years ago, now I drive a 21 year old car, live in a 21 year old caravan and shoot with a 21 year old camera, I kid you not! (When I'm not shooting with my 41 year old Olympus Trip 35)And they all work just fine! I haven't had to take out a loan to buy anything in 14 years and it feels great!

John Small said...

Excellent. I really enjoyed this short essay. Makes me think.