June 11, 2014

My artistic values (part 1 of however many it takes)

I'm participating in Adam Thurman's online e-mail marketing course, and it's been a real treat. One of the things that I am being asked to do is to think about the values I bring to my art.

Now, Busy Adult Me just wants to get this over with, wants to look smart and capable in front of all the other Busy Adults who also just wants to get this over with and look good in front of all the other Busy Adults. Busy Adult Me wants to use words like "excellence," and "quality." Busy Adult Me wants to say things like, "creativity" and "diversity." Busy Adult Me might want to get really sophisticated and come up with, "authenticity" and other big words for simple things that makes me look educated and feel like I belong with the big kids on the playground sipping expensive-sounding wine and nibbling gourmet cheese.

But Real Me won't let that stand. Real Me tells me that I need to stop pretending and start looking at why I need to be an artist, why I'm completely and utterly useless for anything else. Real Me says that I need to talk about the things I really care about and quit acting like I'm ashamed of being passionate.

Real Me asks, "What matters most in your art?"

So I sat down and thought about it and realized that there are 4 things that always stand out.

What's the difference between art and marketing, or art and advertising? They use words; I use words. I'm creative; they're creative. But what's the difference between a one-minute play and a one-minute commercial ad? What's the difference between a short story and a case study used for direct mail?

In a word: truth.

Art tells the truth about life. Marketing and advertising, by and large, don't. That's not to say that marketing and advertising is an industry of bullshit. I know too many honest, ethical people in marketing and advertising to make that claim with a straight face. But when I look at the dividing line between them, for art, truth is a requirement; for marketing and advertising, it's optional.

That truth-telling starts with telling the truth about myself. If I can't be honest about what I think and feel, about how I experience the world, about what matters most to me, how can I begin to tell any kind of truth about life and humanity? Even when I wrap it in fantasy or farce, there must be a core of truth in there, some thing that someone looks at and says, "Yep, I've been there," or "Yeah, I've done that."

But my ability to speak my truth depends upon the freedom I have to pursue it.

As long as I am beholden to the demands of commerce, of politics, of convention, or the status quo, my ability to tell the truth will always be limited. So I must have absolute artistic freedom. Whatever form and content I need to tell my truth are the ones I should be able to use, within the bounds of what is safe, consensual, and ethical.

This doesn't just mean the freedom to say what I want to say or do what I want to do, but also the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to fail, the freedom to change my mind, the freedom to not be the same person today that I was five, ten, fifteen years ago.

Truth and freedom are requirements for the work I do, but there is more to my work than this. Yes, my work features many women, people of color, and LGBTQ people as protagonists and major characters. The temptation is to say that this is because I value diversity, but I find that term too lukewarm. It sounds too much like having more choices on a menu.

The fact that I write about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people (and often people who are all three) is not about diversity. It's about justice. It's about who gets to define and represent truth, goodness, beauty, and humanity. For too long and in too many places, that person has been white, male, straight, cisgender, affluent, able-bodied, and/or neurotypical. For too long and in too many places, those of us who are women, people of color, LGBTQ, disabled, and/or poor or working class have been actively and passively excluded from that, so much so that our simple presence as full human beings is often seen as outrageous.

I don't write about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people because our lives add flavor or spice to men, white people, and cishet people. I don't do it because their lives are more interesting or entertaining with people like me are in it. I do it because we deserve to see ourselves as fully human.

Which brings me to the fourth value: passion.

If it hasn't been made clear by now, I don't do what I do merely because it's interesting or thought-provoking or fun to talk about. Yes, it can be those things, but at the same time, that's not all it is. It's not just something I do because I have nothing better to spend my time on, or because it scratches an itch. Even at my most whimsical and escapist, I care about what it means to put my work out into the world. It all matters very much to me, even if I can't always say why.

And when I think about who I want to work with and who I want in my audience, passion is where it's at for me. I want to work with skillful people, and I like smart people in the audience, but without passion, I may as well replace them with dry white toast.

Truth. Freedom. Justice. Passion.

It's not sophisticated. It's not sexy. It doesn't sound like "innovation" or "collaborative creation" or "community engagement." But in everything I do, those things are there.


  1. Shawn, thanks for posting this! I'm a fellow playwright and also taking Adam's course now. I love the way you followed your thinking down the winding path to four simple words. ~Catherine Castellani

  2. Hey Shawn, I am taking Adam's course too! I love this. Is it okay to post on Halcyon's page?