Despicable Mega Me
Last Sunday my ten-year-old nephew asked me an impossible question: 'Uncle Caspar, what is art?'
'Jeez... that's a really big question.'
'But you make art, right?'
'Yes, I make art, but that still doesn't mean I know what art is.'
Disappointed, he turned around and went back to what he had been doing: Minecraft.
For a moment, I was taken aback but I gave it a second go: 'Art is a journey. Like flying through Minecraft. You fly. You stop. You build something. You see someone else's construction. You dismantle it. You build something new. You go on flying. And so on. Making art is actually just like Minecraft.'
He turned around. I had his attention again.
'So does that make me an artist?'
'No, not exactly. It's a profession; you need to study for it. Like a road worker who studies how to make roads.'
'So how can I study it?'
'Jeez man... another big question. Well, if you've got a minute... I think there are two ways of learning how to make art.'
'Yes. Like there are two ways to travel through Minecraft. You can travel as a pilgrim and you can travel as a tourist.'
(frown) That was too complicated for him. He turned around and went back to what he had been doing.
Just a casual conversation about an impossibly big subject.
A modestly asked major question with unexpected consequences.
He got me thinking. For some time now, I had been questioning the point and the necessity of my work: educating young talent, coaching new theatrical producers. A talent developer, as it were. But the term alone was enough to rub me the wrong way. The idea behind it made me shudder. Talent development? That's for people with a Mother Theresa complex or for people who think they're god. I was in a rut and considered chucking it in. Until last Sunday and my nephew's query. He got me thinking again. And thinking is travelling, as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once wrote. So I'm travelling again and my first question is:
Am I a pilgrim or a tourist?
OK. Firstly, a pilgrim. What is that? A traveller with a mission, with a sacred quest. He is devout. Resolute. He moves from A to B. From starting point to destination. He is searching: for a result, a higher goal, an impression that will last a lifetime. A pilgrim is in search of meaning. So he travels with a compass, not wanting to get lost. He wants to achieve his goals. After reaching his destination, the pilgrim can return home, relieved.
Then the tourist. What is that? A tourist enjoys travelling. He travels hastily. The tourist has more than one sacred goal, more than one destination. The tourist travels with a guide in mind, such as a famous person presenting a travel show. Unlike compasses, guides offer the traveller a choice. And that provides a pleasant form of freedom. You could go here but you could also go there. And don't forget to take your camera when you rush around the world with your backpack, as quickly as possible from attraction to attraction, from photo spot to photo spot, from selfie to selfie.
The pilgrim and the tourist. Two different types. The South Korean philosopher, Byung-Chul Han depicts them in his essay Hyperculturality as symbols of two consecutive eras. The pilgrim belongs to the 18th and 19th centuries, The Enlightenment. What we call 'the modern period.' The pilgrim represents modern man, a man with an ideology, a sacred mission. In search of the Holy Grail. The tourist, on the other hand, belongs to the 20th and 21st centuries, the postmodern period. He is the eclectic nomad, an opportunist; he moves from place to place and conforms to fit the situation. He has no other ideology than his desire to travel. He has no other destination than the pleasure of the journey itself.
But something strange is going on. Our art policy is still geared to the pilgrim: we have a chain of talent development in which young talent works towards excellence step by step with a compass, while every day more tourists than pilgrims are born and follow an education in the arts. It's as if someone who, growing up with tablets, Minecraft, surfing on the web, is suddenly forced to write a 300-page thesis with a quill in an attic. It doesn't make sense. It's annoying. Imagine a travel addict suddenly chained to a chair because he has to focus on the world inside. It doesn't make sense. It's annoying. It rubs you the wrong way. The addictive urge to travel isn't easily gotten rid of. I want more, the junkie rages. I want to go on, I want to keep clicking, pic after pic, news event after news event, tweet after tweet. I want to surf on the stream of images, answers, bits and bytes of deeper meaning. Surfers aren't pilgrims and never really will be. So something strange is going on. Every day more surfers, backpackers and tourists consult a system that is geared mostly to pilgrimage. It doesn't make sense. It's annoying. It rubs you the wrong way. It's irritating. And it results in a whole lot of unhappy and distraught tourists.
OK. Enough theory. Back to the question. Am I a pilgrim or a tourist? Do I feel the devout need to reach a destination aided by a compass? Or would I rather travel haphazardly and long-distance?
I can be clear about one thing. I'm not a pilgrim. I'm not the kind of traveler who goes out into the world with only one goal and only one route. Still, I catch myself behaving like this more and more often. How come? Where does the devout resoluteness come from? Where does the sacred glorification of the ascending 'chain of talent development' come from? How on earth did I become a pilgrim? OK. Back to the future.
As a child I wanted to be James Bond. I wrote stories in which I was a spy. But I was constantly distracted. When I was in the middle of a story I would already start on the next, resulting in my never finishing my stories and never becoming James Bond. It didn't bother me; I was already journeying elsewhere. I wanted to become a 'sports journalist.' A famous one. Just for a little while: I was already moving on. Music was the next pull. With a musician father and a musician grandfather I was genetically doomed to make music. It was made clear to me that if I wanted to make music all my life, I would have to practice. But I was still a tourist. A hooky playing, boozing, good-for-nothing, campfire songs-writing backpacker.
At school they told me that I wouldn’t make it with that attitude. When I asked what 'it' was I got no answer. At home I messed around on the piano, calling it 'practice,' but I did what I really liked after school and away from home. I made music that made me feel good. Funk, rock n roll. I wanted to become a famous rock star as quickly as possible. But. I was actually already a step further. I was writing. Stories. Poems. Sketches. Bad jokes for festive evenings. I was having fun. I was a tourist.
Then came the inevitable moment: I had to choose. A study. The conservatory loomed as a large, red, genetic arrow on the map, but I wasn't into that at all. Just before one of my auditions, a teacher approached me enthusiastically in the hallway and asked jubilantly what I was going to play. I answered as jubilantly as possible but all my attention was drawn to the strange sacred fire I observed in his eyes. He was talking about music and his eyes were shining. I saw it and I knew: I don't have that. I don't have a perpetually burning fire for music. When the door swung open and my name was called, summoning me to come inside and start the audition, I declined: 'I won't do it. No making music. I refuse to do it anymore.' The trip back was one long sigh of relief. I had followed my intuition. And my intuition now said: theater. I dragged my backpack to the first study I could find that had anything, no matter how small, to do with theater and that didn't require an audition. Theater studies. And it was soon clear: a rash decision. I wanted to make theater, not analyze it to death. After half a year the dean told me I had to pass all my subjects or there was no chance of a foundation course, not to mention a doctorate. It had to be a serious decision, the dean said. There it was again: 'it,' the pressure to move up. That shove towards a destination. With a compass and a pin on the map I would make 'it,' though I didn't know what exactly. And I must admit, the academic system was effective. I slowly learned to behave like a pilgrim. I started to believe I was on a crusade, in search of the Holy Grail. God, I so much wanted to be a guest on a TV show. I wanted to be intellectually excellent. This would allow me to pour out all my devotion. Well, but to be the guest of honor on a show I would have to have done, made or written something exceptional. I was pretty good at directing, at philosophizing, I knew the classics pretty well, I could sound like l know what I was talking about and I could tell jokes but I wasn't exceptional in any of these categories. So I didn't become a talk show guest. It didn't bother me that much, I had already moved on. I was feverishly busy doing many things that had nothing to do with my study. I was producing one show after the other and I was writing songs for a band that had a record contract. I wrote. I made. I wrote. I made. I travelled on an artistic tourist visa. During the day the pressure to graduate cum laude was always there but in my spare time I was enjoying making theater and music. During the day I was on a pilgrimage and at night I went backpacking. I was on two tracks. Dead serious and ultra-vague theater theories and performances on the one hand. Sex, drugs and rock n roll on the other. After seven years of studying I was exhausted by the schizophrenia.
I took an internship, it being part of the package. By coincidence I ended up in the De Nieuw Amsterdam theater company. Taking an internship was an integral part of the travel itinerary but my teachers weren't satisfied with its content. They advised against it. Not challenging enough. Not on my level. But I was so tired of all the quasi-intellectual stuff, I just wanted something concrete, a quick bite, a Maggi Booster. So I dutifully took the internship, told them after two weeks that I was bored, also told them what I thought they could do differently, promptly got a job offer for after my graduation and continued to work for the company in the following years. I started to increasingly behave like a pilgrim. The artistic director insisted I had to map out a route. Where do you see yourself over five years? It demands serious preparation, he advised. There was the 'it' again, the pressure to move up. My reaction was the irrepressible urge to go backpacking.
I started island-hopping. From project to project, from genre to genre, from discipline to discipline, from position to position. Through the years I was alternately a director's assistant, dramaturg, production manager, artistic director's assistant, director, playwright, lyrics writer, maudlin poet, teacher, amateur philosopher and obsessive drinker. I travelled extensively: from De Nieuw Amsterdam, via Mightysociety and Growing up in Public to Oerol, from the UU to the HKU, from my own monthly theatrical journalism program De Brakke Zondag through Bos Theaterproducties back to De Nieuw Amsterdam. I did everything, backpacking myself into a frenzy. Five years later I was exhausted again.
What particularly wore me out was the increased pretentiousness. In those years, I was a young theatrical producer, as promising as that may sound. Back then you still had production houses and platforms for young theatrical producers. I never made it to the production houses. I was a pretty good director but I've never been exceptional. My artistic fingerprint was too vague. Besides that, the production houses weren't open houses. They were a destination for devout pilgrims. And although I was producing and directing like a flagellant, I wasn't considered devout enough, so in effect I had been knocking on a closed door for five years. Until, strictly speaking, I wasn't a young theatrical producer anymore. At the same time, I was scourging myself with sky-high ambitions and pretentions. I was determined to achieve. I was determined to develop a distinguishing artistic fingerprint so the production houses and the program police would finally take me seriously, so I could maybe make 'it' after all. Until all my artistic energy was up, my piggybank empty and my courage had ebbed away. I had to admit I couldn't become a pilgrim. I didn't possess that imperturbable devotion. My innate bravado couldn't get me out of this one. My intellectual charms were just an obstruction. And the worst if at all was: I couldn't be a tourist anymore. I was out of money.
Wax on. Wax off. Wax on. Wax off. Wax on. Wax off.
A year long I was in a deep blue funk. But then a hand reached out to me. It was Likeminds. Asking whether I wanted to be their artistic director. I didn't see that one coming. I was honored, said yes without really knowing what I was saying yes to. But, what the fuck, I was on the road again. With a pretty compelling compass this time: long-range plans. It didn't bother me too much for the first arts plan period. The compass was still adjustable. There was still time to change course. I could still be a tourist now and then. But then came January 1, 2013 and the 'freedom' parties, VVD and PVV negotiated free travel into a thing of the past. Results were required, preferably with a profit and for that you need devout pilgrims. The goal is excellence and if you're looking for artistic pleasure you have to do it in your own time. It's got to be a serious endeavor. There's that 'it' again. Pressure to move up. Extra strong.
The first months I went through the motions. I'm a professional; I believed I had to stick to the rules. So I behaved like a devout pilgrim. I manipulated my producers into reaching their best achievements. I pushed them upwards. Pressured them to move up. I became a sort of Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street: 'The point is, ladies and gentlemen… greed is good. Greed in all forms – greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.' I was becoming a Despicable Mega Me. With each demand for achievement I stepped deeper into the path made by the procession of pilgrims. Every time I strove for a five-star review I deepened the path even more. Every time I goaded a young producer into also walking in that path, the groundwater rose some more and the sandy track became a mudbath. It sucked my feet deeper into the muck. It sucks our feet deeper into the muck. And I couldn't take it anymore.
But I'm a professional. The tourist in me rebelled. He'd faded into the background but was screaming at the top of his lungs. I could still only just hear him. Think of Good Will Hunting. Think about the two professors and the young recalcitrant prodigy. What did that professor say? 'We gotta give this kid direction. He can contribute to the world and we can help him do it.' And what did the other professor say? 'Giving direction is one thing, manipulation is another.' The tourist in me was right. I couldn't tell the difference anymore between 'giving direction' and 'manipulation'. I saw a corrupted pilgrim in the mirror. Orthodox and totally lost.
A slightly unusual intermezzo perhaps, but since Sunday I've had this stupid dialog in my head between the tourist in me and the pilgrim I've become.
TOURIST: 'Hey pal, the pilgrim's route is a hoax. It always has been. You're fooled into thinking there's a prize at the end of the journey: success, fame, fortune. All bullshit. It's all vain crap by dubious players and cowardly politicians. Don't fall for it. There's no prize. There's no such thing as success, fame or fortune. The moment you achieve something you just want more.'
PILGRIM: 'What do you get from all that backpacking? Want to remain the perpetual tourist? Then you'll never achieve depth in your work. Building up an oeuvre? Forget about it. Slowly but surely growing into a role? Forget about it. Acknowledgement and respect? Political influence? Forget about it. The perpetual tourist can only know one thing for certain: nothing is certain. Is that what you want?'
Anyway, I could see only one solution: quitting. Refusing. Not participating anymore. The finger to the system and all the smooth operators who make the system possible. Young creators, confreres, competitive colleagues, funding administrators, clerks, politicians. Let 'em all burn out for all I care. I imagined them being shocked by my stopping. I imagined that they would reconsider their own choices. That they too would quit. That the system would grind to a halt because my refusal would bring about an unstoppable domino effect. But it was all wishful thinking. I could see that. I could already see the jackals drooling secretively. Oh, he's going away, that creates a vacancy. I could already hear the faultfinders whispering. Told you so. I knew it all along. I could already see the bureaucrats shrug their shoulders. Oh well, life goes on. I could already see myself bummed out in the shadows. When does the first flight to the top of the pyramid leave? In other words, nothing will change. My refusal wouldn't be seen as a rebellion. Not to mention that it would never cause a domino effect. My refusal would be of no value whatsoever. None at all. So I was stuck. Glued. Until my nephew asked an impossibly big question. He got me thinking.
So back to the question. Pilgrim or tourist? Right now, I'm neither. I mean, I wasn't a born pilgrim anyway, but now I'm not a clear-cut tourist anymore either. The two types have merged into a new travelling type. A traveller lacking the pilgrim's compulsiveness and also lacking the tourist's cursory frenzy. Not a monk, not a surfer. I have become a new type of traveller. A pilgrim and a tourist all at once. A type who doesn't succumb to tunnel vision but stops, focuses when needed and combines depth and pleasure. I have become a traveller who increasingly enjoys searching. I search therefore I am. I search therefore I travel. I search therefore I enjoy. That type. I have become what I wanted to be as a child: James Bond.
Look: I travel a lot, search out many different artistic paths, I infiltrate policy bunkers, I shoot with live ammo, I flirt with everyone, occasionally find depth in a mission or a miss, but am always open to new directions. I talk as easily with the Minister of Education, Culture and Science as with a sixteen-year old actor with ADHD. I have found a dynamic balance between extreme focus and complete freedom. I am just as easily overly present as unfindable. I am allergic to unmitigated nitpickers, intellectual stuffed shirts and narcissistic artists. And I have a soft spot for nonconformists, unfortunates and the good-for-nothings of the night. I help them more and more often because I can see them get mired in a system where in order to make 'it' you apparently must possess a winner's mentality.
It's simply hard drugs. Delivered by a canny dealer. Artists are pushed into becoming devout pilgrims, into becoming successful. The pressure to move up is enormous. All around me I see young artists worn down by it. I see the desire to travel evaporate. I see copycatting because the artistic well is as good as dry. I see that the nonconformists and unfortunates don't get a chance to travel. So since last Sunday I assigned myself a sacred mission. Grow up, 007. Are you ready to get back to work? With pleasure M, with pleasure. I'm going to infiltrate the system even deeper and shake it up with a 9 on the Richter scale. Shaken, not stirred. Shake it well so unfettered travel will be made possible again. So that in the near future evaluation criteria will concentrate more on artistic values than economic norms. Shocking. Positively shocking. I will infiltrate the system, shoot with live ammo and deal ruthlessly with the addiction to achievement. I need to make sure that I then quickly disappear and am unfindable. Never give in to the addiction. If, when I return I discover that policy allows unfettered travel again, I will breathe a sigh of relief and I will react like Bond. James Bond. I must be dreaming.
© Caspar Nieuwenhuis, HKU University of Arts/Likeminds, 2016/201