On Work Life, Bill Berry and Humanity
As some of you may know, I was finally sworn in at the 2nd Department, and am officially an attorney in the State of New York. The swearing in ceremony itself was an interesting event. Do you know why people have to raise their right hand when taking the oath? Apparently, back in the day, people who were found guilty of perjury had a letter “P” branded into their right hand – so that if they were ever called to take an oath before testifying, their history as a liar would be plain for everyone to see.
In any case, over the past few months, I occasionally get people who balk at the idea of working as an attorney while being a musician. It is, unfortunately, a view of modern society that the greatest goal of a musician is to be self-supporting with music. How this view ever came to be is a complete mystery to me, in part, because aesthetics is primarily a matter of the value of aesthetic objects and not about the lifestyle of the person who is making those objects, and most certainly not about whether the person who is making those objects is financially self-sufficient based on his or her sale of goods based on the production of those objects.
There’s been a number of articles over the past year that have talked about the relationship between employment, art, and this modern view of the artist. These articles usually talk about the struggle of the artist, and point to the difficulties that artists have in being self-sufficient with their art. Second jobs are portrayed as necessary evils – ones that take away from the time needed to create something of great artistic value – but ones which provide financial assistance that allows the artist to pursue art in the first place. Sometimes an article will discuss famous artists who managed to create something of great value despite having a second job. But the message is still the same. Having a non-artistic job is something that detracts from aesthetic pursuits. These artists managed to somehow succeed artistically while being dragged down by their other work. How much better it would be to not have to worry about money, and instead spend all of your time as an artist, one who uses the art as the very means of taking care of money?
I understand the attraction of the view, but I think it misses out on an important truth. Art is a kind of mirror that reflects human lived experience back at us, and so the value of art consists of nothing more than the value of those lived human experiences that we encounter. That said, the life of the self-supporting artist represents only one small portion of the totality of possible lived human experience. So, artists have a significant aesthetic interest in taking in as much of that experience as is possible, and then reflecting it back at the rest of the world to see.
I remember when Bill Berry left R.E.M. – some time around when I was 16 or 17 – I think a little bit after New Adventures in Hi-Fi had been released. There was talk of an aneurysm, difficulty with the stresses of touring and musician life, and something about him living the life of a gentleman farmer. I don’t know exactly what drove him to exit the full-time musician life, but to this day, I still picture Bill Berry, in a field of cabbages, staring off into the distance with those infinite shag carpet eye-brows. In any case, the life of the self-supporting musician is very different from the life of a farmer. It’s different from the life of a computer programmer. And it’s also different from the life of a lawyer. And what a great thing it would be, if musicians could reflect the totality of that lived experience for people to see. The life of a self-supporting musician is just a very small part of that totality.
So, I’m going to continue being an office jockey for quite a while. Let me tell you a few of the things that I’ve learned over the past few months: I finally understand the meaning of casual Friday. I learned that I have to wake up earlier in order to make lunch so I can save money on food instead of eating out. I’m learning how to make friends at work. I’m learning how to dress more professionally and act like an adult. I learned what its like to have someone depend on me for something really important. These are small but unqualified successes that make up my life lately, waiting to someday burst forth into song.