You Can't Be What You Do
Dreams & Beliefs
Having dreams and having beliefs are usually two different things. Dreams are desires and hopes. Beliefs are codes and ideals. Together, these values help keep our lives afloat. They anchor us and give meaning to what we do and who we imagine ourselves to be. Occasionally, the two might intersect and reinforce one another. This is what passion is. The fire of youth, even. It's that burning certainty we all feel when our dreams and beliefs are so undeniably aligned that the purity of their union reduces any alternative to an afterthought. It's the raw energy that drives zealots and true believers of all varieties.
But as we get older, it's not enough to have dreams or beliefs. That's probably why we admire and envy children. Their dreams don't have to be tangible or even practical. If a child wants to grow up to be a tapir, that's just fine. If I were to tell you the same thing in my early 30s you might consider upping my dosage.
As Walter Benjamin once said, "The first experience the child has of the world is not that adults are stronger but that he cannot make magic."
And maybe that's all "adulting" really is; a realization, the admission being the acceptance of fiction. By acknowledging "unreality" we come to understand "reality".
As we get older we find that the world is no longer divided into neat categories. It is more complex. Less clear. Less certain. And, as a result, perhaps less passionate for, as an adult, you must also be useful. You must serve a purpose and contribute to your family, your friends, your community, your tribe, your nation, your world. Being an adult is less about being independent (for we never truly are) and more about enlisting one's self in that thing we call a society.
The Powerful and Useful
Maybe this is why our culture has always relied on a mythos of dreams. The Frontier. Neverland. Individualism. All of these concepts bristle against the notion of growing up and being a part of an adult society that forces us to make our dreams and beliefs useful to others.
Still, reality won't be denied.
As we leave schools and enter "the real world", the basic knowledge we all acquire, in one form or another, is that the potency of our individual passion will always be quantified in economic terms, not moral ones. Our success or failure depends as much on circumstance as it does intrinsic ability as we are forever subject to the machinery of pragmatism.
Our dreams and beliefs must often adapt if they are to survive (let alone flourish).
Each of us manages to cobble together some kind of self-justification to disguise our passions. We either find some way to adapt our beliefs and dreams to what we do or else squirrel them away by retreating into that comforting realm of hobby.
"By day, I'm a CPA but my TRUE passion is HAM radio."
But what happens to those of us who can't find some way to rationalize our function within society? Those of us who can't be useful? Those who cannot or will not adapt to such a life?
From a certain perspective, some might imagine that the truly "useless" people within society are the homeless. Drug addicts. The unemployed. Refugees. Starving artists. Philosophy majors. Loners. Crazy people.
Usefulness becomes a euphemism for power.
"My dreams and beliefs align with what is useful therefore I retain a position of power within society. My ideas are more valuable and valid. I am now an adult."
It is through this process of transition, between adolescence and adulthood, that we first discover the value of our dreams and beliefs. We come to learn that we are not the ones who settle the worth of our passion. It is determined by others.
Perhaps this is why the powerful remain so infantile. Most have never had to amend their dreams or beliefs and so retain an ironically childish perception of the world as 'adults'.
If wishes were horses, indeed.
'What is it that you do again?'
Can one be powerless and useful? Or, by that same token, can one be powerful and useless?
When Oscar Wilde proclaimed that, "all art is quite useless" in the preface of "The Picture of Dorian Gray", a modern reader might be inclined to take exception at the remark in that it appears to be an insult.
But then again, that's exactly the point he was trying to make, wasn't it? What is the purpose of a beautiful sunrise or a flower?
As a creative, there was a time when I believed that I could create apolitical work. In fact, the original title of our first short film "Prophecy" was "Sullivan" which was, in turn, a reference to Preston Sturges' 1941 film "Sullivan's Travels.
It's basically impossible to address what the movie talks about without spoiling the ending so consider this a warning.
The movie is about a commercially-successful film director who has become fed up making trivial comedies for a big studio. He wants to make a socially-conscious film. Something with pathos, depth, influence and meaning. For the purposes of research, he dresses up like a tramp and decides to see how the other half lives in order to "know trouble". By twists and turns, the director ends up with amnesia on a chain gang in the Deep South. One night, he's marched into a parish-turned-theater and the lights go down. A screening of a Disney cartoon is played. The hard-luck crowd bounces with joy. And suddenly the director has a revelation about his own ambitions as a "serious" artist.
At first glance, "Sullivan's Travels" might seem to be a a veiled affirmation of apathy. Don't try to change the world because all people want is a good laugh and a way to escape from their troubles. It can be topical, it can be provocative and it can be instructive. But, at the end of the day, it's just a movie. You might talk about "what it means" with your friends in a coffee shop but beyond that? True art is useless. It's entertainment. It has no real political value.
Movies are a powerful medium. They can be sensational and incendiary on a scale that is difficult to achieve in the classical arts. The power of that scale is evident in the paychecks of our stars, producers and directors.
However, the question remains: of what use is the filmmaker? Is she an entertainer or an artist? How is she supposed to use that power and for what purpose?
Anyone who has ever been involved in creative work has, at one point or another, been subject to that dreaded query:
"What is it that you do for a living?"
The inquiry seems innocent enough. But its interrogative. Probing. Like a shark searching out blood on the current.
"Are you useful?"
It's an easy enough question to answer if you're Steven Spielberg or Michael Bay. You're getting paid millions. That's economics. You are useful to people. Therefore you are of use to society. But what if you're not getting paid? Or you are poorly paid? What if you're just starting out? What if you have been working for years with nothing material to show for it? At what point can one claim usefulness?
We're All Tools
Propaganda is the artist's attempt to be useful.
This is not meant to slander the artist's craft or skill. Rather, it illustrates something key about the political energy of creatives and the anxiety we feel about about the role we would like to play in the world.
Some of the most influential filmmakers the world has ever known were outright propagandists. Consider Eisenstein, Riefenstahl or Capra. And that doesn't even cover all of the movies that have a political subtext or imperative. Think about those the black-listed Left-leaning writers in the 1950s or all the Hollywood celebrities-turned-activist.
Relevance is no substitute for universal themes or compelling characters but the key lesson of "Sullivan's Travels" is only half of the puzzle. If we are to believe that a person can't mix politics and great art, then how do you explain the enduring appeal of films like "Doctor Strangelove"?
It's a matter of degree. There's a reason why we call "Alexander Nevsky" propaganda and there's a reason why we call "The Battle of Algiers" art.
Commercial success, popular appeal and usefulness are not isolated factors. They influence and shape one another. They are not mutually exclusive.
In this sense, the work of a starving artist is not always symbolic of a 'pure art', nor is a big-budget super hero film devoid of 'useful' themes (RE: politics).
If creativity is a passion and art is an expression of our beliefs and dreams, refracted through an economic prism of books, paintings, movies, sculpture or music, how do we decide what has value and what does not? How can the individual values which influence the creation of work be anything BUT political?
Great art can serve a practical emotional purpose. But the danger of that utility is never far at hand, ever embodied by our common understanding of what is useful and powerful.
Let us imagine that creativity is a double-edged sword. It can cut both ways and it takes skill and nuance to be used properly and responsibly. There must be a point of balance. Because if such a "weapon" is simply a tool in the hands of an artist, we need not fear its potential.
I have family members who make six-figure salaries. I have more than a few friends who work in the tech industry. I know people my own age who have mortgages, kids, multiple cars and pets. They go on vacations to exotic destinations and host wine parties. They have careers. They work hard and commit themselves daily to the practical concerns of their lives and I admire them for it. They live with an unassuming grace and, in some ways, I'm even jealous of their ability to divest themselves of the romantic ideals.
They serve a purpose. They are useful to society. They are valuable. When someone asks them "what they do" they will respond quickly and easily and it's very clear that the question means nothing and everything.
To say that none of this makes me insecure would be a lie.
Once every few months I'll have an existential crisis and a part of me thinks that it's time for me to grow up and become useful.To become "an adult". But there's another part of me, a defiant and stubborn part of me, that enjoys the thought of making things awkward at the next family dinner.
The famous pied-noir author Albert Camus once remarked that, "the job of the writer is to prevent civilization from destroying itself."
This is the perfect kind of rationalization for the creative. It's vague enough to address our shared desire to be useful but indulgent enough to afford (some of us) the privilege of an endless childhood.
But our dreams are not uninterrupted. We wake. We go about our days. Then we fall back to sleep. Over and over again, reality and unreality coexist in the punctuation of life. This is the negotiation we must make with the society in order to salvage our passion.
For better or worse, we exist as part of a mundane world which demands our allegiance. We cannot exist in a vacuum. We cannot create, grow or live under the dislocation of an endless dream state. The considerations each of us make to facilitate that acceptance is the stuff of adulthood.
In this way, I may not be able to escape from the demands of reality but I can meet it on my own terms.
Over the past few years I have come to realize that there is nothing wrong with making something for myself. To create without consideration to anything or anyone beyond that which is personal. To create for its own sake. To be "apolitical". To explore "universal themes".
However, these notions can obscure what we truly mean.
What I was saying was that "I don't want to get involved. I am not involved. I am not a part of this world. I am free."
Yet none of us are truly free.
Like the child who has the privilege to divorce their dreams and beliefs from reality, I sense pride and insecurity in the celebration of "pure art".
If you can simply choose not to become involved or to avoid that which is "depressing" or "adult" then the only word I can think of is "bystander".
It's romantic enough to defiantly proclaim that we shall not abandon the "purity" of unadulterated dreams and beliefs.
But in the face of a growing darkness, the only way to overcome this feeble and childish response to the real world is to challenge it. The only way to make our dreams and beliefs useful to others is to explore that which disturbs and moves us when we are asleep and when we are awake.
If creatives hope to be understood and appreciated as mature beings, perhaps this is the bargain we must all make at one point or another.
We must acknowledge the world without accepting it.
I've had the luxury to entertain my dreams for far longer than I thought possible and for that I am grateful. It gives me a reason to live. But I cannot live as a bystander.