Be A Sign

If we reject meritocracy and its rewards, what motivates us to make art?

Hello friend,

Last week’s letter inspired quite a few responses, many more than I expected, a pleasant surprise, since I had been very close to ditching that topic and writing about something else altogether, because who wants to read a middle-aged straight cis white man in the professional-managerial class on the subject of his lack of artistic exposure? But my instincts said send it, so I sent it.

It turns out that a lot of you feel similarly, regardless of your identities, and over the course of the week my correspondence with some of you led me to the idea that maybe this is worth exploring in more depth.

Many folks seemed to agree with the idea that art worlds (by “art world” here I mean the set of cultural, economic and political practices that are the environment in which an art form is publicly practiced) are by and large unhealthy and exploitative. If we’re going to reject those worlds and their way of doing things though, then we find ourselves without any of the benefits those worlds offer (and they do offer benefits, otherwise nobody would participate). Some of the benefits probably aren’t truly beneficial and may cause more harm than benefit, at least on a spiritual level (celebrity, for example). But some are actual goods, like providing occasions and mechanisms for other humans to experience what you make. Another is that they provide ideology, which sounds sinister because we’re used to hearing that word to describe thought systems we disagree with, but really, an ideology is just a filter through which to see the world, and not only do we all have them, but we all need them. Without them we can’t function, because we’d be spending all our time trying to come to agreement with each other about basic things like how to recognize truth or what should be prioritized amongst a set of possible tasks.

Art worlds each come with an ideology that you must accept to participate. For example, I can’t march into a concert hall and demand that everyone stop focusing on sounds and silences and instead focus on pigments and shapes. I mean, I could, but after security removed me from the building, people would forget about me except, perhaps, as a joke. That’s because the ideology of the music world is focused on things like sounds and silences instead of on things like pigments and shapes, and if switched, it wouldn’t be itself any more; it’d be something else.

But each art world comes with ideological baggage that is also unhelpful and unhealthy. Each of the art forms, over time, for example, has created a caste of celebrities, people who are, as the word’s root suggest, constantly in a state of being celebrated, presumably, but not definitely, for their accomplishments in the art form in question.

I wouldn’t want to be one, in any case, because, as I mentioned above, I would worry about my spiritual health. But the celebrity system itself is also, I think, an arrangement that exists to reinforce capitalism and its interests, one of which is to create and maintain a fairly permanent upper class. Anywhere a celebrity system arises, one of the first things it does is divide practitioners of any art form into classes. These classes aren’t just about exposure (whose work gets seen more) but also literally about class - in the poetry world for example, the kind of celebrity that exists for poets means publishing deals, appearance in journals, teaching positions, grants, participation on panels, being asked to read, winning prizes, in short all the cultural and economic goods specific to poetry, disproportionately go to the already-famous (“fame” here being relative to the poetry world, of course), and those goods ultimately result in money.

This means that the ideology of an art world also brings with it a set of unspoken motivations, that is reasons for doing things. At the heart of these is survival itself, and the basic human need for society. To survive and thrive in an art world, one must “pay one’s dues” and “play the game.” That one writes poems is not enough; one must also be published in journals, for instance. Getting published in journals, and then winning a book contest. These activities are proof of work in the poetry world; the poems, in a sense, are almost incidental.

It’s about class in another way as well; you may have noticed that the goods offered by the poetry world in my example are goods if and only if you have the free time and available money to spend making use of them. For example, to properly participate in the poetry world, you need both free time and money to submit to journals, many of which require a submission fee. But it’s really the time spent that becomes a barrier to many people. The poetry journal system was modeled after academic journals in general, and it assumes one has enormous amounts of free time to make and keep track of submissions, which is not the case if one is poor or middle class and must hold down a job, or if one is a parent of young children, for instance. On the other side of the equation, poetry journals are largely staffed by volunteers, which means they’re staffed primarily by the sort of people who can volunteer, which usually means college students. As I mentioned in last week’s letter, the opportunity costs here result in a “bubble” that favors certain styles and certain subject matter that mostly reflects the worldview of the academic members of the professional-managerial class. Poetry quickly becomes an activity only the privileged can participate in. And based on what I’ve learned about other art forms, the situation is very similar.

There are many reasons to be suspicious of that kind of system.

If we are rejecting that system, then we might, after years of having an external ideology provide structure, occasion and motive, find ourselves without any of those helpful mechanisms. And so we must replace them with others.

I’ll focus on structure and occasion in the future; today I want to end by talking about motive: why write poems? Why make music? Why paint?

I suggested in my previous letter that “art for art’s sake” isn’t actually possible; even William Blake and Van Gough made their art with the hope that it would be experienced by others. But if the rewards of the celebrity system aren’t coming my way, and it’s reasonable to expect that only a small few will ever experience my art, then it can feel demoralizing.

Part of this is probably because I’m already wounded by the celebrity system; it has, to some extent, corrupted me such that even believing what I do about it, I still accept, unconsciously, some of the tenets of that ideology, and it will be lifetime work to heal from that, which is a long-winded way of saying that sometimes it hurts that the goods promised by that system haven’t come to me, even though I know intellectually that some of them aren’t good for me, and the rest come at the price of damaging and exploiting others and myself.

But also, I think of a snippet from the book of Proverbs in the Bible: “without a vision, the people perish.” That is, without a way of articulating what the future could be like if we worked a certain way, then we can’t thrive. If I reject the vision packaged with the celebrity system, which is really a focus entirely on visibility, then I need my own vision. Visibility is a poor substitute for vision.

The one I’m going to suggest, the one that seems to be working for me, in the sense that I’m finding it a little easier every day to divest myself from celebrity system thinking while also finding it a source of inspiration for writing itself, is one that is well-summed up by this passage from the novel “The Freedom Artist,” by Nigerian writer Ben Okri:

"Why are you doing this?" Ruslana asked.

"In these times, all we can do is be a sign," her father replied.

"But won't it get you into trouble?"

"We're in trouble anyway. No one can live in peace in times like this. We have to help to bring about the end of the world."

"The end?"

"Yes, the end."


"So that a new, beginning can begin. But first there must be an end."


"How what?"

"How do we bring about the end?"

Her father laughed. It was a rare laughter. "All these things you will know for yourself. sooner than you think. I will no longer be here. You must learn to rely on yourself to trust the guidance of your light. You must be a sign"

"A sign of what?"

"The end. The beginning." He looked at her. "A sign for the world to wake up and arise a sign of magical revolution, the revolution of the spirit.”

I could write several letters about this passage, but right now I’ll focus on one aspect: be a sign. Notice that the admonition here isn’t the make signs, or post signs, but to be a sign. I think Okri is using sign here in a multivalent way, sign as a message from the divine, but also sign in the sense the deconstructionists use it, that is, a word, a symbol. Thanks to my Christian upbringing this has resonance with the opening of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.”

In Okri’s novel, certain characters discover they have a single word inside them that they themselves don’t know, and they spend their lives trying to know the word, and to let it out. The word is a gift to them often from an unknown or mysterious source. But once they acknowledge the word and begin to look for it within themselves, their perspective on the entire world changes.

This is what I’m suggesting might be a better, healthier motive than book deals or publishing or recognition: to be a sign. The word is within me and my life’s work isn’t to get a page in Wikipedia or to win a prize. It’s to articulate that word, the be a sign that brings about the end of the world, and the beginning of a new one, to use Okri’s language. (Again, there is a lot that can be said about the end of the world, too much for this already-lengthy letter. Another time!)

This ultimately means that my motive is to have a better, more intimate relationship with myself, and with my art. To be a sign, I must get to know my word. To do that, I must know myself, learn to listen to myself, be aware of my faults in a compassionate way, and to not turn away from the tension of disagreeing with myself.

Just like my relationship with my wife doesn’t have a goal, and my friendships with many of you don’t have goals, so too my relationships with poetry and music shouldn’t have goals either. As with those people I love, I should show up and be present and be fully myself and let what happens between us happen. Instead of focusing on the milestones of any celebrity system, my focus should be on spending time with my art, being present for it, listening to my inner word, listening for no purpose other than the delight that comes with that connection.

This past week I had a day to spend with my younger son. Should we go to Coney Island? An art museum? To get ice cream? He wanted to go to Central Park. When we got there, we wandered for a bit and then he said “let’s sit on this bench.” So we did, and spent the bulk of our day on that bench, idly chatting, watching the dogs and joggers. Toward the end, he said “I’m just really enjoying sitting here with you.”

That, I think, is what to do with my art, and also why I keep doing it.

In thinking about what it means to “be a sign,” I’m reminded of two older poems of mine. Both of them mention my father, showing very different sides of him, at his best and at his worst. To be honest when I picked them that hadn’t occured to me, but as I reflect on it, I think this makes sense, since both poems wrestle with the idea of how legacy affects our waysof seeing the world.

The first, “My Father’s Drums” is from my book Crown Prince Of Rabbits:

My Father's Drums

were red but nothing like the color

of a wound. Strawberry, with metal

flecks so stagelight flirted

off them like they were always a new

creation. I sat behind them, age five.

There is a photo somewhere. He played

in rock bands some but mostly church.

though one pastor wouldn't allow drums

to be played at all. At home there was a music

room in the basement where he'd set

them up & rehearse, a great fuss

filling the walls. He knew how to get

them talking. The arms that once carried me

& my sisters let loose & the drums said a stampede

in heaven they said skyscrapers

collapse they said all banks fail

they said love is not a tame thing.

He offered to teach me but I was terrified

of failing, same fear whose tempo

thunders in me when I unfold

a poem in front of a microphone. I wish

I had bought them when he sold

the trap set to a friend though I'd have lost

them to the flood of 2011 if I had –at least

they still live their red & raucous

life, huddled together like a small city

or an order of mendicants

each one with its unique role like a league

of superheroes or the apostles. Once Dad told

me he wanted his music to heal

people. I used to imagine tendrils

of pure light flicking out like electricity

from them as he played, that his serious brow

and gritted teeth came from the costly

work of playing as if playing were praying,

inviting God to inhabit the instruments

like some invite God into their hearts

& yes, I have been avoiding

that comparison, drum & heart

because they are too similar

or because I have been warned I am too

sentimental but the honest truth

is that when I was a boy I opened my mouth

and let the drums all in & a heart is a drum

turned inside out so I have two hearts

now, the one ushering my blood

& this other one that hungers

for music so that when I hear a new song

I'm always hoping maybe this one

will heal me & I am always digging

in the places where fear has taken root

in me when I write, am always peeling

back the layers, probing my wounds

for light because –& I could give a straight

up goddamn if you call me sentimental–

I too want to make a healing music.

The second is “Ode To My Friend Who Totally Did Not Sew Ku Klux Klan Hoods & Place Them On The Heads Of The Mother And Child Depicted In A Statue Honoring The Confederate States Of America.” Here, to be a sign meant coming up with a creative way to protest. It made the news, my friend was charged with littering, and acquitted thanks to an old law that protects pamphleteers from being prosecuted for littering. He inspired a pair of copycats to do the same thing, and now the statue has been removed.

Ode To My Friend Who Totally Did Not Sew Ku Klux Klan Hoods & Place Them On The Heads Of The Mother And Child Depicted In A Statue Honoring The Confederate States Of America

My parents taught me being racist

is bad but also on the wall of family photos

next to Jesus hung a portrait of our ancestor the colonel

in the traitor army who went to war to protect

the practice of owning people. Wasn’t he one of the bad guys

I asked, & was told he was defending his home

which is a lie just like the lie the police

told the court when they charged you with littering

so they could arrest you & take you to jail

which they did putting you in the same company

as Martin & Malcolm & the brothers Berrigan

making you more like Christ than my parents

or me who is maybe not angry enough in the right

ways. I have an attitude problem which is that I don’t

have enough of a problem with authority

though that is what our country most desperately

needs right now. I wish I had the courage to risk

like you do but on the wall of family photos

in my heart is a picture of my father

who shares racist posts on the internet

& calls himself a prophet & if I have one duty

to myself, my father, & the world

it would be to tell him he’s wrong

which, like your sartorial vandalism might change nothing

but minds & really, writing poems

is easier than being met by the sheriffs

of my father’s bitterness or feeling the handcuffs

of his steely narrowed eyes cinch tight or standing

in the court of his disfavor & pleading not guilty

by reason of racism is bad. The judge should have laughed

your charges out of the courtroom

because of what a patriot

is & that this country needs troublemakers

to remember it was born at a vandal’s tea party

it needs your backtalk, it needs you

like I, my friend, need you to never shut up.

One of you mentioned the fact that I wasn’t doing very much plugging of my own creative efforts in the last letter. Here I will attempt to remedy that by linking to a song by my band Love In The Ruins which is a sort of anti-gatekeeper manifesto:

“They Won’t Even See Me” (Bandcamp | Apple Music | Spotify )


For an incisive analysis of how class affects not just the material conditions of artists, but also the content of what they write, check out this essay by Naomi Kanakia, which asks why characters in “literary” fiction often don’t have anything most of us would recognize as a job.

I thought these two poems, “Nature” by Bianca Stone, and “Drowning Creek” by Ada Limón, resonate interestingly with each other.

In their most recent newsletter, Real Life Magazine examines the ways in which social media has colonized our ability to react to anything with honesty, because some part of it is necessarily a performance.


Last week my wife, son and I went to Brooklyn-based instrumental band House Of Waters’s  record release show. The band is a jazz trio of hammered dulcimer, electric bass and drums. Their new record is energetic and gorgeous.

While there, we made a new friend in Priya Darshini, whose Grammy-nominated debut album, recorded on a single microphone in a church, is also quite beautiful.


Last weekend I went to see the exhibition “DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash” by Brooklyn artist Duke Riley, showing at the Brooklyn Museum until April 2023. Duke is a friend of a friend; in the 2010s he ran an actual speakeasy in Greenpoint called Rotgut. One needed a membership to gain entry, and it was a gathering place for the last remnants of old pre-gentrification Greenpoint, artists and freaks and wierdos.

The exhibit focuses on our relationship to trash and grounds itself specifically in New York, but its themes and methods are thought-provoking and the art itself is absolutely beautiful.

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