From Biker Bars to the White House: A Meditation on the Arts in the New Service Economy


LITTLE DID I SUSPECT, as a child coming of age on Indianapolis’ West Side, that I would grow up to be a typical, garden-variety Seven One One Five One Zero.

But that’s exactly what happened, and I stand before you now, unrepentant and unashamed.

711510 …  that’s the numerical value assigned to my life’s work by the Internal Revenue Service. 
Line B of Federal Tax Income Form 1040 Schedule C directs the taxpayer to “select the category that best describes your primary business activity” … Category 711510 designates independent artists, writers and performers.

To my Midwestern-bred sensibility, that’s a little pretentious. I’d just as soon be called something more down-to-earth … Art Maker maybe, or Note Hefter or Word Welder or Image Rigger. Especially if it would score an extra deduction.

So, how does a dedicated 711510 earn a living in the 21st century?

Pretty much the same way it's been done at the start of every century since the first human struck stick on stone and the audience dragged its knuckles to the beat.

Through an endless variety of expressive forms — cave drawing, motion picture, sonata, puppet show, ballet, shamanic medicine dance — the Artist has shown us what it is to be human. And potentially divine.

"Half Past D Major" by L.E. McCullough
© 2013 L.E. McCullough
The Artist gives us a mirror in which to look at and into ourselves and either approve of or be disgusted by what we see.

In concrete terms, if you really want to make a living as an Artist in these times, you'll do more than hold the mirror — you'll design it, craft it, figure out a way to market and sell it even as your audience is telling you (a) mirrors are too passé; (b) mirrors are too innovative; or (c) they don't know what a mirror is, or care to know.

“Hey, can you play Freebird, (Danny Boy, Strangers in the Night, Moves Like Jagger, etc. …)?"

As a professional musician for more than 40 years, I've done a lot of mirror holding.

·      I've performed at biker bars and mansions, street fairs and zoos, glittering shopping malls and maximum security prisons, Renaissance Faires and restaurants.

·      I've played for senators, governors, mayors, the President of the United States, some of the wealthiest humans on the planet, some of the poorest and most abject humans on the planet and pretty much everyone in between.

·      I've played for drunks, lunatics, strippers, actors, large animals, politicians, witches, nuns, carnies, soldiers, blind people, deaf people, dying and just-being-born people, plus virtually every existing business and social club convention from insurance adjusters to Veterans of the Spanish Civil War.

·      I've played for about 800 weddings (got one coming up this weekend), a couple divorce parties, numerous wakes and funerals, countless old folks' homes (30 in 10 days back in 1982 as part of a federal block grant in the western suburbs of Chicago), and the complete run of holiday parties from Christmas and Hanukkah to St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth and Earth Day.

·      I've played in dead silence, to the chatter of television, the roar of traffic, the soft whisper of a mountain breeze, the brittle tinkling of cash registers and ice cubes, the shrill whine of factory whistles, the surging echoes of a country church choir.

·      I've played on massive stadium stages, in dark corners, in basements, in penthouses, on riverboats, trains, buses, elevators, treehouses, upunderneath-in front of orchestras and standing on pool tables squeezed between a drummer and oversize bass amp taking extreme care not to spill the beer pitcher on the table below.

·      I've watched from the bandstand as police came into the nightclub and arrested the guy who had only moments before graciously placed a twenty-dollar bill in the tip jar.

I've never played behind actual chicken-wire, but I've seen shootings, knifings, brawls and astonishing acts of random, sudden violence erupt to the rhythm of our live soundtrack.

I HAVE, IN FACT, played nearly every sort of private and public gathering except a cockfight and an exorcism, and I can truthfully say I would forego the former no matter what the fee.

I exist photographically in several thousand scrapbooks, and several hundred videos owned by complete strangers I will never encounter again.

The millions of  notes I've dispersed into the air reside on tapes, records, CDs, iphones, in the crackling memory synapses of yet more strangers I'll never meet but who may well retain (or be plagued by) fragments of my melodies up to their very last conscious moment on earth.

And I have a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology. I'm idjukatid!

Ultimately, your economic function as a performer — no matter what your genre, no matter what your level of expertise and sophistication, no matter what the venue — is to stop people in their tracks and get them to do something your employers want them to do.

Your job is to contribute to an ambiance that convinces listeners to eat, drink, shop, flirt, get crazy, get mellow, get loose, get tight, or subscribe to the symphony season. You're pushing dreams, hope, visions, nostalgia. You inspire, teach, console, amuse, or infuriate and always transport your listeners to some other place they'd rather be.

You develop an emotional detachment like the musician so pungently depicted in Billy Joel's Piano Man.

You're a permanent outsider but also the center of the scene; the good times won't happen without you, the good times will go on long after you're gone.

You are part of the decor, as essential and no less expendable as the lamp shades, the place mats, the waitress uniforms, the bric-a-brac hanging from the walls.

The keen reader will pause and query:  "At what point is any of this Art? Certainly, no Artist begins their career possessed by the desire to play every Holiday Inn lounge on I-40?"

To which is offered this reply:  Art has never in any society been divorced from social function, which is ultimately an economic function that supports the society's political structure. Art happens because it gets paid for.

I have always seen Art as a means of making things happen, as being part of Real Life. 

MY FIRST WRITING gig came at age 13 when a shy friend paid me two dollars to write a love poem he could use to woo a prospective girlfriend.

Poetic enchantment was delivered, teen romance was enjoined, and I've been writing for hire ever since.

It's the same with the visual image.

"Surely," one hears from the gallery, "the 300-plus pictures you took at age ten of your cat Tuffy were done in childish abandon and purely for Art's sake?"

Maybe, but I entered a half dozen into a grade school science fair, won a shiny blue ribbon and realized then and there that the camera could tell stories about my life and who I was and wanted to be and what I felt that I couldn't communicate using spoken or even written words. In the years since, I've embraced film and video to expand the range of story-telling tools at my disposal.

There may be a genetic link to all this Art Begetting. My grandmother McCullough's maiden name was Berchem. Ten generations back from her in the family tree is a man named Nicolaes Berchem, who lived from 1620-1683 and was a well-known painter in Holland in his day. I can't draw a straight line across a page, but I've always been intrigued by the fact that this artistic ability existed way way way back in the murk of the family gene pool.

"Young Woman Tuning a Lute"
by Nicolaes Berchem
Berchem painted more than 1,300 known artworks encompassing landscapes, portraits, cityscapes, biblical and mythological scenes, battle scenes, harbor views — almost any kind of painting that existed in the 17th century — but most especially personal and family portraits of the rising Dutch middle class.

Berchem was a "fine" artist but no starving artist. He worked daily in his studio turning out paintings that were sold right off his easel. He also was hired by other painters to add figures to their landscapes because that was, apparently, a kind of specialty of his. Painting was more of a collaborative effort back then, like making a record or a film is today.

After he died, his paintings were sold — presumably by his widow — and are now in museums all around the world:  the Louvre, Buckingham Palace, the Hermitage, even my hometown Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Nicolaes Berchem was a classic 711510 of the 1600s — a working commercial artist, clearly successful by the standards of his day; yet he likely never had the idea that his work would survive four centuries beyond his demise.

He would have laughed at people analyzing his work to the extent art historians do today. He just wanted his customers to like what he did and pay him and get out of the studio so he could move on to the next job.

FOR ARTISTS working in the cloud-based, app-driven habitat of this new millennium, creativity is no more an abstract element than in Berchem’s era.

It's resoundingly, immovably concrete. It's deadlines. It's royalties. It's gigs. It's contracts. 

It's being a freelancer, an adjunct, a blogger, a personal assistant.

It's getting the job done quick and under budget this time, so you can get the call to do it again next time, possibly for a slight fee increase.

It's trying to plug your round creative sensibilities into the square holes of the commercial culture-slash-entertainment complex so you can eat and pay rent and exist to be creative another day.

And then, after that, maybe you get to create Art that is about something very personal, something that comes from very deep inside you, something to which no employer, no patron, no critic, no audience member, no one but yourself has any claim.
Have we wandered far enough afield from our original digression?

Then answer this:  

How do 21st-century makers of Art — Note Hefters, Word Welders, Image Riggers, Motion Seizers, et. al. — reconcile their creative impulses with the demands of the omniscient, omnivorous marketplace that nurtures yet abandons, refines yet confines, promises so much yet rewards so tangibly little?
The Artist's skill in preserving and presenting society's rituals, history, values and beliefs is essential, be it via the Bible or the latest Taco Bell commercial.

For millions of years, the Artist has been keeper of important, often sacred information, without which society cannot properly function — physically or spiritually.

"Good to the Last Drop" by L.E. McCullough
© 2015 L.E. McCullough
That is no less true in today's new service economy in which every form of human endeavor is reduced to bits and bytes ... every note, every keystroke, every pixel an Artist creates will exist in parallel course with real-time, real-life emotions, urges, aspirations of the human body politic of which the artist is an inseparable member.

Art has almost always been a "service trade" ... perhaps for the first time in recorded history, the Artist has the opportunity to serve not just a commercial need or otherworldly religious cause but the cause of Art itself

And not only to survive but flourish in the process.

That's got to be worth a couple extra deductions on Schedule C. * * *