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The American Artist Working for a Living in America

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In essence the grim Puritan ethic towards the arts is still entrenched in modern America, and for that Americans all pay a price. Since  Anglo-American culture dominated the America landscape, the idea of the artist and the need to work in order to support their existence and  subsidize their creativity has always been one of controversy. The religious coda in the United States — one of submitting to the will of a Divine being with the social trappings of mysticism, occult ritual in some cases of different  denominations — includes the submission of the American arts and artists to that dogmatic expression. Nevertheless, there are very important exceptions for artists to be able to express themselves, in a vernacular or sophisticated manner, regardless of their genre, regardless of the decadence or even genuine spontaneous expression of the artist — as long as that art medium contributes to enriching the all-important capitalist system.

The arts in the United States, like any other product and commodity, enhances the economic enrichment of the various corporations and organizations that support such artists and their art forms.  It should be understood that the lack of what I would call an authentic and distinctive American culture has historically not contributed to any deep intellectual  ideas or philosophical thought or vision  expressed among the American people, for they are a practical people and only relate on the whole to the arts in a way  which contributes to their basic joys as well as their fear of a national catastrophe and their deeper fear of death. 

Certainly there are forms of  indigenous art in America like such music as the Blues, Jazz, Appalachian mountain ballads, including Mexican American corrido and Native American music from the various tribes that resist the oppressive ‘artistic’ mainstream in the United States. With the above expressions in mind of how I view the arts in America, I would like to give examples of two modern artists, both entirely different from each other, from different eras of the American artistic experience, yet both bonded by a  similar work ethic for which, paradoxically they received public torment.

First, the recent controversy about a well-known African American actor who was the object of  “job shaming” for his work  as a cashier at a New Jersey branch of Trader Joe’s, a well-regarded national grocery chain. The actor, Geoffrey Owens, who played major and minor roles in classical theatre, film, and  television, was perhaps popularly best-known for his years as a featured TV star on  "The Cosby Show."  Not the usual actor, he was fortunate enough to receive a very creative education in his youth — going to a public alternative high school in New York City known as  The School of Performing Arts: A Division of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, before attending Yale University, where he graduated cum laude in 1983.[i] 

The American Artist Working for a Living in America

For the American bourgeoisie and the nouveau riche, the very fact a so-called admirer of the actor Geoffrey Owens noticed him working in an ordinary position at a New Jersey  supermarket  was unforgivable. The woman who saw the actor at work in Trader Joe's in Clifton NJ  then posted a photo  of Owens on the internet, manifested as an act of "job shaming" — caught in the act, as it were, of  eking out a subsistence living between acting jobs — a "shame"  not only bestowed  upon the personhood of the actor himself but also on the very essence of what it means to be a legitimate American artist who supposedly had fallen from grace in being part of the larger  mainstream arts community .

In an account of this outrageous and insulting incident, a Huffington Post reporter described the customer’s encounter with Owens, noting how some mainstream news media viewed his supermarket position as evidence of his career ‘decline’: “Fox News and Daily Mail chose to not only report this but also, in the view of many, basically shame a man for having a ‘regular’ job and framing it with the negative connotation of ‘bagging groceries.'”[ii]  Here the crux of the matter, exposing not only the root of American capitalism and its hypocrisy concerning the work ethic, but also how the artist who succeeds, must always succeed, must always maintain not only economic stability or better, but never come down to becoming a part of the American working class community, not even "between acting jobs. "

The online economic news site  PayScale made a very subtle but astute observation on how the myth of the worker, the artist,  being strictly within a certain class position no longer exists as the decline of the United States takes place, by stating “Why should someone be ashamed of working a service gig when it pays better than a lot of other so-called professional work these days? (Looking at you, university adjunct teacher system.) PayScale’s data show average hourly wages of $16 at the company, and the benefits aren’t bad either.”[iii]

The American Artist Working for a Living in America

It is a fact that American artists are also part of the American proletariat, even as many American artists make their way into higher or lower pay scales within the American landscape.  They are not gods or deities in any sense of the word, and in fact, an observation can be made that American artists are as anti-intellectual as the majority of Americans and are prone to seeing themselves as exceptional until they fall from grace in one way or another. However, a few American artists transcend that unfortunate  predicament, and I would like to mention such an  exemplary individual in the conclusion of this essay. 

Not only was Louise Brooks an actress of the silent film era, but she was also very astute intellectually when it came to surveying  the American film industry as well as the human condition. Born into the professional class, with her father practicing law in Cherryvale, Kansas, Louise Brooks was a Midwesterner by temperament and mannerisms, although the elegance she displayed on and off the move screen was natural, as it always is with someone imbued with physical beauty, while also extremely intelligent.

Encouraged by her mother to read at a very young age, Louise Brooks (1906-1986} would use not only beauty but also her intellectual capacity even as she struggled with an incident that took place when she was only nine years of age. A neighborhood predator, an older man, sexually abused Louise Brooks and this tragic incident was to have a determinable effect on her life as an actress and in her relationships in general. What makes Louise Brooks’ sexual molestation even more  harsh is the way she remembered how her mother blamed her for leading the neighbor on.[iv]

The American Artist Working for a Living in America

What can take place among American artists in terms of their early experience of class and gender in relationship to the American experience only mirrors how in American culture like other cultures throughout the world, has its own depravity toward  children and is not an aberration. in any American community.  However, this American actress would in her youth become a dancer with a modern dance studio in Los Angeles and later would also have a prominent dancing position in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, before she came to the attention of the film studio Paramount Pictures.  It was not long before she loathed the Hollywood environment with its crassness, and left for Germany to work in films for great filmmaker, G.W. Pabst. In Europe, she made her most enduring and immortal films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, before she returned to America and Hollywood for more work, only to find she had been “blacklisted” because she would not submit to the crude advances of an American who headed of a film studio at Columbia Pictures.

After some failed marriages, Louise Brooks'  economic life begin to decline, and so she returned to Wichita, Kansas where her family had moved. But as she later would tell British theatre critic/writer Kenneth Tynan, “The citizens of Wichita either resented me for having been a success or despised me for being a failure”[v], and then she revealed she had actually contemplating suicide .Instead, she then made a bold decision — she decided to work like any other American worker. As she then confessed, “I changed my mind [about committing suicide], and in July 1946, the proud snooty Louise Brooks started work as a salesgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue. They paid me forty dollars a week. I had this silly idea of proving myself an honest woman, but the only effect it had was to disgust all my famous New York friends, who cut me off forever. Fore then on, I was regarded as that questionable East dame”[vi]

Long before the African American celebrity Geoffrey Owens was ‘job-shamed’ for working at a grocery store due to being out of work in the television industry, Louise Brooks found out during her era there was no forgiveness in America for an American artist to "fail" financially. Despite being known for her reading of serious authors such as Proust, Schopenhauer among other great thinkers and writers, ultimately she would die in semi-poverty, even as she gained attention across the various capitals of the Western world for her extraordinary creative talent as one of the greatest film actresses to have ever lived.

As the actress, 'kept woman,'  and sales clerk, Louise Brooks would publish just one book during her lifetime —  a series of candid  essays about her life as an actress in the American film industry, entitled Lulu In Hollywood,  which I deem a classical literary work. Before she died she stated, “Hollywood producers worshipped “class.”[vii] When summing up  her position in Hollywood with a few individual American artists like her, she would write “… our reputation for immorality excluded us from the parties of respectable Hollywood, which devoted itself to presenting a picture of moral beauty to the world, our reputation for sudden attacks of puritanism excluded us from the delights of the carefully arranged parties that ended for us after lunch or dinner when we were dismissed with a firm goodbye.”[viii] These sentiments of hers lead me as a historian to make this observation:  In these scandalous "job-shaming" episodes directed at people merely wanting to work,  it is not the American worker nor the American artist who is obscene, shamed, and shameful,  but the malignantly exploitive American culture that is obscene and has shamed us all


[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Louise Brooks, LULU IN HOLLYWOOD (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), Intro. XXXV.

[v] Ibid. Intro XXXiii

[vi] Ibid, Intro XXXiii.

[vii] Ibid. p. 110

[viii] Ibid. p. 107

Author: Luis Lázaro Tijerina