When I hike a trail on which I am comfortable and feel myself miles away from the things I cannot control, I get a feeling I can only describe as a sense of escape. I find my problems tend to come on hikes with me, and, indeed, I sometimes use my walks to try to work out my problems and concerns. But the isolation gives me a sense of distance from the emotional immediacy of the problem, a kind of meditative detachment which I find invaluable. I feel calm overtake me like a contagion, seeping through my pores, giving me a kind of quiet euphoria to which I have become entirely addicted.
I think sometimes the true function of any accessway to the arts is that sense of inevitable escape. So many times day to day life seems to me a minefield--perhaps a minefield by accident and not by design, but the shrapnel stings just as badly. When I read a novel, I'm escaping from the reality before me, but when the novel is congenial to me, I'm escaping to a place where I'm required to go. I've always been attracted to the notion of a room with many mansions, which I conceive as a great metaphor for the geography of the mind. In my mind, Barsetshire, Darrowby, Hobbiton, Arrakis, and the Drones Club all are tangible locations, to which I bicycle on some now-sold Peugeot bike, all by opening a slender volume and simply reading.
I think it's possible to be dismissive about the importance of being a reader of literature, a viewer of art, and a listener to music. Certainly, groupies don't line up outside concert halls, saying "you *listen* to that CD, can I help comfort you?". It's true, on the other hand, that megalithic corporations spend untold millions of dollars trying to figure out what entertainment consumers wish to buy. One who merely reads and listens looks forward to a life arguably less filled with sex, drugs or rock and roll, but perhaps with better product placement and less fuss and bother with recoupment of expenses prior to royalty.
I've come to mistrust over time the ubermensch mentality so pervasive in two of my favorite arts, pop music and cinema. In some ways, I used to enjoy the fact that walking myths, envisioned by major corporations, created a kind of mystique behind people who seemed to me in many ways ordinary other than a particular gift for acting or singing. Who can resist the myth of Audrey Hepburn? People need stories, and Hollywood studios and Nashville record companies and London music tabloids provide them.
But a great deal of the 'hold' which the corporate purveyors of the arts held over the groundling consumers of the arts was that they offered a commodity too expensive for the ordinary creator of the arts to generate. Nobody could get a distribution deal without a major label recording contract. Books were prohibitively expensive to market without a proper marketing organization.
In this better time, though, the cost to self-produce a book or a CD, and get internet distribution for it, is so dramatically reduced. Nobody is shut out of the marketplace for these creative expressions. The days when one could only market by impressing the a & r guy ('love your work, really. really love your work') and signing off the profit potential in one's first album or by having an agent who somehow convinces three people in New York that you're a marketable commodity are over. Now it's possible to entirely by-pass the major corporations which controlled the traditional music and publishing media.
It's none too soon, either. As I turn my radio dial, and find myself besieged with choices between one predictable ClearChannel station and another, I realize that as a listener, I must find my own congenial music, as the radio cannot find my soul. I love a lot of major label releases still, and do not wish to pretend I am "too good" for commercial rock. On the contrary, I like a lot of "commercial rock". But I've also come to realize that the days in which large record labels (or even small, sporty, 'we're cool until we get large enough not to be' record labels) dictate much of my tastes are gone. Of the things I've bought in the last year, the things I listen to most are all products of small labels, and in at least one case, the product of a self-releasing artist.
I don't mean to imply that "small is always good" and "big is always bad". My view of corporate provision of media to consumers is much more benign than that. I'll read a Daw sci fi, buy an REM album, or watch any of a zillion major studio schmaltzy releases.
I don't have much patience with the "I'm hipper than you" approach to being an arts consumer.
But I notice that as the internet continues to kill that dinosaur which is "big media", the ways of escape presented to me as a consumer of material increase. I am interested in a book, on, say "blitz chess", and I google to a fascinating independent release available for a simple Paypal transfer. I wanted to find ambient artists whose style matched my tastes, and I literally googled to the hypnos record label. Whereas my entertainment escapes previously required me to follow well-blazed (and saleable) trails designed for my leisure escape by folks in suits in corporate boardrooms, now i can find my escape in a world of places.
Small presses and small labels have always existed and have always drawn a part of my entertainment dollar. But now I feel as though the first thing I am apt to buy is a niche something that directly appeals to my favorite forms of music and my favorite topics for books. As a music and book consumer, I'm able to direct myself into what I truly like, and not merely what corporate America has on offer.
I think this is a key change--the arts consumer is no longer a passive Nielsen family, merely changing channels among different corporate offerings, a kind of pavlovian experiment for advertisers.
Now I can mold directly with my dollars precisely the forms of expression I wish to consume. Some of my dollars, I'll grant you, will go to see Meg Ryan (assuming she ever again makes a movie I wish to see). But no longer is this a multiple choice exercise given by a corporate test proctor. I can find my escapes along trails of my own choosing, using an internet which does not force me onto some corporate concrete.
I think that the net result (and 'net result) of all this is that many of the 'hero worship' barriers eventually will fall between the producers of the arts and the consumers. I read on page 2 of my newspaper each day about some celebrity that had to get one more restraining order against one more deranged fan. Now the deranged are a sad fact in life, and not the fault of corporate America. But I do wish for the day when creative people are treated as people, and not as godlings. I'm bored of making gods of men and women, not matter how much admiration I have for the Hollywood publicity machines.
I see around me a culture of excess--dramatic class division, worship of the superficial, and extensive pandering to a coarsening of response. I do not pretend to be one who stands back from bathing in this particular fountain. You'll find me glued any TV which features the young Lauren Bacall, and I still remember just how Buffy smiled in the final episode of that show I loved so much.
But as a consumer of the arts, a reader, a listener, and a watcher,
I find that I hunt for ways to get away from the myths, and listen to and read people, not fairy tales. I think, too, that the divisions between reader and writer, audience and artist, all will break down tremendously. Some people are artists and writers, it's true, just as some people do great carpentry and others are great lab technologists. But the time when the sharp divisions arise between the product and the consumers begin to melt away. I'd love to see a world in which fewer people became icons, and more people earned a living in creative pursuits. I think this can only come when the arts need no longer generate massive corporate profits, but instead become the province of small business.
I'm not a dewy-eyed anti-capitalist, convinced that the earning of profit is a bad thing. I'm not even an anti-corporatist, certain that no sin existed before stocks were issued in lieu of a collective. But my observation is that what keeps this country (and its democratic friends) workable is when as much economic power as possible is located in the hands of small business, not large corporations. The current government's effort to pander to large corporations, while small business and consumer dollars do not get spent in the economy, seem to me to illustrate how the corporate oligarchy still imagines that it is the key to prosperity, when it is the consumer and the small businessperson who is the key.
I take my hiking trails out of this sheer stress and tension of daily life where I can find them, whether offered by large corporations or obscure individuals. I notice that more and more the secret passageways into the hidden gardens I seek are generated by people who live in obscure towns (as I do), generate work themselves, and then sell it to me through the internet. I believe that inevitably, the key to taking back this country from major corporations will be small business access to the internet, even as the FCC works hard to award the radio and TV airwaves to Republican contributors.
I'm not starry-eyed about it--some indie stuff is good, some is not to my taste at all. But I want music that touches the small places I live, books that address the things I wish to read, and film that does not merely pander to the lowest common denominator. In the long run, I cannot escape that I must find hidden passages out of corporate America, and that the roadways may be marked only on cheap websites on the internet. I don't need heroes to worship or goddesses after which to lust. I need music that matters, films that intrigue and books that delight. I will not live in a world which obsesses over the lost virtue of Ms. Britney Spears, nor the
balcony dangling tactics of Mr. Michael Jackson. So I must hike other, quieter, yet more interesting trails. I'm off to do so.