I was at a gig last week and two things occurred that haven’t happened for at least two years.
1) Prometheus and I performed together, and;
2) I was watching him and I knew that I couldn’t follow it.
He and I used to gig together a lot, but both living such hectic lives and having young families has made it a rare event these days. When he comes to watch, I always try and push Prometheus into getting onstage. This night, I didn’t so much convince him, as the room did. It had that special feeling in the air.
I knew he’d get up and be better than me, but I didn’t care, I’m too big a fan.
He has always been ranked in my all time favourite comedians. He has a talent with the unique naturalness that makes it fit the definition of the word: “gift”.
His set was amazing to watch, it was greatness and everyone there knew it. It was an eye-opening moment of revelation about how good comedy can be, for the audience and also for the comedians watching.
In the middle of all of the hectic hilarity that Prometheus was creating at his whim, a nearby comedian said: “Why didn’t he move to Melbourne and make it?”
My response was immediate: “Make it? What do you mean? He has just walked onstage after only doing 5 gigs all year, with no planned material and has done twenty of the funniest minutes I’ve ever seen! He has just walked on stage, grabbed the crowd instantly and has taken them everywhere he has wanted to go. What do you mean ‘make it’? He’s made it. That is making it! That is how you make it! He has made it!”
Comedy is an art form, in that it is capable of producing art, amazing and sometimes momentary art. If you make art, you know when you’ve made it. You don’t always make it. But on this night, we all knew it had been made.
I know what the other comic meant is that Prometheus is amazing and so why hasn’t everyone in Australia recognised it? And why isn’t he filling theatres and touring all year round – that is “making it”.
It might be that he actually really loves his wife and kids and enjoys spending time with them?
It might also be that it is possible to be really good at something, without needing to become a martyr to it, leaving your home and everything you hold dear as you blindly chase the horizon in pursuit of all kinds of external validation as evidence that you have made it.
Or it might even be that most people in Australia only recognise “genius” when they are told and sold what it is, by people who don’t necessarily know what it is either, and so the whole idea of engaging with it seems soul destroying and unnecessary.
It’s crazy I know, but maybe what the “industry” has chosen to define as “making it” – touring constantly, creating and participating in mediocre panel television programs, writing endless self-flagellating and/or self congratulating podcasts and occasionally pretending to be edgy at an award’s night – has nothing to do with “making it” at all.
Here is what I think: Art is what the children of poor people make, that the children of rich people attempt to imitate as they spend their inheritance trying to be artists.
Seeing art, other rich people see it as an opportunity and decide to build structures around it to capitalise upon the art and the artists, creating systems that ultimately aim to create as many duplicates as they can as quickly as possible.
But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that anything but the first step in the process is important to “making it”. You can have as many art schools, arts degrees, defined pathways, talent show competitions and prizes as an attempt to imply that it is how an artist is “discovered” or “made” – but it isn’t. We already know it isn’t.
It’s just a system for finding shiny, well meaning duplicates, with slight variations, covering broad demographics and if you are lucky it’s the system that ultimately serves as a catalyst for a rebellion and the creation of new artists. But otherwise it is just noise and distraction. Yes, there are artists who find it possible to create art within these constraints, but that doesn’t mean it is how you make it or that you ever have.
I called my friend Prometheus, because an artist is like the mythical Prometheus – stealing fire from the gods. Just like the act of stealing the fire, art is an act of courage and it enables progress. But what most people think of as “making it” is the second part of the Prometheus story. Where the Promethean artist gets bound to a rock and each day the birds of prey come and eat their liver. Then they must keep regenerating it so the next day it can be eaten again, and if they can’t keep regenerating it, there are plenty of other people willing to try. That’s the “industry” contribution to the art, but it’s not the art. Yes, you can make a lot of money if you are tied to the right rock, but that’s not the brave bit, that only happens when you can steal the fire.
I don’t think anybody should think about “making it” as trying to get tied to the rock. That misses the entire point. Now, I am definitely not saying that talented people who work hard and get recognition are not artists. I am also not saying that art and industry can never combine in a setting that enables an artist to create some great art. I am also not saying that an artist should not profit from their art – why shouldn’t they? Plenty of other people are certainly trying to.
But what I am saying is that when it comes to an artist’s definition of “making it” – it should be focused on the act of stealing the fire. You have to be trying to steal the fire, or some other element that we haven’t stolen from the gods yet.
Stealing the fire is important. It is taking the elements and making something new, it’s a step forward, sometimes it’s a leap forward. Like Prometheus, it is a risk-taking and defiant act, a moment seized that enables progress for the artist and sometimes for all of us.
Focusing on anything else but stealing the fire is meaningless, artistically constraining and ultimately really, really bad for your liver.