1) Troy, you have recently endeavored to release a book from my own press Transcendent Zero Press. Perhaps you could tell us about the book, the process that went into it, and what inspired it.
Hear the Screams of the Butterfly is the story of what lead to the nervous breakdown and hospitalization Patric Molny as told by Patric as he is trying to recover. The story is put together by an anonymous friend, who introduces us to the story, and puts in the occasional note through the novella to keep us up to speed on his process of putting the book together from a combination of Patric’s writings in the hospital and rants and poems Patric had written prior to his being committed. The stated purpose of Patric telling his story is help him work through what led to his breakdown.
I got the idea for writing this novella from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther – not just the idea of a young man telling the story of his falling in love with a woman he could not have, a plot point Hear the Screams of the Butterflyshares with Werther – but the reason Goethe himself wrote Werther, as a way for him to work through his feelings he had having lived through a similar situation himself. Patric is writing the story to try to help himself work through his feelings and, hopefully, recover.
I finished writing the first draft of this novella about 20 years ago, after I dropped out of graduate school. I was studying molecular biology at the time, had grown dissatisfied with molecular biology because I was both bored with it and frustrated that I couldn’t do many of the projects I wanted to do. Further, I was beginning to read more literature and philosophy – Nietzsche especially – and I was becoming more and more interested in becoming a fiction writer. Actually, I had been writing fiction since I was twelve, when I attempted my first book. I had tried to write another novel in college, though it was definitely a piece of juvenilia. And I was writing short stories as well. Naturally, none of these works were very good, with one or two exceptions, but you have to write through the bad works as you learn to get to something good.
Other than a few poems and a short story, Hear the Screams of the Butterfly was by far the best thing I wrote at the time. That’s why it’s survived the past 20 years and various revisions and edits. It still managed to hold up, at least in my mind, and so I held on to it. Now, at last, I found a place I thought would appreciate the work, and given that it’s finally on its way to publication, it seems I was right.
Given that it was written 20 years ago, my memory on the process that went into writing Hear the Screams of the Butterfly are, to say the least, a bit fuzzy. There is a great deal in the novel that is autobiographical, in no small part because it was such an early work, and I was taking “write what you know” fairly literally. At the same time, I never went into a mental hospital, so I had to draw almost exclusively on imagination for that aspect. More than that, though, I did a great deal of research. Patric in a certain sense “knows” far more than I did at the time, because Patric was writing things off the top of his head that I had to look up. I researched the meanings of dream images, the language of flowers, mythologies of various cultures, the meanings of gemstones, etc. and used that research to try to create a network of symbols throughout the work. These all contribute to the meaning(s) I hoped to create within the work. And of course, it’s based on any number of things I was reading at the time, and to which I make reference in the work, including of course Goethe’s Werther and Nietzsche’s philosophy. So my writing process was really quite involved, if you consider all of the literature and philosophy I was reading and all of the research I did to create the networks of meaning in the novella.
2) What are your expectations for publishing this book?
Why, fame and fortune, of course! In all seriousness, I just hope I can get a few good readers, readers who will enjoy the novella, perhaps even love it. That’s all any writer really wants: to have people who want to share his attempt at beauty.
3) You are an outspoken libertarian. How does that factor into your writing? Also, you are called a “multidisciplinary scholar”. What does this mean exactly?
I would actually classify myself more as a “classical liberal” than a libertarian, and that may not even be the most accurate term, since my ideas are not based on the same kinds of science and philosophy developed by the classical liberals. I make the distinction because libertarianism is a political position, whereas classical liberalism is a more complete world view. Also, there are some things a classical liberal might support that a libertarian definitely would not. The same is true of whatever one may want to call my current world view, which has some similarities as classical liberalism, but is founded on a combination of complex systems theory and spontaneous order theory, fractal geometry, chaos theory, bios theory, information theory, game theory, constructal theory, evolution, evolutionary and cognitive psychology, emergence, Gravesean psychology, J.T. Fraser’s philosophy of time, and similar ideas.
In this broader sense, it is impossible that my overall world view could not factor into my writing. I’ve never been a big fan of so-called political art, and I consider there to have only ever been one great political poet: Langston Hughes. The rest make their art subservient to their politics, and that destroys the artistry of the art. Hughes never makes that mistake; for him, the poetry matters first and foremost, and he engages in artistic problem-solving that all great artists necessarily engage in, with his problem he’s trying to solve is the integration of politics into poetry while retaining the poem’s primary nature as poetry. Pretty much no one else manages to do this. Even great poets whose poems are not typically political in nature.
That certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t weave in sociological or economic themes. Heck, I even sometimes crank out a terrible political poem. But the best art is always ambiguous in some way, is always slipping away from you the minute you think you have it. Overtly political art fails on precisely this point (Hughes being that amazing exception), and that’s why almost all explicitly political art is crap. As all propaganda, as all kitsch, is. Most simply do not have what it takes to deal with political issues in a way that fosters a variety of interpretations.
As I said above, my world view deeply affects my work, as one would expect. My world view is informed by a great many things, and that is why I typically call myself an interdisciplinary scholar, though more recently I’ve come to understand that what I do is more transdisciplinary. Of course, that means I now need to explain what multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary all mean, and what makes them all different. In short, a multidisciplinary scholar is someone who simply draws from multiple disciplines to try to understand a problem, but does not necessarily relate the disciplines to each other in any way. The interdisciplinary scholar, on the other hand, uses various disciplines precisely because there is an understanding of the interconnections among the different disciplines. One sees the interrelationships among the disciplines, and uses the understanding of those shared patterns to understand how to solve a problem. An economist who uses network theory and draws on evolutionary psychology and ecology to understand the economy would be an interdisciplinary scholar, for example.
This then gets us to transdisciplinarity. In transdisciplinarity, you see the deep patterns and interconnections among all the different aspect of reality studied by each of the different disciplines and you draw on them all in order to solve problems or understand phenomena not within any given discipline, but rather that cross several disciplines at once. My book Diaphysics is in many ways an outline of the different patterns we see in all of the different levels of reality, from quantum physics to the molecular to the biological, to the psychological, to the social. Given the fact that these levels all share certain patterns and rules, just at different levels of complexity, and given that they all interact with each other in different ways, and given that there are topics and problems that transcend the disciplines, it is important to have this kind of understanding available to open up new vistas in knowledge and understanding. This is my current approach, and it crosses not just disciplines, but cultures and paradigms as well. You can see the preliminaries of this way of thinking inHear the Screams of the Butterfly, even if I have more fully and consciously developed them more recently.
4) In spite of believing taxation is theft, do you still think it is a positive thing for government to give grants and fellowships to artists and students?
I suppose I should clarify what I mean by the statement “All taxation is theft” before I answer the rest. A theft occurs when someone if forced to give up their property to another party. If you don’t think force is involved, refuse to give up your money and see what happens to you. At the same time, there is a certain subjective evaluation taking place. If you don’t think you’re being robbed, you’re not being robbed, in the same way that a person isn’t being raped if they don’t think they’re being raped, no matter what it looks like. Some people are into rough sex. But even if a majority of people are into rough sex, that doesn’t mean society should force people who aren’t into it to participate. So for those who are perfectly fine with having the government take a certain percentage of their income, no theft is taking place. But for those who do not think that anyone, no matter who they are, has the right to take by force what is not theirs, taxes are a form of theft. More, I’m not even saying that I wouldn’t be willing to give what is currently taxed to support certain things the government does IF they were to ask for it, and IF my giving were entirely voluntary.
But that’s all issues of morality and the relationship of morality to government. Most people believe in the legitimacy of taxes, so our governments tax. Now, given the reality of taxation, the question is then whether it is a good thing for the government to give grants and fellowships to artists and students. That is an economics issue. Of course, it’s not really “the government” that gives grants and fellowshsips, but rather some sort of panel of experts who will give away money that had been earmarked for this purpose by the legislature. There are federal, state, and local versions, but it really doesn’t matter what level we’re talking about here, as the decision-making will be mostly the same in each case (though with the local panel, there is at least some degree of local knowledge that they can draw on). Since it is unlikely that the legislators are expert enough to select the experts for the panel, such panels tend to be fairly self-selecting. That is, there is a good chance that the panel will have people who mostly think of the arts in the same way. As a result, most of these panels of arts experts tend to support avant-garde art projects, as that was the dominant paradigm when government funding of the arts emerged in its current form. One result has been ongoing support for avant-garde art projects that have essentially stagnated the arts in Modernism/Postmodernism. This is reinforced by our universities, which also have these same experts teaching the arts, producing more artists like themselves, who in turn become art professors in addition to being artists. So one problem we see arising is the stabilizing of a given paradigm/movement within the arts because of this kind of self-selection. It’s hard to imagine how to get out of this, given the fact that one needs experts to recognize fellow experts.
Another and different kind of problem is that the choices made will tend to be conservative ones. The last thing a government agency wants is controversy. That’s a great way to lose funding. (Controversy in the market tends to have the opposite effect, interestingly enough: a good controversy can get people buying more of your art, more copies of your book, going to watch your play/movie, etc.) Any individual or organization who receives philanthropic money, whether it be public or private, is going to do their best to keep the funder happy. That necessarily affects the content of the art. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are many things that contribute to the content of one’s art, and keeping funders happy is one of them. The word “pattern” comes from the word “patron” after all, and artists are bound to pattern their work after whatever their patrons believe in and support. A variety of kinds of patrons – government, private philanthropy, universities, rich spouses, the marketplace, etc – will result in a variety of patterns of content in our arts. Unless, of course, any one patron tends to dominate, in which case we would tend to see the same artistic patterns emerging. The fact that the avant-garde tends to continue to dominate the arts suggests there is in fact a dominant patron, and that dominant patron is the government, though mostly through our university systems.
Similar to this problem is the problem of being able to identify worthy recipients. The very people who need money – people early in their artistic careers – are least likely to get the money, precisely because nobody knows who they are. This makes sense, because one doesn’t want to spend limited funds on unknown artists, who may or may not continue to even work as artists. Better, then, to fund known commodities. But if I’m known as an artist, that means I’ve been relatively successful without government funding. Government funding then becomes a reward for being successful in the market. Which seems an odd thing for government money to be spent on. The solution of spending this money on organizations like theaters follows the same basic logic. Do you want to spend government money on struggling theaters, for example, or more stable ones that have been around for a while and have proven their worth? Which needs the money more? Yet, which is the more sensible investment? Even government organizations are loath to continue throwing money at failure after failure. For all of these reasons, government funding tends to reinforce the status quo.
Given this situation, I would actually suggest something else entirely. I would suggest replacing all welfare, all payouts, all subsidies of all kinds with a basic income guarantee. With a basic income guarantee, each person would be safe from complete destitution, and many would be able to be in a financial position to pursue their dreams, whether those dreams be art or entrepreneurship. This would be a more indirect way of funding the arts, to be sure, but it would be no more indirect than Faulkner working at the University of Mississippi power plant at night to support his writing As I Lay Dying. We don’t typically think of working a job as funding our art, but the fact is that that is exactly what we are doing – we subsidize our own art work all the time, at least, those of us not independently wealthy. That could be done through a basic income guarantee, which would have the added benefit of freeing up time, which is always a premium for artists. If we want to better fund artists and make sure we are supporting upstart artists, a basic income guarantee is the way to do it. The way we do it now, through grants and fellowships, mostly rewards those who are already established, successful artists, or who know enough of the right kinds of people to get the recommendations needed to get the money. Which, again, only rewards insiders and those working within the current paradigm. If we want to get art out of the repetitive rut of constant avant-gardism, we have to get rid of the institutional structures that maintain it, and that means replacing government funding, direct and indirect, with a system that frees people from having to stick with the well-worn art we find around us today. A renaissance in art will require a renaissance in our institutions.
5) Aside from art, we recently discussed Arab Spring. You believed the protests were the result of students who expected jobs that never arrived, even after they were promised by the Mubarak government. Do you think the protests did any good in changing the government structure in Egypt? How does this relate to America’s dilemma with administrators moving into education, and government loans and subsidies fending off other options? How do think opportunity costs effect taxation, and why do you think government should stay out of it?
I believe you are referring in particular to my article on the student protests at The Pope Center, “Egypt’s Revolution and Higher Education.” I noted that the protesters were primarily students who had been given a free university education and a promise by the government that they would be able to get government jobs when they graduated. When there were more graduates than jobs, Egypt developed a large pool of highly educated unemployed, underemployed, and upset former students. The results of their protests was the removal of Mubarak and the election of a new government.
The question of whether or not the protests managed to create any real change is a complex one. On the one hand, Mubarak was removed, and he had been there for decades. However, he was removed by the military, which is widely viewed as the real power in the Egyptian government. The Egyptian military was the one who ended up, in the end, forcing Mubarak out, and the military retained its position and power in the government afterwards. The election that followed put a theocrat in power, but pretty much all the fears surrounding that turned out to be unfounded because the president was not a dictatorship, and the military was not going to allow the government to stray far from to kind of government currently in place. The main benefit of democracy is that it’s generally unstable enough that there’s not too much order in the government, meaning less can get done than one expects to be able to get done. That’s a good thing, because of the odd chance you might elect a theocrat. More specific to Egypt, with the military still in charge, there was really not much of a change. Still, the desire to keep stability seems to have resulted in the military being a little less tolerant of having someone in place for as long as Mubarak.
We have a similar crisis brewing in the United States with student loans. Student loans are a form of “cheap money” that allows people to direct a great deal of money into a single sector, in this case, universities and colleges. When this happened with mortgages, we got the Great Recession of 2008. Cheap money resulted in people buying houses, which resulted in a house building boom. When the boom turned to bust, people lost their houses and houses in construction were abandoned. Construction companies went out of business, and this rippled throughout the economy. Now, when you have cheap money going into colleges, what you end up with is a similar boom, but in this case the boom ends up being in administrators. The number of professors hasn’t increased, and neither has their salaries, which have kept up with inflation. What has boomed has been the number of administrators. The universities become essentially a money-wasting factory with no real increase on your investment. The quality of education is decreasing as well, primarily because when you have an increase in the percentage of the population going to college, you start moving up the IQ bell curve. Universities that used to teach only the very brightest now have to teach pretty much everyone with an average IQ or over. So the quality of education necessarily goes down to accommodate these lower IQ students. Who can all attend college because of readily available student loans. The problem arises when all of these people graduate with degrees that end up not meaning much because everyone has a degree. A college degree is about as useful as a high school degree was 50 years ago. The problem is that the prestige of college remains higher than that of high school, so when students graduate from college and cannot get jobs that pay more than $15/hour, they feel rightly cheated. When looking for someone to blame, they never consider the education they received, the cheap student loans they received, or anything of the sort, but rather end up blaming the people hiring them. Or failing to hire them. Some will make the connection to government, and so you end up with Occupy Wall Street on the Left and the Tea Party on the Right (yes, the Tea Party is as highly educated as is Occupy Wall Street). So far the protests have merely resulted in these fairly anemic expressions of dissatisfaction, but we have to wonder how long this will last.
To switch gears to your last question, there is no question that opportunity costs affect taxation. They certainly affect the amount of tax revenues the government takes in. At the most extreme, if taxes are too high, people will calculate that it’s worth not paying them in full in the hopes that they won’t get caught. Even going to prison for a while might we worth the potential savings. Or it might be worth leaving the country and going elsewhere. Or if it is your business being taxed, moving your business. Less extreme, you might spend a great deal of money on tax attorneys and accountants to find every loophole possible to reduce your tax burden. Above a certain rate, it becomes worth looking into any or all of these (and other) possibilities, with the result being that a higher income tax rate can in fact result in reduced tax income for the government itself. You cannot ignore opportunity costs. And it is for this reason that many people call for things like the flat tax or the fair tax, both of which can reduce opportunity costs and thus increase revenues.
That being said, there are better and worse taxes. From certain standpoints, the best tax seems to be a property tax. I don’t care for those because that means that the government really owns all the property and you are really just paying rent. And do keep in mind that when you subsidize something, you are encouraging it, and when you tax something, you are discouraging it. Which is why we have high taxes on tobacco, for instance. So when you tax property, you discourage property ownership (except among the wealthiest). When you tax capital, you discourage investment. When you tax income, you discourage work. When you tax sales, you discourage buying (and with sales taxes, you have the problem of it being a regressive tax). At the same time, sales taxes seem the most “voluntary” of all the taxes mentioned – and the regressive feature of the tax could easily be fixed with the aforementioned basic income guarantee. I would also argue that the worst tax by far are capital gains and other taxes on investments, as they undermine investment and, thus, economic growth and innovation.
6) Do you think a libertarian society would grant better opportunities to artists, poets, and the like?
My answer to this question is in many ways the corollary to question #4, of course. We went over some of the problems inherent in government support for the arts, including inherent conservatism, supporting those already successful, and artistic stagnation. This may not be a problem if we’re talking about Shakespeare Festivals, but it is a problem if we’re talking about the continued evolution of the arts.
In the past there were private patrons of the arts who supported artists. These, too, created any number of pressures the artists were often unhappy about. Imagine having to write poems whose topics were developed by your patron. Today, that might mean having to write plays based on whatever stories Bill Gates or Warren Buffet wanted written. Many of the artists in the 18th and 19th century welcomed the rise of the market and the demise of the patronage system precisely because they could then create the art they wanted to create, and they could then find or create an audience from among the general population. This freed the artists of the time. In plays, Church patronage resulted in the production of nothing but religious plays. Shakespeare was able to write on all his varied topics precisely because he had no patrons save his paying audience.
The fantastic thing about the market is that it promotes considerable heterogeneity. We are in fact seeing that more and more because of the addition of the internet, which allows people to find common minds even easier – and around the world. An audience is getting increasingly easier to find. To succeed as an artist, all you have to do now is get a strong following of a small number of people, and you can probably make a living. Or at least get by with it and an undemanding job. The market will produce products for any just-big-enough tastes. Go to the grocery store. Look at the choices there of vegetables alone. Beyond the varieties of vegetables, you can get organic or non-organic, fresh or canned. And that’s just vegetables. And if you don’t like the selection at one store, there are many more you can shop at. There is no panel of experts deciding what stores ought to be near you and what foods ought to be offered, and as a result, we have incredible variety. If you want to know what it would be like to be fed by your government, all you have to do is remember what your school lunch program was like.
The fact that much of our art is dominated by a single paradigm – avant-gardism – for so long suggests that a homogenizing force is at play, a single institution is dominating the arts. There is no reason our universities shouldn’t have a part to play in the artistic order, but we should be concerned it has such a dominant, overbearing role such that it even overwhelms the market. With two exceptions: film and television. Yes, there are the blockbuster films everyone goes to see, but it is very easy to get to see more artistic films. Especially when videos, and then DVDs, and now streaming movies came about. Netflix for example has not only revolutionized the way we watch movies in our homes, but has equally revolutionized television. They are producing some of the best TV, and that is putting pressure on both cable and the networks to improve their own offerings. We even see the networks starting to show live performances (The Wiz, Grease, The Sound of Music, Peter Pan), since that is something Netflix cannot do. Competition is driving innovation, and the customer is better off for it. And so, too, are the artists. People who really wanted to write more artistic films and television shows can now do so. And we are seeing the fruits of their labors. If we had more diverse institutions in literary fiction, for example – as we have with this magazine, by the way – we would have much more innovation in the arts. The fact that Transcendent Zero Press is a market player rather than a participant in the dominant university paradigm is one reason why different voices are being heard through it. And that is its strength. And that is the strength of the market.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m hardly saying that the market is the one way to do things. There is also a role for private philanthropy. There are certainly those out there who want to support the arts, and who are willing to make donations to theaters, organizations, and small presses. Efforts need to be made to connect these groups to increase such giving, but the support is out there. Further, there are things like Kickstarter and other sites that allow people to crowdsource funding for their work, and for people to support project they find interesting. It’s a great way to truly democratize arts funding, because not everyone can support an artist on their own, but they might be willing and able to send a little money to an artist whose work they like. Right now we are on the cusp of many fantastic opportunities for artists to get support for their work, and the internet is the primary driver of it.
7) What is your writing process like? What stirs your best work?
Twenty years ago, I was single and between dropping out of graduate school in molecular biology and starting graduate school in English. So I had lots of time to do lots of reading and writing. Today I am married, have three children between the ages of 4 and 9, and I do freelance writing, editing, and proofreading, so my writing process has become catch-as-catch can – and mostly on the weekends. Also, my focus has shifted considerably. I am now writing far more poetry, and I occasionally write verse plays. The former, being mostly shorter poems, can be written in a short period of time, or here and there. The latter take more time in plotting and writing. For them, I need huge blocks of time to even consider starting to work, and those are increasingly difficult to get for myself. So it’s been mostly poetry of late.
Great works inspire. Experiencing beauty makes you want to reproduce it, in your own fashion. When you read a great work and you discover an artistic problem – which may include how to tell this story so it fits today’s context – you are inspired to work on solving that artistic problem. When I stopped trying to express myself and instead focused on solving artistic problems, I discovered that my works improved considerably.
I have also discovered that I use different genres for different purposes. I use prose fiction to try to figure out something for myself. What I’m figuring out may be something emotional, something social, something cultural – I may hear about someone doing something and wonder how they could have possibly done that. So prose fiction is typically my trying to work out something, to try to understand it. Playwriting, on the other hand, is very different for me. When I write a play, I have typically figured out something, and I am seeking to figure out how to present it, how to stage it. This is an artistic problem of a different sort, of course. I not only have to figure out how to say it well through my characters, but I also need to figure out how to be true to each and every character, to make each one complex and interesting. Truth before ideology, always. In a real sense, there are no villains, because no characters ever think themselves villains. They are doing good, as far as they are concerned, and you have to always be true to that fact. And of course, there are always staging issues, movement of characters, and that sort of thing. Further, I tend to go out of my way to make sure I’m solving artistic problems by writing almost all my plays in verse – sometimes blank verse and sometimes in rhyming couplets, and sometimes in varying styles – and I introduce elements from other times and places. I have used the idea of the ancient Greek satyr play in two plays, and I have used the basic structure of Japanese Noh plays in another. Yet, these plays are almost always contemporary in nature, taking place in the present or recent past.
This then leaves poetry. My stimulus for writing a given poem is almost as varied as the number of poems I have written. I may be inspired by a physical landscape or an individual flower, a fragment of conversation, another poem (of course), a random thought, a frustration, love, curiosity, boredom, stupidity, music, a mathematical theory, silliness, stubbornness, anger, a daydream, the play of light on the window of a train I’m riding, joy, or fascination. The purpose is always to capture the beauty of the thing, the beauty of the moment, and to allow the form and content to co-create each other. The form often finds itself in the writing, even as the form structures the content. Which is why I write in form more often than not, as it forces me quite often to say what I could not have otherwise said, think different thoughts, and find the poetic truth through the phonemes.
8) Do you think it is an artist’s duty to understand his/her society, to challenge it, and to question its values?
I believe that it is the artist’s duty to understand his or her society because art is always in service of beauty (even purposefully ugly poems are a response to beauty and thus in service to it). Truth is at the level of understanding; facts are at the level of knowledge. Philosophers deal in understanding; scientists, including social scientists, deal in knowledge. The combination of knowledge and understanding is beauty, and so, since artists are in the service of beauty, it behooves artists to try to gain as much knowledge as possible, to find the areas of wonder in the world that remain, to discover the degree of wonder that necessarily remains in the world in this age of such widespread knowledge. Further, it requires understanding as well – and understanding is always involved when dealing with anything as or more complex than yourself, which necessarily means other people and cultures, societies, economies, etc., one’s own and others. Further, only when you have come to understand them can you truly challenge your society. You need to understand history as well to do this.
And you need all of this for the same reason that poets ought to read as much poetry as possible, and keep reading poetry all their lives – so they can discover what has yet to be said and/or new ways of saying it to make it new. Unless you know what’s been done, you don’t know what needs to be done. In terms of art, you challenge the art that was by being as completely familiar with that art as possible. You need to understand what people did, and why. You have to read it all with an open mind, so you can discover why it is people were writing as they were writing, what they were trying to discover in their creations. You may still come away not liking a given poem or poet or style, but you should still be able to appreciate what they were trying to accomplish. And the poet is only ever always trying, trying to say, trying to find new ways of saying, trying to find the right word, the right sound, the right rhythm. If you could ever accomplish the saying, there wouldn’t be a need to write another poem – the pen would be forever put away. But we can’t, so it won’t.
So the artist is always a challenger. One is not creating art by saying what has already been said in the way it’s been said. Nor is it art to say what cannot possibly be understood. The artist must work on the edge of the known and the unknown, opening up the unknown to everyone. The edge of order and chaos is where all creativity takes place, whether it’s in nature, society, the mind, or in creating the work of art. This is why the artist is always working out an artistic problem – this is the fundamental nature of art itself, this working out of artistic problems. Not self-expression, which inevitably results in the same things being said the same ways over and over, but rather the working out something that can only be worked out in a poem, in a novel, in a painting, in a sculpture, in a symphony, etc. This makes the artist a member of the artistic order, in the same way as inventors are members of the technological order because they are trying to work out technological problems, and entrepreneurs are members of the economic order because they are working out how to get goods and services to people in the best, most cost-effective way possible. Philosophers work out philosophical problems, scientists work out scientific problems, philanthropists work out philanthropical problems, etc. It’s the same in every social order. And in none of these cases is anyone seeking to “express themselves.” A scientist trying to express himself is no longer doing science.
So when an artist is working out an artistic problem, there is always already a challenge to existing values – particularly, of course, artistic values. But art has content as well, and that content is typically a challenge to a variety of other values. There is no story without a problem, and the source of problems can be person-to-person conflicts, social conflicts, conflicts with nature, etc. or some combination thereof. The storyteller then is always in a position to challenge society. But, as noted above, that creates an extra burden for the writer, who then needs to master the natural sciences, the social sciences, philosophy, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, literature, grammar, syntax, and on and on. But only if they want to truly, deeply, fully challenge those aspects of reality in their storytelling.
9) What advice do you have for an artist trying to stay alive in today’s world? What approach do you think will grant them the most success?
Work, work, work, work, work, work, work. And get yourself out there. Promote yourself constantly. If you’re a painter, work the galleries. And do your research so you’re not wasting your time trying to get into a place that has never represented anything remotely like what you do. The same is true with writers. Write constantly, and do your research to try to find outlets that are open to what it is you’re doing. There is still always a risk, because you never know why someone turned down your stuff – sure, they may have simply not liked it or not thought it that good, but they also could have been in a bad mood or recently had a show or published something very similar recently. So don’t take rejection personally. Just keep working and keep submitting as much as possible.
And keep in mind that you’re working in the gift economy. That is, you are working to create gifts for others. Deep down you know that to be the case. At the same time, one does have to make a living, and the value of something is quite often measured in dollars. Not the full value, to be sure, because the person buying your work has to value it more than the money they are parting with, and the artist has to value the money more than the work they are parting with for there to be a transaction at all, but some measure of it. And you have to be willing to let people express their valuation of the work that way because, once they have made their investment in the piece, they will in fact show how much they value it by, in the case of visual arts, displaying it, or in the case of literature, reading and rereading it.
10) Do you think print-on-demand services have helped the book industry? Have they helped the authors at all?
They have certainly helped the book industry because it reduces waste, which reduces cost. Before print-on-demand was available, publishing houses had to be sure there was going to be enough demand before they would be willing to buy a work to publish it. They would do runs of several thousands, and if they sold well, would do another run. Thus we have first editions, second editions, etc. of books. With print-on-demand, books can be printed at the rate people want to buy them. This means that publishers are able to take more risks, since if a book doesn’t do well, they don’t have to print the next copy. It seems to me, then, that print-on-demand services are going to be very beneficial to authors as publishing houses realize that they are not taking the same kinds of risks as they had in the past.
11) Do you think agents are necessary to insure success in writing?
While I did say above that you really have to get yourself out there, the fact of the matter is that there are benefits to specialization. If I’m having to try to sell my book to publishers, I’m not writing. Historically, the author-agent-publisher situation hasn’t been ideal, because often you have to first get some things published before an agent will pay you attention, then you have to hunt down an agent and try to find one that is interested in what you’re writing and with whom you can get along, and so on. This alone is as troublesome as finding a publisher.
The internet has a great deal of potential to change this. So far it hasn’t – that old model is well-entrenched – but there is no reason it needs to remain that way. Imagine having a platform on which you could download all of your works without anyone being able to read them and agents putting in their information, and having the online platform match authors to agents. That would be the ideal situation, and there’s literally no reason it couldn’t be done today with the current technology. It needs to be done for the benefit of authors and agents alike.
12) What purpose do the arts serve in human life? Faulkner remarked in his Nobel Acceptance Speech that arts can be a pillar for human survival.
The arts present to us concepts as perceptions. Anything represented in art of any genre is necessarily idealized. As such any given work of art presents an ideal to us which we are invited to emulate in our experiencing of it. In minimalist art, for example, we are invited into a quieter space away from the increasingly more complex society in which we live. In a story, we are invited to empathize with the various characters, which in turn creates greater empathy within ourselves. The more we learn to empathize with others, the wider our moral circle expands to include different kinds of people, and the more moral we become. Naturally, the more inclusive we become of other people, the more likely we are to seek out peaceful solutions to problems, treat people as ends unto themselves rather than means, and appreciate the complexity inherent in human life and our societies and cultures. Now, if that is not a pillar for human survival, I don’t know what is.
Aristotle said in his Nicomachean Ethics that virtue aims at to kalon. The Greek word to kalon can be translated as either “the good” or “the beautiful.” To the Greek mind the two are related – and the two are in fact related. Can a work of art truly be said to be beautiful if it is not good, meaning well-crafted? If we say someone is a good writer or that we have read a good poem, do we not also mean that what we have read is beautiful, that the writer has created a beautiful work? The beautiful work of art, the beautiful depiction of human beings in works of literature, even of their bad attributes, their follies, their shortcomings, work to create ideals at which we can aim, to make ourselves more virtuous. With the good character, we aim to be more like her; with the bad character, we aim to avoid his mistakes. Thus do all depictions of all kinds of people provide us with models at which we can aim, to try to become more virtuous. Certainly if art can make us more virtuous, as I believe they do and can, the arts certainly serve an important purpose in human life. They make us more human, make us more comfortable with more complexity, help us see more and more complex patterns, and as a result make us more understanding and accepting of others. These are the very things we need if we are to continue to survive, and not just survive as living things, but to survive as fully human.
13) What are your expectations for Hear the Screams of the Butterfly?
I have fewer expectations than I have hopes. I hope it will do well. I hope it will speak to people. I hope it increases understanding and empathy.
14) Do you think creative expression is essential for life’s fulfillment? What role do the arts play in an average person’s life?
I think creative expression is essential for the fulfillment of some people’s lives. But I don’t think it’s fulfilling for most people’s lives. That sounds horrifying to what is almost certainly an audience of almost nothing but creative people, but if we step away from the people who surround us, who are typically people just like ourselves, and really pay attention to what everyone else is doing, you will see that what I’m saying is true.
While in reality we have a spectrum that extends from pure copiers (completely uncreative types) through varying degrees of creativity to what one could consider supercreators (people like Goethe, Shakespeare, Mozart, et al), we can also group them into pretty clear categories. I would predict that if we grouped people according to copiers-relatively creative, we would get about 20% of the population as almost pure copiers with almost no creativity in their lives at all, and 80% of the population who engage in at least some sort of creativity. Equally, if we relegated creativity to only regular artists and inventors, we would get about 20% creatives and 80% copiers. This 20-80 split is found throughout nature and society. In pretty much every economy, 20% of the population holds 80% of the wealth, for example. Who holds the wealth varies considerably depending on the kind of economy one has, but the split tends to hold. When it varies from that split, the economy tends to collapse. This is an expression, as I said, of a natural relationship known as a power law distribution, and the 20-80 ratio is the simplest expression of the power law.
You may also note that way I proposed to split society actually results in 20% high creatives, about 60% moderate creatives, and 20% uncreatives/pure copiers. The golden mean ratio – the simplest kind of fractal, is expressed as the ratio 1:0.618. It may be no coincidence that the middle group, then, approaches or may even match that ratio as a percentage: 61.8%. Dynamics societies tend to have fractal geometry, power law distributions, and to exist on the border of order and chaos. A stable yet creative society would then need a core of conservative copiers (the orderly group), various degrees of creativity in the majority of the population, and another core of the kind of high creativity we find in artists and inventors (the truly chaotic group). In other words, most people do not need to be creative in the way artists need to be creative. If they were, society would fall apart from ceasing to be coherent at all. At the same time, if everyone were a copier, society would stagnate and eventually collapse into entropy. We need the full range to have a stable society in which creativity is even possible.
The role of the arts, then, is to provide the challenges to the status quo both within the arts and within the culture, society, etc. needed to keep society dynamic enough to remain stable. That is, they have a liberating effect, liberating people from the threat of ossification and stagnation. Things need to change to keep things stable. And the arts in part perform that role. Further, the arts provide a challenge to us to aim at the beautiful/good (which is also the true, as Keats tells us, and the just, as Elaine Scarry tells us) so that we may be more virtuous. And virtue, as Aristotle tells us, is a golden mean ratio between two vices. The one vice is often the very ideal the arts provide us as models (art is always immoderate), but at which we must aim to hit the target, while the opposing vice is the gravity that pulls down on us, dragging us, when we aim high, down to the target so we can in fact hit he bull’s-eye. So long as we don’t mistake the ideals for the real, as something which should be truly, fully achieved, but rather treat them as ideals at which to aim, but which can never be truly, fully achieved, can we live a life of virtue. Which is to say, we need to be wise when we experience the arts and not mistake art for life. For the light needs shadow, lightness needs gravity, order needs chaos in order for there to be true beauty in this world.