Art and Amplification

I was at a dinner party the other night.

It was a book party for a friend and it was as good as those things get. Lots of fun arguments about the state of the business, where the opportunities were, hypocrisy, stupidity, cowardice etc.

Then, as these things go, someone asked if we could all switch seats. I suspect this happens because there are always a couple of people having too good a time. They’re talking loudly, laughing and making broad declarative statements. So the rest of the sad sacks at the table gang up on them and separate them in the spirit of “networking.”

To refuse to move is verboten.

Seat switching is the beginning of the end for me. It enforces amateur hour.

As Steve Pressfield wrote in The War of Art and Turning Pro, “A Pro Recognizes Another Pro.” It’s taken me twenty odd years to become a pro and I do not suffer fools kindly. For me, “networkers” are amateurs nodding their heads to the soliloquies of other amateurs. It’s not that they aren’t paying attention, rather they are so overwhelmingly self-absorbed, that they can’t really hear what the other person is saying. They’re just waiting for their turn to speak.

No thank you to that.

I’m looking for other haggard pros with some scars on their souls, with humiliations that haunt them and triumphs too oft forgotten. They can usually be found in a corner with their back to the wall, like grizzled mafia foot soldiers, nursing an old-fashioned while their foot taps out a staccato rhythm that eerily approximates the second hand on the bar’s clock, invariably set fifteen minutes fast.

I don’t suspect I’m alone in the fact that I find large gatherings of people in the same arena I earn my living difficult. I go to them under duress, with radar on full alert weaving in and out of small groups of conversation. Those subjects that I know will only lower the PH in my stomach…I dart out of as quickly as possible.

“Oh look, they have Genesee Cream Ale on tap! I think I’m going to check that out…excuse me…”

If I get caught in the small talk web, it will only be a matter of time before I’ll drop some comment that the rest of the group will find irritating or “negative.”

I think there is a huge cabal of corporations, universities and governments promoting the Orwellian concept of positivity and happiness “science,” which in my estimation are tools designed for us to live in a fantasy world.  Or to combat cognitive biases… You ever notice how language becomes very difficult to understand the more specialized an area of expertise…?

Yes I know Harvard has a “Happiness Psychology Expert,” but as Woody Allen wrote in Annie Hall, “Harvard makes mistakes too…Kissinger taught there.”

We are no longer allowed to take offense or issue with some lousy element of our daily life or even in the lack of any moral autonomy in our fellow man.  Rather we’re to look at the bright side of things and find happiness by denying the dark realities around us.  If we all mind our own Ps and Qs and just focus on the man in the mirror—making the most of our “goodness” and not judging others—all of our world’s problems will eventually be solved.

Those who do point out the fact that the times they have been a changing…for the worse…are negative personalities, angry and disturbed malcontents.  Even dangerous.  I wonder how any historical figure with clear moral and ethical boundaries would fair today?

Kitty Genovese could have used one such person to judge by her screams that her assailant was morally corrupt…maybe that person would have called the police and saved her life. In our quest for happyland, I fear we forget the millions of people who have turned a blind eye to evil in our past… Is our dominant positive magical thinking culture really so great? Doesn’t it just compel us to keep our mouths shut for fear of alienation? And does that fear extend to fear of action? I think it does.

I find Happiness to be extremely overrated. Would Eugene O’Neill have written anything if he were happy? Did Edward Hopper or Beethoven seem like Good Time Charlies? Were Diane Arbus, Virginia Woolf, or Judy Garland all roses and sunshine?

I’ll not go so far as to say that happy people are devoid of creativity. This is because I do not believe that anyone can be completely happy. Remember that whole Yin Yang thing? How we all have two opposing forces within us? Pretending that one of them doesn’t exist is not the best way to live on planet earth.

The closer you get to complete happiness, the closer you are to death. (This is an example of the kind of things I say at dinner parties…no wonder I get such vacuous looks of incredulity).

So I get stuck sitting with one of those people who need to get a quick bead on you. In a tight series of questions—almost an interrogation—they can figure out where you stand at the gathering. Are you someone worth knowing (someone they can use for a favor down the road so they ought to act fascinated) or someone to dismiss. How these people do it without seeming negative is truly remarkable—a very valuable skill set these days. I only wish they’d put as much effort into creating art.

You’ll know them because they only speak of themselves and their work in clipped positives—my novel was published by Random House, who just fell in love with it and did all the right things. It just got a rave in Booklist, which they tell me is a great start… Like that.

I’m usually the idiot who thinks this person needs some inside dope, even would want it, especially when they ask me if what they’ve been told is true. I tell them my opinion (which is neither positive or magical) and then they grill me on my credentials.

What’s difficult is that these people are usually very good actors, and unfortunately there are a lot of them out there. Some may even be very close to you. They send out a kind of “positive” energy, as if they are genuinely interested in what you have to say.  They exude an open, friendly disposition, as if they are just so happy to make your acquaintance, spellbound by anything that comes out of your mouth.

You’ll never hear them voice an opinion like…That Ballet Sucked…rather just concern about how the artist is taking his defeat.  I hope Mr. Balanchine doesn’t get too disheartened by the negative feelings of the audience… They are positive people and you better damn better be positive too!

As I’ve worn every hat in book publishing, the average Joe thinks I can’t hold down a job. Which is true. I admit it. But not having a “job” doesn’t make me negative. I think it makes me “interesting.”

Who would leave the soft underbelly of a multinational corporation, with its expense accounts, impressive titles and status to start their own business? Then after their business has some success and some failure, shut it down? Then why would that person leave one side of the desk join the other to become an agent for a big deal LA agency? Then co-write a book about an old football team? Then leave the big agency to start another company? Then start up yet another publishing company with a client and friend while still running the other company he’d only started a year earlier?

How can one be a publisher/agent/writer/editor amalgamation? Isn’t this the curriculum vitae of a madman?

When someone breaks your life down in five minutes, it’s hard to argue with the conclusions. Such professional meandering means that you must be unhappy…and today, that is the worst offense of all.

What’s really going on in these encounters is a Master class in manipulation, a slick desecration of any degree of self worth another person may possess. With a circuitous route of questioning, the friendly dinner companion seeks that one conversational slip-up that they can point out as a contradiction.

Aha! So what you said before isn’t really true then! You’re miserable!

Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta break bread in Goodfellas

In an Improv based upon an experience he had managing a Bronx restaurant that catered to some rough people (Amici’s), Joe Pesci amplified this kind of dinner gathering dynamic within his brilliant performance in Goodfellas.

Before Martin Scorsese began shooting a “coverage” reaction scene for the movie, Pesci pulled him aside and told him a story. Scorsese loved it and threw out the script.  He told Ray Liotta, playing Henry Hill, to roll with whatever Pesci did.

Scorsese did not tell the other actors about Pesci’s winging it, as he wanted to get their first, real reaction. This is one of the reasons Martin Scorsese is so good at what he does.  He throws out his own material when someone else has better stuff and trusts them to deliver.

The scene begins with Tommy DeVito telling a story about being beaten up at a police precinct. He’s hilarious and the entire table is having a blast…

HENRY (Liotta):         You’re really funny!

TOMMY (Pesci):         What do you mean I’m funny?

HENRY:                       You know…the way you tell a story…it’s a good story…you’re a funny guy…

TOMMY:                     What do you mean…? The way that I talk? …What?

HENRY:                       Jus…Just you know…you’re funny…you know the way you tell the story and everything.

TOMMY:                     Funny how? Like what’s funny about it? (Another wiseguy interrupts to try and deflate the escalating ire of DeVito)…woe…woe Anthony…He’s a big boy…He knows what he said… Whadyou say? (HILL remains motionless)…How am I FUNNY! Like I’m a clown?…Like I’m here to amuse you?  How the F*ck am I funny?

That one scene is all you need to know about Tommy DeVito. It works so well and is so memorable because his grilling Hill is a universal experience. One that Pesci himself probably endured innumerable times.  Just without threats of imminent death.

Joe Pesci was not an overnight sensation. As a kid, his blue-collar parents pushed him into “entertainment,” to get him out of the laborer life. Just five years old, he appeared in small plays in New York and got on a television show called “Startime Kids” when he was ten.

As he aged, he did small town bar appearances as a singer and comedian, often with his friend Frank Vincent (another Scorsese favorite). Pesci came of age and lived inside the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons era.  Out of that experience came the Broadway play Jersey Boys. But Pesci never made it as a singer.

Pesci never graduated from high school either. In his twenties, he moved to Hollywood and took his lumps.  He came back east to work at the restaurant…did a little acting with Vincent on the side for fun. I imagine Joe Pesci faced a lot of gatherings with people who manipulated the conversation to humiliate him.  Probably a lot of them were even at home.

Joe Pesci didn’t get a “break” until 1980 when Scorsese and Robert DeNiro reached out to him and Frank Vincent after seeing their 1975 dirt-cheap budget feature, The Death Collector. They cast the 37-year-old Pesci as Jake LaMotta’s brother Joey and Vincent as mob capo Salvy in their new movie.

No one had ever seen anyone like Joe Pesci. Vincent was remarkable too. But Pesci is the ballast of RAGING BULL.  Without him, DeNiro’s wild LaMotta would have no one to play off of. Talk about Yin and Yang.

Joe Pesci won the Oscar for Goodfellas and in one of the best speeches ever, he simply said… “It was my privilege…Thank you.” If you were to poll the Academy voters about that performance, my guess is that the restaurant scene won it for him.

Pesci took an experience that every person on this planet has had at some time in their life—being deftly manipulated for the amusement of others by someone who is threatened by you or who has contempt for you—and made it a terrifying experience.

He focused on a small annoyance of daily life (being embarrassed at a dinner party) and showed how this seemingly minor irritation can be a vicious attack on someone’s soul. Amplifying the subtle conflicts in our day-to-day lives (positive and negative collisions) to life and death stakes is not for the faint hearted.

This is the work of an artist—telling the truth.

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  1. Chris Johnson (@genuinechris) on August 3, 2012 at 5:38 am

    Thank you for writing this. Onward with skepticism.

    • Bradley Hartmann on August 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm

      Reading this was my privilege. OK… maybe that is a little over the top, but I really enjoyed reading this piece. Great job.

      • Roger Ellman on August 5, 2012 at 8:44 am

        Hey, Bradley – don’t hold back! Priviledge, you were right first time. Strength and Best, Roger

  2. Sandra on August 3, 2012 at 5:52 am

    I stood on a street corner and watched someone literally shake me off of themselves and run across the street to get away. What was my crime? I shared the story of speaking to a job recruiter who told me my last 4 years of underemployment made me unemployable, despite 25 years plus of prior work experience. For her I ruined the fun of lunch we just left; for me she missed the opportunity to hear something that went a little deeper.
    The job recruiter, with her years of experience, didn’t care that in the midst of dead employment cycle I created my own radio show, started a couple of other enterprises, learned a whole bunch of new skills on my own. For her I had not been in a “real job”, therefore in order to earn my street creds I would have to work in receptionist type jobs in order to get back to the position of manager she saw was just burning inside of me. To me was the shock of being left on a street corner mid-sentence, being told my attempts at innovation were worthless; and not shouting at them both.
    The Joe Pesci scene was so potent because it was so painful. I am not interested in just rote telling of a sad story designed to pull at my heart strings; I am interested in hearing people talk who have had their skin ripped off. I have been there and all else seems like cotton candy.

    • elizabeth on August 6, 2012 at 10:04 am

      Yup, could feel my belly tighten as I read through Shawn’s replay of the Pesci dinner scene, and then again, when I read your reply Sandra (dated Aug. 3.)
      It’s ironic and a bit heartbreaking, that when one shows they want to work, would be energetic and diligent at a new position as demonstrated not only by past success, but by recent innovation in face of adversity, that one is told you are now unemployable.

      • Sandra on August 15, 2012 at 12:47 pm

        Yes, the interesting thing is that I am told doing enough otherwise I would have a job. It goes on and on- that I would now have to jump hoops for an entry level job is a bit crazy making for me. However, I go on and keep creating and looking for new opportunities.

  3. Paul C on August 3, 2012 at 6:35 am

    Much of the Internet is built on the same manipulation that Amway has used for its business. Build your tribe on happy talk and pretend your cheap soap is art. The publishing business is resembling Amway as it goes digital. The real pro becomes stronger as the game or battle or story goes on. You can’t do that through shallow manipulation.

    • fjr on August 3, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      “Build your tribe on happy talk and pretend your cheap soap is art.” Paul, this is priceless.

      Could we add “and pretend your cotton candy chit-chat is profound?”

  4. Stacy on August 3, 2012 at 8:22 am

    This is going to sound weird, but I actually think being happier has made me MORE judgmental. It’s sort of like what I remember George Carlin saying in an interview once. In his personal life (after he quit doing drugs), he led a life of optimism and happiness. But he NOTICED things.

    When I was unhappy, I never noticed anything. I was the most self-absorbed person you could meet. I talked about art and almost never created. I have huge swaths of time where I have nothing to show because I spent that time worrying and fretting. I was the very definition of low emotional intelligence.

    But I was nice. Oh, I was so nice.

    In training myself to be happier, I’ve learned I’m not nice. I’m kind, but I’m not nice. Ironically, this has made me happier because I no longer feel I have to explain myself to those who are hellbent on judging me no matter what I do. (As someone partially deaf, I am intimately familiar with the “doesn’t it suck to be you card” played at parties and whatnot.)

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not satisfied. I’m never satisfied. But training myself to be happier has actually made me more creative because I’m more acutely aware of the time I have. Or at least, being happier has made me act on that creativity.

    I don’t think being happy is pretending to float on a cloud or becoming glib or glossing over pain or failing to recognize shitheads when we meet them. In fact, the happier I am, the BETTER my bullshit detector is. That’s because, for me at least, being happy is about being able to recognize the good stuff as well as the bad. I meet lots of unhappy people – many of them pretending to be happy – who cannot do that because they treat happiness as a goal, or they think happiness means giving up their skepticism. I don’t think it does. Just my take.

    • John Thomas on August 3, 2012 at 10:02 pm

      Differentiating between happy and kind: a very nice distinction. They are not the same thing.

    • Natalie Sharpston on August 4, 2012 at 9:12 am

      This post makes me feel so much better… I’ve been worried lately that, because of my increasingly sensitive bullshit detector (great phrase, Stacy), there are so few people I genuinely LIKE. Thought there was something wrong with me – maybe it’s just maturity. 🙂 It’s such a shame that there are so few people you can take at face value nowadays. It’s exhausting…

  5. Jeff Korhan on August 3, 2012 at 9:00 am

    i had never heard that story about Goodfellas, but it sure makes sense, because Ray Liotta is visibly uncomfortable. It doesn’t look like acting at all.

  6. The Pencilneck on August 3, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Terrific article! I’ve been a full time artist for over 15 years, and you’ve also described that vocation as well. Hanging out with artists is usually excruciating; they’re on one hand trying to ‘take you down a peg’, but they’re also patting you down for clues, tips and hints….both to advance their own pieces down the board, but also to use against you/justify their own lack of success.

    Bah! Life’s too short…its been many years since I’ve put up with amateurish pettiness, and yes I too treasure the friendships with selected pros and old guns.

  7. Joel D Canfield on August 3, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    “Isn’t this the curriculum vitae of a madman?”

    Only kind I want, thank you very much.

  8. ilona on August 3, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    Excellent post, and mine is also the CV of a “madwoman”. Love this section: “When someone breaks your life down in five minutes, it’s hard to argue with the conclusions. Such professional meandering means that you must be unhappy…and today, that is the worst offense of all.”

  9. Brian Durkin on August 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    Brilliant piece Shawn, thank you. Extension of the dreaded seat switch at the dinner party, the constant stream of “Social Networking for Writers/Actors/Directors/whoever” seminars and books we’re told we need to digest in order to have a career these days. More noise to distract us from sitting in the chair and facing the page.

  10. John Thomas on August 3, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    I find meaningless small talk exhausting. If I can’t have a real conversation with someone, then I would prefer that they at least make it mercifully brief.

  11. Seth Godin on August 4, 2012 at 3:36 am

    I’m thinking we need a service where this post is automatically sent ahead to any party that we’re invited to.

    • Basilis on August 4, 2012 at 4:56 am

      Well said Seth!!

  12. Basilis on August 4, 2012 at 4:55 am

    I’m truly amazed with the thoughts about the “party”! I have thought the exactly same things over the years.

    It is my worst when I am at a “publishing- world party” and have to deal with a lot of marketing-themselves people, or people who choose within seconds if you are useful to them, or people trying to talk to as many as they can and try to glow their happiness and style through you -if you play the exactly same game- e.t.c.

    To make things even worst I’m not yet a published writer in my country and I’m invited to such a kind of events.

    Imagine what kind of dialogues do I have being in this strange situation…

  13. Darrelyn Saloom on August 4, 2012 at 10:23 am

    I’ve always been attracted to the man in the corner at a party. Married one thirty years ago, and I’m still crazy about his rare smiles and grumpy nature.

  14. Kimberly Cain on August 4, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    Excellent post! What makes it even better? The on-topic responses! I feel that surge of energy that only comes from the Truth. We all have real experiences like this & pretending that they’re something other than manipulation is to stifle our own souls.

    That said, happiness & joy are not the same animal. Joy can live like a river flowing through a wasteland. It’s supplied by an eternal source. Joy only has to remember its source. Happiness, however, flees when it recognizes the wasteland or puts on a mask to pretend the wasteland doesn’t exist.

  15. Roger Ellman on August 5, 2012 at 8:46 am

    This has to have been good, beyond that…explodingly excellent – because I truly enjoyed it. Thanks.

  16. Dr. Adrian McIntyre on August 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Great essay, Shawn, but I have one quibble. Say what you will about happiness, but go easy on Dan Gilbert. (I assume that’s who you’re referring to.) Harvard professor or not, he’s a pro.

  17. Joshunda on August 11, 2012 at 8:35 am

    I love this post – thanks for writing it.
    I have been talking to some of my close friends about this very thing – the importance of being authentic and true to yourself and your beliefs in a world that believes that people who disagree must hate each other. The cost of that on an interpersonal level is that if you are the person who is “unhappy” or thoughtful or striving for the middle way in any given conversation, because people so infrequently think about the truth or even value it when it doesn’t align with their thoughts or beliefs or brands (God help us) then you are alienated from that person and that group, in part because they almost never hear anyone tell them the truth, even with love. If you haven’t read it, Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Brightsided, is one of my favorite true books about the cult of positivity in the West.

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  19. on October 5, 2013 at 4:11 pm

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