If you are writing about failure and dissatisfaction, make sure you include Martha Graham’s famous quote about “divine dissatisfaction”:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
—Agnes de Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991)
In my experience, it’s queer to be a performance artist in America.
As an American artist, I am conditioned to see myself as a failure. The joy I take from my work is not considered relevant by any of the standards that quantify success in America. Since completing my graduate studies in 2009, I have consistently worked three to twelve jobs simultaneously in order to support myself as an artist. Yet despite my efforts, I slide more and more deeply into debt every year. I have not had health insurance for most of my adult life; I wear hand-me-down clothes and drive a hand-me-down car. I have never owned a home and have no investments or retirement plan. I have, quite literally, worked my ass off for all of my adult life. And yet, despite the promise of the American dream, I live just above the poverty level. I am a failure.
At the same time, as an active artist, there is no such thing as failure. “Do you know what you have to do if you want to be a choreographer?” Bill T. Jones once asked me. “Choreograph.” That’s it. We are what we do.
I succeed because I continue. I continue because I always know I can do better. That “divine dissatisfaction” that Graham speaks of is uncomfortable and keeps me up at night, but it also provides me with a fire inside my chest—and that gives me a sense of purpose. My work is social. Every day it leads me into new communities who engage with me in a dynamic exchange of ideas that I thoroughly enjoy. I have dedicated my life wholeheartedly to the arts, and though I have “nothing” to show for it, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this work my peers and I are called to makes the world a better place than high profit margins ever could.
Catherine Cabeen is Artistic Director of Catherine Cabeen and Company (CCC). CCC will next be performing at On the Boards January 17-20, 2013. For more information please see catherinecabeen.com.