creating a/broad, November 16, 2013
The Myth of Meritocracy
by Cameryn Moore
When I was at Edinburgh Fringe this year, I had the good fortune to meet Tomas Ford, an Australian musician/performer, and to see his show, an industrial/techno/electronica cabaret entitled Electric Midnight Cabaret. It is not normally the kind of music that I like, but I loved the show so much that I took people to see it TWICE (also I had the password, yay for artists getting other artists in at festivals). It was weird and loud and hilarious and subversive, and he gave a little Easter egg to the artists in the audience, flashing it on the screens as a “subliminal message” during one of the songs:
EDINBURGH IS NOT A MERITOCRACY
When I saw that, I nearly jumped out of my seat from laughing. There it was, the truth, up on the screen, the truth we all knew, the awkward and painful truth that artists learn, not just in Edinburgh, but EVERYWHERE.
This truth usually comes as a shock, because festivals and indeed the larger theatre Machine (to use a metaphor from last week’s discussion) have a vested interest in keeping alive that myth of meritocracy: that some people will make it big, that someone will be discovered purely by the undeniable, objective merit of their work, that there is “work so good that it cannot be ignored” (again, see last week). This is how theatre schools keep their admissions up; this is why the concentration of buskers in music towns skyrockets during music festivals (getting discovered); this is how Edinburgh continues to get shows in, even though it is well known to be a crap shoot on all fronts—financial AND critical.
There is a massive social inertia, an unthinking, reflexive, collective defense of the way things are
Let’s face it: work that good usually is ignored. Our culture routinely rejects quality or innovation, works that legitimately shake the foundations, in favour of art that bolsters someone else’s bottom line and/or strengthens the status quo. There is a massive social inertia, an unthinking, reflexive, collective defence of the way things are, that makes it so hard to change, and then to see the changes that we are striving so hard to effect. Compound that with real and sometimes violent prejudices on a personal and collective level, and it’s obvious: sometimes—almost always—'amazing' is not enough.
I am not writing this in some sour grapes way. I am not trying to say that my work is amazing and unrecognized. I mean, I’m doing all right for myself, all things considered. My work is imperfect, but it’s getting out there; sometimes, in the appropriate festival environment, my shows can sell a decent, if not blockbuster, number of tickets. And sometimes my shows move people and change them, making small shifts, one by one, in some of the people who watch them. But these shows have not yet started a revolution, much as I might wish they could.
There’s a whole bunch of confirmation bias, going both ways.
I see the myth of meritocracy; I know what a sucker’s game it is. But you know what? I buy into it anyway, I step right up and buy my baseballs and I heave them at the stack of milk bottles, over and over. I think many artists do, if not most. There’s a whole bunch of confirmation bias, going both ways. We cherry-pick our beliefs, depending where we are and what challenges we face, and unlike in science, where cherry-picking data is bad and wrong, I feel like, in this case, it’s actually sound survival strategy. In a good time, when the five-star reviews and the solid box office returns and the earnest messages from audience members are flowing, I feel stronger. I can make it, I can change things, if I am good enough. These beliefs are fuel, to keep me going on my trajectories, and if I can hold onto that energy, they will keep me going a little longer through the bad times too, when the reviews are harsh and I have three people in my house and someone walks out of a show, I can say, they don’t get me. It’s sex-negativity in culture, it’s slut-shaming, it’s age-ism, it’s fat-phobia or looksism or sexism, or all of it at once. Personally, I feel even stronger (or more stubborn) when I believe that I’m pushing my work out into a hostile environment, so yeah, I manage to extract fuel out of it either way.
Ideally I try to keep both possibilities in my head at once. I know that the performance world is not a level playing field. It keeps me humble about my own externally recognized successes: that reviewer was particularly keyed in to what I was trying to say. That laurel wreath encases an award that was effectively granted by one sole critic who liked my show and also perhaps thought that out-of-towners were better performers by virtue of being from out of town. That university brought me into that gig because my rate was a little lower than those of the other options. The successes can happen not because of anything good about my art, but other factors, or even sheer randomness. 'Failures', too: bad reviews or stymied reach absolutely and often tie in to factors beyond our control, with oppression and power dynamics and politics and editorial turnaround and the slow, ineffable dance of making change in our culture. It doesn’t necessarily mean that my shows, for example, are being held back like the secret of cold fusion, that I am actively being stifled. It just means that inertia and the status quo and the slow, powerful grind of the machine take a while to shift, to monkey-wrench.
It’s easy to overwork and overthink and STRESS THE FUCK OUT
During the times when I’m actively aiming at the myth, I have to keep a particularly sharp eye out on my creative process. It’s easy to overwork and overthink and STRESS THE FUCK OUT, because if work can be good enough that it cannot be ignored, then the corollary must also be true: if work is ignored, then it is not good enough. Oh, shit. So I work and edit and rewrite and rehearse, because I want to do everything I can to minimize that depressing possibility.
I don’t know what to tell other performers. We all get to find our own way to deal with this thing, two realities seeming to occupy the same place. What do I do? I keep an eye on my own art and make it as good as I can, for my own sake, so I can hit people with it properly, until the machine ultimately grinds it up. I keep my rocket fuel chamber balanced with my own special blend of cynicism, joy, anger, and awareness. I know things are changing, but the nature of the machine is NOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME. So I keep pushing, against institutional indifference and societal scorn—oh yes, those are real—and keep creating stuff that moves my soul. Because in the face of everything, the myth and the machine, that is real, too.
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