The Art of Asking – Why Amanda Palmer is So Divisive and So Important

In the comfortable bubble of liberal, left-leaning indie arts land it’s hard to state a genuine opinion that will cause much more than a chinny collective nod and hemp-gloved circle backslap. Nigel Farage? Call him dangerous, call him toxic but don’t call him an imbecile because we all agree that perpetuating ableist language is simply playing the UKIP game. Amazon versus Hachette? Come on, Amazon AND Hachette are monsters of equal maw!

But there is one thing guaranteed to split any collegial campfire circle into a bicameral mob. Declare your love of Amanda Palmer. Which is something I do. On a regular basis. Usually accompanied by a plea to my creative friends to watch her amazing TED talk The Art of Asking, and now the even more amazing book of the same name. Half the people who comment will share “Amanda Palmer saved my life” stories while the other half will steam in with their “Amanda Palmer makes me want to barf then block you” ire.

There were so many times while I was reading The Art of Asking when I had to put down the book and think through what I had read and when I concluded that the problem of Amanda Palmer is more than just that. It is the problem of the independent arts scene as a whole – or, at least, of the independent writing world that I know so well and those parts of the independent art, music, and theatre world I have come to be on reasonably tea drinking terms with.

The problem can be summed up in a single word. Entitlement. Most of the criticisms of Amanda, be it her Kickstarter campaigns, her couchsurfing, and her relationship with the musicians on her Grand Theft Orchestra tour, boil down to the same refrain – “she’s so entitled.” And the problem comes because the message of The Art of Asking can be boiled down to the same essence. I am entitled. You are entitled. It is OK to ask for help, for support, for money. What you are doing in creating your art, in reaching out to, in recognising, acknowledging, your audience entitles you to do that. Even more problematic, she regularly suggests that it is when we feel that we aren’t entitled to ask, when we feel unworthy of payment, that we are actually being inauthentic. Because we are breaking the artistic contract. It’s an excellent, and well-nuanced point. When an audience reaches out to acknowledge your work, the best response is gratitude. It is not to say “I think you’re wrong.” Amanda says at one point that she has never turned down money, but always taken it with gratitude. That makes a lot of us in the indie arts world feel very uncomfortable, but when you look at it solely in the context of the artist/audience relationship, it is absolutely the right thing to do. Acknowledge and respond with gratitude and recognition to the genuine outpouring from someone who has in turn appreciated what you do. That is how you build spirals of trust.

Why do we feel so bad about asking? Amanda talks about The Fraud Police, what we know as Imposter Syndrome. And when I say know, I don’t mean in the Wikipedia sense. Most of us who have put ourselves out there creatively have woken up in the middle of many nights (or, at least, the few nights our muses and musings allowed us sleep to start with) with the deepest sense that “I’m not worthy.” That we are frauds. That we contribute nothing of true value and so deserve nothing tangible but the warm and fuzzies in return. And people who are on our side don’t help. How many times have you heard that absurd trope “you wouldn’t expect a plumber to work for nothing”? Why thank you, I reply. Thank you for reminding me that actually, by comparison to anyone in a proper profession, I contribute absolutely nothing of social utility or necessity for the subsistence of life.

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At the heart of The Art of Asking is a notion that sounds very much like a capitalist creed. And that’s why, I think, so many people on the left have such a problem with it. The idea is this. Worth is created in the petri dish of relationship. That can sound awfully like the kind of “it’s worth what someone will pay for it” notion that drives capitalism. It’s not. It’s saying that the value that matters is the value of human relationships. Nor is it quantifying the unquantifiable, boiling relationships down to cash. It is allowing each partner in a relationship to give what they can, and to feel that they have contributed (and really to have contributed) to the relationship by doing so.

There is another aspect of asking that makes us deeply unhappy. It is selfish. Why me? The Art of Asking makes some very interesting points about the difference we feel when we ask for something on behalf of others as opposed to asking on behalf of ourselves. This was the point where I felt most deeply connected to what Amanda was saying. This is the reason I left the indie writing world. Asking for people to buy my books, or come to my shows, and asking simply for that made me want to curl up in a ball and howl for mother! So I started a writers’ collective. And I ran group shows. It is what Amanda describes as the difference between being a solo artist and being in a band. All of a sudden, asking became easy. Because I wasn’t asking for me, I was asking for all the people I knew really deserved it. Only, as a result I was losing money, even for the brief spell when I was selling lots of books. And I wasn’t actually writing anything. And so the whole experience was leaving me more and more jaded until I quit. I’d never understood that when it comes to art, “I’m entitled” isn’t a statement that requires the kind of utter kenosis it does when uttered in a socio-political context. It means, simply, “I’m entitled.” And it means both bits. I’m entitled, because what I do does something to other people they want to express gratitude for. And I’m entitled because the relationship is between me and each individual audience member.

Finally, the kind of entitlement Amanda is talking about is very different from the kind I see in places in the indie writing world. Good entitlement, if I may cannibalize Chris Morris, is about acknowledging both parties of a relationship. Bad entitlement is more along the lines of “I did this, now give me what I’m owed.” Bad entitlement sees worth as intrinsic to a thing. That thing may be “my hard work” or it may be “the song/book/painting.” But it’s still a thing. An identifiable, undynamic, fixed thing. Where Amanda and this kind of indie usually steer away from each other is on the question of “free.” Amanda makes all of her work available for free download, and then asks people to pay what they want and can. She gives. They give. Any transaction is contextualised in relationship. There is a breed of indie artist that will not countenance free. This may be for a number of reasons but what they boil down to is “I’m entitled.” It’s not surprising, is it, that she is such a controversial figure, when who means what and in what context when everyone seems to be saying the same thing is almost impossible to tell.

But however similar the vocabularies, the differences are huge. What Amanda Palmer stands for is worlds apart from the kind of entitlement that makes commentators want to scream and the self-aware want to self-empty. The Art of Asking is about the value of art. But it is about something more important even than that. It is about the value of the relationship between artist and audience that keeps art alive. It is an important book. There should be debates about its message on panels across the arts conference world. At the very least, everyone in the arts should read it.

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8 thoughts on “The Art of Asking – Why Amanda Palmer is So Divisive and So Important

  1. I do agree with everything you (and Amanda) say. Putting it into practice is more difficult. I have recently realised that performance art (in which an artist faces the relationship with a public full frontal) is both the bravest and most honest way to find out what value your work has, and thereby to come to know its worth directly. A few talks and readings have introduced me to this brave new world, and I enjoyed all of them. But circumstantially being a solitary, and old (quite) and old fashioned (in what I write) in the fast paced performance world does make me a hard sell…so rather back to square one!

  2. “How many times have you heard that absurd trope “you wouldn’t expect a plumber to work for nothing”? Why thank you, I reply. Thank you for reminding me that actually, by comparison to anyone in a proper profession, I contribute absolutely nothing of social utility or necessity for the subsistence of life.”
    As a performer, I can’t help but feel that’s your inference. If that ‘trope’ is what is needed to communicate value-then the point is made. I don’t take that that as an insult or shortcut because I honestly feel that no one wants a line-item of what we spent to come out and do a performance. In the end analysis, if I don’t treat it it as a job (admittedly one I enjoy) then it removes (for me) some commitment. I spent two years as a poorly paid free-lance artist and that has informed what I need to get our work out there with some measure of personal satisfaction. Nothing makes my radar go up faster than people using words like “family” and “with future rewards” or “exposure” common tropes in many art circles.

    • “Nothing makes my radar go up faster than people using words like “family” and “with future rewards” or “exposure” common tropes in many art circles.”
      Oh good heavens, yes.

      But I really do think that the plumber analogy utterly misses the point. Of course when it comes to commissions, to being asked to do something, or writing, say, copy for someone then the first thing I’d fire back is “this is the rate.” But when it comes to making art, no one has asked us to write a book or make a song or do a painting – we have done it because we are compelled to do it, because we have a need. It’s a different thing

  3. Pingback: The Art of Asking – Why Amanda Palmer is So Divisive and So Important | Publetariat

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