Vulnerability and the wholehearted artist

We talk a great deal about vulnerability in the performing arts. Conduct an online search for the word ‘vulnerability’ within your artistic field, and countless articles, essays, blog posts, interviews, and critical reviews appear that mention the importance of this open quality to the artist and to artistic excellence,  conveying a common principle: that a willingness to let our guard down while performing enhances our ability to reveal and communicate truths to the audience.

Actors strive (often through methods centered in vulnerability) to become ‘emotionally accessible’ in a way that allows them to express text and to respond to their scene partners with an unstudied and sensitive realism. Composers, songwriters, and singers are encouraged to discover and develop their ‘authentic voices’, free from affect and ripe with a kind of instrumental nakedness that allows them to communicate emotion and meaning. Musicians[1] train for years to develop technical command alongside an ‘honest’ and unaffected, transparent delivery. Although the language of vulnerability may change depending on the discipline, the emotionally accessible actor, authentic singer, and musician who performs honestly each confirm that this characteristic is similarly prized across artistic fields; to be vulnerable is, in most cases, a sign of mastery.

The fact is that we broker in vulnerability in the arts. When we look beyond this willingness to be seen or known to include vulnerability’s other definitions—an exposure to harm or a neediness of some kind that causes us to depend on others—it is apparent that the performing arts are a risky enterprise. I think many of us accept this to be true in respect to our financial prospects, but we tend to overlook the seemingly ever present ways the arts function as endeavors firmly planted in or structurally tied to vulnerability. For example, the creative process is so engrossing that it often demands that we drop our defenses.[2] Our learning and professional spaces frequently require us to be in close proximity to each other. We use physical touch within performance and as a means of instruction. We rely on one-on-one lessons, frequently behind closed doors. We encourage our students and even teach them to strive toward openness and value it, and we applaud those who reveal themselves in such a way.

Because this trait is so prevalent and highly regarded, you would think then that artists and arts teachers receive some kind of training to understand vulnerability and the many issues it raises and the risks it brings about in the performing arts. Yet, because we learn to teach primarily through what we come to know from our own teachers via the apprenticeship model and through our individual experience as artists, we receive no officially vetted and formalized guidance that substantially addresses vulnerability. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing; uniform instruction within something as individual as the arts is not guaranteed to make good teachers, artists, or people. However, we do need to substantively address the many issues related to how we are vulnerable to each other much better than we do now.

Some in theater, film, television and (just now) opera[3] have been making earnest efforts over the past few years to address a specific area of vulnerability. The emergence of intimacy directors/choreographers to guide performers when material dictates they touch each other in rehearsal, performance, and teaching spaces plays an important role in protecting people from harm in some of the riskiest work we do in the performing arts. However, I think it is important to note that intimacy practitioners and their consent-based guides and practices only apply to a specific area of vulnerability in our field. They do not address nor are they relevant to many of the complex issues related to how we depend on each other, or how and why we are open to one another, thereby risking possible harms. As needed as these professionals are to the performing arts, intimacy directors/choreographers are not ethical advisors who can speak to the range of complex and sometimes maddingly byzantine issues that arise across education and the professions.  Additionally, as important as consent-based practices are, they are not absolute moral frameworks which will guide us to right action in all circumstances and we should not look to them as such. While these guides for behavior are essential in certain areas of our field, and hopefully encourage us all to think more carefully about how we treat each other and inspire us to do good, they are not a guarantee to whisk us out of harm’s way.

Most of us know all too well the worst of what these harms can be; the performing arts tragically seem to be ground zero for sexual abuse and misconduct cases. Yet, as abominable, and rightly attention-grabbing as these cases are, I think we also need to look beyond them to the less destructive and far more mundane interactions based in vulnerability.

When we consider the worst of what we have done to be wholly disconnected from what we do each day under the cloak or normalcy (which we often do), we deny the importance that small and seemingly harmless actions have; how they add meaning to our lives or how they can contribute to a larger environment that makes extreme harms possible. I think that when we look at how we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, it becomes clear that we are swimming in a sea of vulnerability in the arts, beginning with how we teach and learn.

Vulnerability: how we learn

Most of us learn in one-on-one or small group settings in which we practice our skills (often poorly as we bungle attempts and develop technique) in front of our teacher or peers to receive guidance in order to improve and hopefully one day become ‘real’ artists.  Because we prize personal expression and originality in the arts, mastering technique alone is insufficient. We are expected to synthesize ideas and techniques and express material through the unique view of our individual experience, while also incorporating the view of composer, lyricist, and playwright. Thus, we can only practice and perform well to a certain point without also engaging our whole selves, through use of our voices, bodies, affect, and the incorporation of our identities.

This incorporation of our whole selves into the physical and psycho-emotional creative process presents unique challenges to those teaching and studying the arts. Thus, whether we like it or not, if we learn in a typical setting, we reveal significant parts of ourselves to our teachers and peers[4] while also receiving critique . This criticism can encourage, but it can also hurt; sometimes a great deal, even when it is delivered in the kindest way possible. [5] It can be incredibly difficult to separate our sense of ourselves from critique when our body and voice are or are a part of the instrument. When this happens, we may wish to shield ourselves from receiving further feedback; getting read by your teacher is not always a fun time, even when you want their help. Yet, we will eventually need to ‘remain open’ in some way if we want to improve. So, we learn that part of what we need to do is take notes and receive critique while also not acting defensively. This is difficult work. Nonetheless, if we wish to develop our skills, we also likely want our teacher’s insight. Outside of wanting, we often depend upon their expertise.

Because the performing arts are primarily taught by individuals who represent a legacy of practice gained primarily by individual and relatively rarified experience, and much of the information is not easily or freely accessible to the public at large, students often do need their teachers to guide them in skill development if they want to learn techniques, professional norms, and performance practices. In addition to having hard-to-get expertise, these instructors often also offer pathways to professional acceptance and career advancement; they can be portals to and gatekeepers of the profession. Subsequently, I think it is fair to say that the apprenticeship model in the performing arts creates and maintains a particular kind of vulnerability for students.

Now, I am not implying that young artists aren’t independent capable people or that they are weak in some way simply because they are actors, dancers, and musicians (insert joke here). I am merely pointing out that the conditions of our time-honored teaching method create a specific kind of vulnerability that each one of us should be aware of and consider much more than we do, especially when young performers care a great deal about their work.

The wholehearted artist

The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt puts forth the idea that when we care a great deal about something, ‘wholeheartedly’ as he calls it, we identify with that care so much that we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable to all kinds of losses and (hopefully) benefits[6]. I think this idea is salient to us in the arts, particularly as we consider vulnerability. If we accept what Frankfurt is saying, then when a young artist loves their art a great deal, or loves the idea of being an artist, they are thus motivated to take on a whole host of risks, which can present as anything from assuming enormous debt burdens and accepting terrible job offers and living conditions, to moving to a new city with few connections, or even to revealing things about themselves when they otherwise wouldn’t, all in the name of being an artist.

I think that if a young artist demonstrates that they love their art in a way that it motivates them to take significant risks, we should consider that this caring might heighten their vulnerability beyond the exposures they experience as learners in a teaching model that values personal openness. Additionally, I think this degree of devotion is something we in positions of any kind of power (teachers, coaches, directors, arts administrators, admissions departments, etc.) need to be especially attentive to.

This increased vulnerability can manifest itself in many ways, and while I do not claim to have the answers for the problems it might present, I do think there are some obvious things we can do to try to make things better.  First and foremost, we should have more honest conversations with each other and our students about how some vulnerabilities can motivate us to take certain risks. We should be more forthcoming about topics such as debt burdens for artists, that not every job offer is a good offer, and that jobs in which organizations pay performers unjustifiably bad sums in in exchange for ‘loving what you do’ should be questioned. We should collectively take more serious action to hold those institutions accountable for these practices; it is well within the possibility considering what's involved that they are taking advantage of vulnerable artists. No well-established or stable and moneyed institution should be allowed to grossly underpay employees and maintain poor working conditions because they rely on everyone working for the love. As a wise student recently said to me: “Music is great, but you gotta eat”.

On the university end, I think we should be more direct with young people about how caring deeply for the arts might impact their school selection process. I have worked with more young people I can count who, motivated by a love for their arts, signed on to college programs they and their families could not afford. Many of these individuals have had to leave those programs with no degree, or they assumed unjustifiable amounts of debt because they were not properly guided during this knotty process. If young people are going to take life-altering risks because of this wholeheartedness, we should make as many efforts as we can to help them take appropriately calculated risks that won’t endanger their ability to succeed or thrive in life. At the very least, we should not shy away from talking about how this intense caring can influence important life decisions for young people on the brink of adulthood.

I think we should also reflect more purposefully on the one-on-one nature of our teaching model and how the intimate nature of the artistic subject and our commonly shared love for jt can create a condition in which both students and teachers traverse into vulnerable areas with tremendous regularity. I will continue to address this particular dynamic in future posts, but for the time being it is critical to remind ourselves how important boundaries are when learning in the arts. We should be willing to talk about these ideas with our friends and colleagues with great regularity, challenging how we work and teach.

Finally, we should be very mindful not to equate this wholehearted caring for the art with professional success. Although many accomplished performers love what they do a great deal, I think it is dangerous to encourage students to think that this degree of committed caring brings about professional achievement or somehow gives them an edge when they have not sufficiently invested in other areas. No amount of loving music can replace hard work, discipline, networking, personal and professional reputation, technical skills, and just plain luck. Loving singing cannot make a director cast a soprano when they need a mezzo, and the love for musical theater cannot memorize those 10 sides the casting agent sent you last night at 10pm.

Saying all of this, I don't want to convey that I somehow think loving what we do is anything other than incredibly valuable. Caring and loving give meaning to our lives in a way nothing else can. But these feelings can also motivate us to take many chances or even expose ourselves to harm. I hope that we will start to more seriously reflect on how we are at risk and why we take risks in the performing arts. I hope that we will be willing to branch out and endeavor to change how we do things when changes are called for. If we love our art and care about each other, we should do nothing less.

[1] Like the other topics I discuss on this blog, these ideas may apply to your artistic field as well—generally and in unique ways.

[2] Learning complex physical skills with psycho-emotional elements like singing or playing an instrument requires a kind of mental training that engages our imagination and extends beyond visualization to a kind of full sensorial envisioning of our ideal performance; it incorporates the self, emotions, and psychological attitudes, all while we perform technical skills and engage with (sometimes difficult) material toward some aim. This high-level coordination is so complex that it requires us to drop our guard to commit to the task. Immonen, O., Ruokonen, I. & Ruismäki, H., 2012. Elements of Mental Training in Music. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, Volume 45, pp. 588-594.

[3]Khomami, N., 2022. Royal Opera House hires intimacy coordinator for sex scenes. The Guardian, 29 January .

[4] Performing also presents this relationship between performer and audience, but that it another topic for another day

[5] I will save the discussion of criticism not delivered kindly for another post

[6] Frankfurt, H., 1987. The Importance of What We Care About. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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