Amanda Palmer, being an artist, and the question of “What is art?”

On Saturday morning I woke up early. I stared at my phone trying to transcribe digital readout into conscious thought and realized that I really had to get up right then if I was going to make the long drive up to  Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York to see Amanda Palmer’s play.

I had been excited for The Bed Show for months. With the things that had been going on in my life over the past two or three years, my bed was filled with all kinds of tension and joy and stress. The areas underneath it haunted by memories too real to handle, dark corners lurking behind brightly lit childhood photos and the familiar faces of stuffed animals. All I could think of as we drove up through the morning was how our beds are full of things we carry with us, even as we lie on them at night, shoving our bodies into the space between that baggage. I thought about how the things we carry rise up in us as we sleep. How they lift us up or press us down into the sheets, gasping and afraid or even ashamed of what we keep inside.

Sitting in the theater, I waited for some glimpse of Amanda. This woman that I felt that I had come to know all those years ago when she had sat in front of me on a stage at the TLA, legs spread beneath her piano, eyes intense and voice cracking with emotion, beating out a tempo that I have marched in sync with since then, from time to time. When I saw her come in stage right, I felt an unfamiliar stirring of excitement in my gut. The kind of feeling I have not had about an artist since meeting Neil Gaiman in college, and had never really felt before then.

If you can watch a laughing Amanda play ukulele while singing about ice cream without getting a severe case of The Warm Fuzzies, you're basically not human.
If you can watch a laughing Amanda play ukulele while singing about ice cream without getting a severe case of The Warm Fuzzies, you’re basically not human.

There aren’t a lot of artists that I feel a huge bond of kinship with. Oddly, Amanda married one of the other ones a few years ago. A fact that continues to make me smile a wry smile, like a friend who introduced two other friends and watched their romance blossom. I don’t know them, but somehow their connection seems very real to me, having grown up with Neil and having found something very adult and real to connect with in Amanda.

At any rate, I sat and watched her show. I laughed a lot. And I cried a lot. Particularly when an old man wandered onto the stage and sang a song about how he didn’t want people to feel pity for him as he moved through his life after the death of his wife and child. “I actually like it,” he told me, “with a hot cup of chocolate. And a cat in my lap.” He explained how people think your life ends when the people you love die, but it doesn’t. It just changes. And I was in the second row with my shoulders shaking, trying not to sob out loud at how beautiful and touching and soft and gentle this song was as it pried open everything I love and left me feeling exhausted and blessed all at once when it was finished.

Afterward, on the ride home and for two days afterward, I found myself looking around me and feeling genuinely disappointed with myself for not being a “better artist” or doing more artistic things with my life. I looked at Amanda from the audience and thought to myself “I could be doing so much more” and immediately felt a sense of guilt for not really using the talents I have. For not nurturing the artist inside me in the way that I should be.

Talk about a kick in the ass.

I think one of the reasons that I feel such a kinship with Amanda as opposed to other artists is the realization that she’s given me that I’m still sort of teasing out in my brain.

Most artists are so remote. They’re so far away from us that they seem super human. They don’t make their own posts on social media. They don’t really want to talk to you. And that distance leads to the feeling that, not only are these people super human, but there is no way you could ever do what they do. And that’s not a really good feeling and it leads to all sorts of issues with fame in this country that I could write a whole other blog post on.

The difference between Amanda and a lot of other artists is that she stands up and says she’s an artist but doesn’t exclude the rest of us from the conversation about her art. About art in general. In a way, her accessibility to her fans serves as an open invitation to come join the artist party. And, in the aftermath of The Bed Show and looking forward to her book tour here in Philly on Thursday, I feel more motivated than ever to get my art out there. To be heard. To do the things that I know I am capable of doing. And some of the things I’m not so sure about, because being scared of failure is bullshit.

One of the biggest bees in my bonnet when I was going through the ringer in the field of art history was this idea of trying to define what “art” really is. As if anyone has the right to tell anyone else that what they’re doing isn’t art. It was all wrapped up in this notion of the construction of “high art” and “low art.” It bugged me. I remember sitting down with my adviser and talking about my thesis paper and having him say “where’s the high art?” He didn’t like my response. Because there wasn’t any. Because I don’t think that high art is more important than low art.

In fact, I will even go a step further than that. I think that low art is more important than high art. When you define low art as vernacular photos, which is what my thesis was on. Or advertising. Or any of the million other things that we are surrounded by everyday. I mean, if vernacular photos are low art, what about the art of computer programming? What about the art of a love note in a lunch box? Or a home cooked meal? A thoughtful gift?

The point is, there is an art in our everyday lives that I think it is difficult to find when you constantly look at the untouchable artists around you. They distance themselves from us with the amount of money they can throw at a project or the amount of talent they can pay to surround themselves with.

Artists like Amanda invite you to reach out and touch the art around you. They invite you to participate in the artistic process. And that is the kind of art I can get behind. It’s beautiful and big and complicated and it invites you in in a way that is vital and alive. “Real art” (if we can ever define such a thing) inspires and communicates with the viewer. The world needs more real art.

Save the tatas!

It’s October, everybody! And you know what that means. It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves, throw on a low cut top with a pink ribbon on it, and get aware of breast cancer.

Although how you could be unaware is completely beyond me, especially when October 1st hits and everything from your local KFC bucket to your Kitchen Aid mixer is suddenly the color of pepto bismol.
Although how you could be unaware is completely beyond me, especially when October 1st hits and everything from your local KFC bucket to your Kitchen Aid mixer is suddenly the color of Pepto Bismol.

I kid, but breast cancer is no joking matter. With the death toll in 2013 in the US reaching 39,620 out of 232,340 reported cases according to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is a serious disease with serious repercussions for cancer sufferers as well as their families and friends. And with numbers like that, the likelihood that you know someone who will be effected by breast cancer within your lifetime is high.

Breast cancer gets a lot of attention as a disease. And that makes sense. No one wants the women in their lives to suffer and die of cancer. (Of course, men get breast cancer as well. 410 of those deaths listed above were men.) But when you look at the numbers on breast cancer, the concern to death ratio doesn’t quite add up. For example, when it comes to body count, heart disease is way ahead of breast cancer according to the CDC, taking the lives of 600,000 Americans every year. There are also several other cancers that claim significantly more lives per year than breast cancer, such as cancer of the digestive system, which took 144,570 lives in 2013 and the respiratory system which took 163,890 lives that same year. Those numbers are wayyyy higher than the numbers for breast cancer. When other cancers have death tolls like that, it begs the question: Why the focus on the tatas? Well, I have a few theories.

1) Boobies. This one is kind of obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. The fact of the matter is that a lot of us like breasts. That’s why you see campaigns like this on Facebook and other social networking sites all month long.

How about no?
Yea, no. Because flaunting my breasts 1) doesn’t prove or solve anything 2) is offensive to people who have lost or may face the reality of losing their own breasts to cancer. And 3) just… really? How obvious can you get?

So setting aside the issue of the incredible callousness required in order to happily flaunt your tits at women with mastectomy scars, this kind of campaign gets us to the heart of pink madness, which is this simple fact: boobies are pretty great. A large number of the population enjoy breasts either aesthetically or sexually. And another large number of the population enjoy having breasts. And more than that, the latter segment of the population have been taught that their feelings about their physical attractiveness hinges (at least in part) on the size, pertness, and existence of their sweater kittens. So if there’s a disease out there that could potentially call for the removal of something that a large number of us like and a similarly large number like to have, it seems obvious that we would sit up and take notice of that disease and want to throw money at it in order to preserve our happy places.

2) Prevention. The CDC lists a couple of ways that you can try to prevent breast cancer, including keeping a healthy weight, exercising at least 4 hours a week, getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol, avoiding carcinogens, and being aware of the risks inherent in birth control and hormone replacement therapy. But there are no guarantees. Taken together, these tips add up to “be healthy, but you still might get it anyway, so get checked to catch it early.” Which is not really great, all things considered.

The only real fun part is getting to feel yourself up without judgment. IT'S FOR MY HEALTH, OK???
The only real fun part is getting to feel yourself up without judgment. IT’S FOR MY HEALTH, OK???

Cancers in general are pretty hard to prevent. Disregarding, of course, things like lung and esophageal cancer, which have been linked to smoking and other environmental and lifestyle causes. The difference between cancer and heart disease with regard to public awareness is that cancer sends out the call for research and a cure, while heart disease focuses on education and prevention.

The Mayo Clinic lists some things that you can do to help prevent heart disease. These include not smoking, exercising at least 30 minutes a day, eating a heart-healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, getting good sleep, and getting regular health screenings. Heart disease is linked to many factors, but excluding genetic defects, the majority of causes are linked to lifestyle choices made by the individual. Heart disease differs from cancer in that it is something that can be controlled and prevented with proper education and available medical assistance.

It should be said that we aren’t neglecting heart disease awareness. It even has it’s own month. Guess which one? Yea, it’s February. But I don’t think anyone could argue with the fact that the fervor for breast cancer awareness easily overshadows that of heart disease awareness. And the reasons for that are, I’m sure, myriad. But from my tiny perspective it seems to be twofold. One, boobies are awesome. And two, the hope is that awareness of cancer will lead to funding for research and perhaps, in time, a cure. So while heart disease awareness seems to focus more on prevention and education, breast cancer awareness is looking for some kind of magical fix. Which is alluring because, well, magic! The idea that, if we throw enough money at a thing, it will just go away, while wholly ridiculous, does have a certain amount of appeal.

3) Pinkwashing. So pinkwashing refers to a couple of things. The first is exemplified by that first photo that I showed you. But here’s another:

breat_cancer_awareness_truck
Every bit of cement solidifies our commitment to end cancer!

And another:

pinkpistol
Put a cap in boob cancer’s ass!

And yet another, because I can’t resist a nice set of wheels.

This car brought to you by
This car brought to you by “Deep Impact Boats.” I can’t make this stuff up, kids.

So pinkwashing is, first and foremost, the selling of pink products with the idea of representing the fact that one supports breast cancer research. Ah, but there’s the rub. See, it turns out that you can slap that ribbon and pepto color combo on basically any product without too much oversight. You can, for example, require a proof of purchase for a pink item before the seller makes a charitable donation. And how much of a donation you make is not necessarily dependent on how much money you make from selling those branded product. You can look to the amounts donated by Major League Baseball and the WWE for examples of that. Both of those organizations sold branded products to people who believed they were making a sizable donation to Susan G. Komen. But the amount they donated is nothing compared to the amount of money they likely made from the sales of their overpriced pink bats and pink WWE gear.

Another issue with pinkwashing is the partnership between the Komen Foundation and several bottled water companies. Since water bottles commonly contain BPA, which has been linked to breast cancer tumor growth, that’s… well, it’s not a great partnership.

But pinkwashing draws a lot of attention and money to the cause, right? So that can’t be a bad thing, right?

Well, yes and no. Setting aside the fact that “awareness” does not equal “money in the pockets of deserving researchers,” there is a larger issue when it comes to some of the organizations that we choose to give money to in the name of this cause. I speak, of course, of cancer awareness mega giant Susan G. Komen, the organization standing at the heart of our Pepto-colored seasonal wonderland.

So aside from the issue of organizations not being required to give more than a pittance in donation in exchange for the use of the Komen name and pink branding, there’s a few issues to be had with the way that Susan G. Komen conducts itself.

Let’s start with Planned Parenthood.

Back in January of 2012, Susan G. Komen disclosed plans to eliminate $680,000 in grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings and education programs. In the four days that followed, a few things happened. First, several members of Susan G. Komen’s prominent staff members resigned over the issue. Second, Planned Parenthood received sizeable donations from other donors in order to make up for the loss of the grant. And third, the negative press became so problematic for the group that they reversed their decision just four days later, issuing this statement.

The snark delivered to Komen by the internet was proportionally epic.
The snark delivered to Komen by the internet was proportionally epic.

Komen’s reasoning? Well, according to statements made by them at the time, their new grant policy precluded the giving of funds to organizations that were under investigation by local, state, or federal authorities. Of course, Planned Parenthood was the only group to fall under that category. They didn’t, for example, find it necessary to drop Bank of America, who was under federal investigation at the time for foreclosure and mortgage fraud. And, of course, this decision had nothing to do with the fact that Karen Handel (VP for Komen’s public policy), who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 (and lost), identifies as staunchly pro-life and specifically opposes Planned Parenthood.

What’s insane about Komen’s pulling back on Planned Parenthood is just how much good Planned Parenthood does in the fight against cancer. In 2012 they provided cancer screening and prevention measures to over 1 million women, including pap tests, HPV vaccinations, and breast exams. Planned Parenthood seems like the perfect partner in the fight against breast cancer, providing women from all walks of life with the medical treatment necessary to detect cancer early, when it is most treatable. When you take into account the political leaning of Komen’s leadership, it becomes clear that Komen’s reasoning had more to do with them being anti-choice than any trumped up policy regarding federal investigation.

Speaking of the federal government, Komen spends a lot of money on lobbying in Washington DC. Now, depending on who you talk to, that’s a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, their lobbying might pay off in the form of government funding being put toward cancer research. On the other hand, if the lobbying is not successful, they are wasting the money given to them in good faith by their donors. The latter view of their governmental activities seems to have informed their decision, after the 2012 Planned Parenthood debacle, to lessen their impact in Washington. They went from spending $140,000 a year in 2011 to spending under $20,000.

Another reason for the drop in spending in Washington could be the 2012 scandal that occurred when it was revealed that their CEO, Nancy Brinker, had a salary of almost $700,000 (it has since dropped to $400,000, according to Better Business Bureau). It should be said that I am not against people working for charitable organizations making a living. And certainly if you are the CEO you should make a salary that makes your job worth your time. But I think the appearance to donors was that she was living in the lap of luxury while donations plummeted, and that’s not an image that you really want to cultivate as a charity.

And speaking of Komen’s political and lobbying machinations, we would be remiss if we overlooked their sue happy legal department. Susan G. Komen has entered into over one hundred legal battles over trademarking with other breast cancer organizations. Specifically, they are not interested in letting anyone else use the phrase “for the cure” in conjunction with any other cancer non-profit. So they are suing and threatening to sue other groups who have done this, wasting money that was donated to fight cancer to both the Komen Foundation and to the organizations that they are suing. So that’s… um… horrible? Yea. Really nothing more to say about that.

But what’s the benefit of them suing other groups in order to keep their “brand” untouched? Well, it may not surprise you to find out that the Komen Foundation rakes in a shit ton of cash every year. I’m not a super fiscally minded person, but the people over at philanthropy.com are. And they have a thing or two to say about Komen’s spending. I’ll break some of it down for you here:

In 2011, Susan G. Komen declared having received “$420-million in private support; $439-million in total revenue; and $409-million in expenses, including $333.7-million to program services, $48-million for fundraising, and $27.3-million for other general and administrative costs.”

Program services are where you see the amount that they give to research, so let’s look at that. In 2011, program services included four areas: “public-health education ($181.1-million), research ($75.3-million), health-screening services ($54.1-million), and treatment services ($23.3-million). And those areas are further broken down into 16 expense categories, such as the salaries, supplies, and the marketing costs associated with each. Out of the $75.3-million Komen spent on research, for example, $63.3-million went directly to awards and grants.”

So there’s a problem right there and my biggest issue with Komen financially other than the issues I’ve listed above. If your name as an organization is “for the cure” and, out of the immense amount of money you raise every year, only 22% of your income goes to actually finding a cure for breast cancer… I have a serious problem with that. And yes, some of their stuff goes to health screening and treatment, but the bulk of their program services goes to “public health education,” which, is basically awareness of the diseas. Which is basically just them producing pink stuff and information cards and calling it education when, really, it’s fundraising for Komen more than it’s anything else. Because honestly, how much more aware could we possibly get of the threat that breast cancer poses?

Bottom line? I am 100% in support of raising money to support breast cancer education, treatment, prevention, and survivors. But I think that Susan G. Komen is an organization that has very much lost it’s way. If you call yourself an organization that is “for the cure,” if you spend millions in order to make sure that you are the only organization who can even use those words, you should probably be actually funding a cure. Because that is why donors entrust their money to you. That is what we are all hoping for. A cure.


Want to find out what percentage of your money goes to a good cause? Always do your research before you give away your hard-earned money. Check out potential charities over at the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator.

With everything that I’ve said here, it seemed only fair that I give you some options other than Susan G. Komen if you want to donate to charity. There are a lot of deserving organizations out there, but these are some of the highest rated ones according to Charity Navigator.

National Breast Cancer Foundation (CN Rating: 97.6)
The National Breast Cancer Foundation’s mission is to help women now by providing help and inspiring hope to those affected by breast cancer through early detection, education and support services.

The Rose (CN Rating: 95.42)
Board Certified Radiologists, specialized technical staff, two Mammography and Diagnostic Imaging Centers plus a fleet of Mobile Mammography vans offer advanced breast cancer screening and diagnostic services including mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies and access to treatment to more than 35,000 women annually. Since its launch in 1986, The Rose has served nearly 500,000 patients and is now the leading nonprofit breast health care organization in southeast Texas.

Living Beyond Breast Cancer (CN Rating: 93.67)
LBBC is dedicated to assisting you, whether you are newly diagnosed, in treatment, recently completed treatment, are years beyond or are living with metastatic breast cancer. We are also here for your family members, caregivers, friends and healthcare providers to provide breast cancer information and support.
As a national education and support organization, our goal is to connect people with trusted breast cancer information and a community of support, regardless of educational background, social support or financial means.

Breast Cancer Connections (CN Rating: 98.76)
Our mission is to support people touched by breast and ovarian cancer by providing comprehensive, personalized services in an atmosphere of warmth and compassion. Bay Area Cancer Connections is a nonprofit organization located in the San Francisco Bay Area, but you’re welcome to call us from anywhere.

Dana Farber Cancer Institute (CN Rating: 94.93)
Since its founding in 1947, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts has been committed to providing adults and children with cancer with the best treatment available today while developing tomorrow’s cures through cutting-edge research. Read about our history, our breakthroughs, and the resources that help us support the health of our neighborhoods and communities.

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