The value of a man is as great as his responsibility.
- Hazrat Inayat Khan
This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibility.
- Klaatu – The Day the Earth Stood Still (in his warning to planet Earth)
In my last post I lamented the dearth – not death, although it’s getting there – of true Commitment. But even that profound level of Commitment has little value if it’s not accompanied by its sibling – Responsibility.
These days responsibility seems to be defined simply as the lack of total irresponsibility. If someone is responsible about this, that or the other thing, they consider themselves to be responsible beings – even if they’re irresponsible for two out of every three other items. This isn’t baseball, y’all – where batting .300 will get you into the Hall of Fame. Responsibility is like pregnancy – you are, or you ain’t.
I’ve dealt with artists who think that if they show up for the gig, rehearsals and interviews on time and prepared, it makes them responsible. But there are so many other layers of responsibility involved – to the other musicians, the promoter, the manager, the agent, the audience, and on and on. And in kind, that sense of responsibility needs to be held front and center by those sidemen, promoters, managers, agents and audiences. It’s a big symbiotic relationship of filigree delicacy. One misstep and the entire structure can implode.
We have painful empirical evidence of what can happen when Responsibility is abandoned simply by viewing our current economic crisis. When CEOs, bankers, landlords and elected officials see only the small picture of their own personal interests, devastation of tsunami proportions occurs. For us in the arts, the stakes are much smaller, but the effects are the same – a microcosm of the grander version.
Just as the placebo version of commitment I wrote about last time has marginalized true Commitment, so has a synthetic sense of responsibility eclipsed the type of real responsibility that is so terribly needed in these challenging times. CEOs talk of their responsibilities to the stockholders over their employees; the banker to the corporate clients over the small businesses; the landlords to their families over their tenants; the politicians to their contributors over their constituents.
But it’s just talk- an excuse to be self-indulgent, greedy and manipulative rather than to create the context of expansive growth and mutual benefit that was supposed to be the principles upon which this country was supposedly founded (well, for white folks anyway – but that’s a subject for a whole other narrative than this one). So what could be more irresponsible than redefining the concept of responsibility for one’s own self-serving purposes?
It’s not just the one-percenter Daddy Warbucks, corporate jetting CEOs, Wall Street warlords and political royalty who are guilty; sometimes it’s also pianists, saxophonists, singer/songwriters and the various business manipulators of their environment who are equally guilty of this behavior. Irresponsibility has seeped into every aspect of our lives like the spew from an overflowing toilet leeches into the bedroom carpeting.
The indifference, arrogance and self-indulgence of too many who ford the streams of Planet Culture are equally abhorrent and similarly damaging. While they don’t have the same devastating effect on as many people, the amorality and immorality are of the same substance.
Is the mugger who steals a wallet better than the thief who holds up a restaurant full of diners? Is that thief better than the con man who bilks a hundred old folks out of their savings? And is that swindler better than Bernie Madoff? If we start justifying irresponsibly and self-serving by the degrees to which we do it, where does it end?
Too often the existence of commitment – even and sometimes even true commitment – actually becomes an excuse for irresponsibility. I’ve seen a few too many artists excuse their own irresponsible actions as putting their art above all else. And I’ve seen too many decent folks excuse the outrageous behavior of artists because their artistry entitles them to be that way. Bullshit! True Commitment to your art demands total Responsibility for it to thrive in its fullest and most glorious manifestation – responsibility to one’s playing, to one’s growth, to one’s studies, to one’s creativity, to one’s collaborators, to one’s business colleagues, to one’s family and to one’s inner goodness and spirituality (and I don’t mean those ersatz new-age versions either).
That responsibility is not of the moment, into the near future or for a while either. It must be conceived and understood in time and space – how today’s actions affect those of tomorrow, next week, next year and maybe for the rest of your life and the lives of those who you touch.
This was understood and embraced by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington throughout their careers. It was embraced and understood by the polar opposite essences of Miles Davis and the glorious John Coltrane. All of these men had long, consistent and mutually beneficial relationship with their musicians, their audiences and their business colleagues. (Now don’t nitpick about this or that event – you know what I’m saying!)
Only when True Commitment and Full Responsibility crisscross the path of Profound Truth does the miraculous occur. And isn’t that why we do what we do? Or if not, shouldn’t it be?
If this piece interests you, please add your thoughts in a comment below and use the social network buttons to share it with your community. Subscribe to this blog to receive new articles by email and exclusive e-books, discounts, and offers on Outward Visions products and services. Marty Khan is the author of “Straight Ahead: A Comprehensive Guide To The Business of Jazz (Without Sacrificing Dignity or Artistic Integrity)” now available as an e-book, and is currently working on an anthology of articles chronicling the beautiful art and the ugly industry of jazz. The anthology is scheduled for digital release in Fall 2012.