I had an interesting interaction out on the pitch yesterday.
While performing at Harbourfront, I was met with a particularly vehement reaction from a passerby, who told her friend (purposely within earshot of me) that she did not give money to “those people”.
When I mimed a shrug of ‘why not?’ she spat back at me, “Because you need to get a REAL JOB.”
While I am not interested in revealing the rest of our interaction (suffice to say it is quite sad for me to even publish–the elitism of some people is too depressing to even mention), I am interested in writing a response to the tiring, and yet age-old tension between “real” jobs and “fake” jobs.
Busking is not a conventional job, I know. Hell, I was dumped by a long-term partner over my “fake” job, which many will dismiss as an illegitimate form of employment.
Throughout the years, I’ve been asked all sorts of stupid questions (sorry folks, unlike your grade six teacher, I refused to buy into “there are no stupid questions” crap. There ARE stupid questions, and trust me folks–I get plenty of ’em) ranging from “So let me guess, you go on welfare in the winter time?” to even our OWN CURRENT MAYOR, Rob Ford, upon walking through my crowd to campaign as I was doing a show, insinuating that I don’t even pay my taxes (oh, and by the way, Mayor Ford, I absolutely do pay my taxes, thanks for asking).
But far and wide, the most insulting inference about busking is that it is not a legitimate job.
Let’s look at the history of busking, shall we?
It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of this trade as it’s pretty much as old as prostitution. When and wherever there has been art in history, there have been poor artists who have to fight to earn their income. Our history is largely through oral tradition. The current incarnation of busking that we perform and that you see now was trailblazed in the 70s and 80s by folks like the Checkerboard Guy, Gazzo, and the Three Canadians. It’s to folks like these that I owe much gratitude. Thanks to folks like Chalkmaster Dave and Silver Elvis, we have a licensing system here in Toronto that both protect me and allow me to work. These artists are why I get to travel in a cushy manner to far-off lands to perform shows for adoring fans. Even though I am a dying breed of “streeties” (hard street buskers) in the wake of the festival circut and culture, I know that I am not nearly as hard as these legends.
There is such a range of people who take to the streets, ’tis true: from beginner living statues with crappy costumes, to That Guy With the Guitar, to the crazy dude with the chessboard, it can be daunting to sift through the muck to find the diamonds. But there are diamonds out there, folks. Trust me, I am fortunate enough to work with many of them.
People forget that in a country like Canada, it can be damn difficult to eke out a living as an artist: many of us choose to have day jobs to make ends meet, or, like myself, choose to street perform. And, if we choose to go the pro route with street performing…..well, I feel like it’s almost unnecessary for me to even have to condescend to tell you all about the many hours I spend training, booking, writing up invoices, negotiating contracts, working with directors, balancing the creative and the business-side, wrangling my insurance and licenses, work-permits abroad, etc. … wait.. this is suspiciously sounding like a Real Job™ to me!
The beauty, though, is that the time spent on the street is what helps us hone our crafts so we can get cushier jobs. Here are just a few famous people who started out as buskers:
Penn & Teller
Oh..and guess who else? CIRQUE DU SOLEIL.
The irony, of course, being that Cirque Du Soleil has since made such an impact upon the performing arts industry, globally, but, specifically within Canada so much so that we circus artists are now granted er.. ‘grant-getting’ status by the Canada Council for Arts. We are finally recognized as legitimate artists!!
The problem of making the argument between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art is that it becomes muddied when you are talking about intermediate artists like myself: people who aren’t ‘famous’ but people who can make a comfortable living through producing their own art. What does that make us? “middle art”?
I conducted an interesting experiment last week.
I have a routine that I perform on stage. It’s corporeal mime-based. It’s guaranteed to be artsy and fartsy and “high” art. I trained on it for a long time, worked with a talented artist and developed it based upon classical mime–an art I have studied and paid money to learn. I took it to the street and incorporated it into my statue act for jokes. It did NOT get the response I get when performing on stage. And yet, I get paid to perform it on stages!
Different art for different contexts. No less legitimate. Hell, I would argue that busking is FAR more legitimate: I’ve touched more audiences here and abroad through my street shows than I ever have with my corporate cabaret acts. Plus, what other job gives you the product before asking for payment, now, really?
This is what I do for a living and I take it very seriously. I have no time for “weekender” (or, as I call then “tourist”) buskers who have day jobs. I have no time for pitch-wasters, and I especially have no time for people who don’t care to understand the amount of work that goes into putting a show together to give to the general public at our own free will.
If busking is a “fake” job in the eyes of the public, then so be it, but you can be sure that I will argue tooth and nail that it is a legitimate one.