The Lucky One: On Success, New York and the Artistic Impulse

by Mara Jebsen

DownloadedFile-4I met a woman the other day; she told me she was writing a book on luck.“Luck!” I said, “that’s an excellent topic.”And someone else drank some beer and said: “Luck, I’ve heard. . .is just statistics taken personally.”

And the woman laughed, agreeing, I think. But I must confess I’m superstitious; really, most of us are.

I teach at NYU, and so it was odd for me, recently, to read the article on president John Sexton in the New Yorker. It seemed to name pretty accurately the changes in the university over the last ten years or so. It made me think of the hundreds of freshmen I’ve taught, and I wondered where they all are now. I think they have an excellent education, but I worry about (and suffer from) our culture of debt, and so, often, I hope they are all lucky.

An illogical faith in one’s own luckiness can arrive early. Here is one way it can happen: on a particularly dreary day in a dreary city, when you are six years old, you might step on eight gasoline rainbows, which you believe to be good omens, on the way to school, and by the time you get to school, you are already thrilled, because you stepped on so many rainbows.

Then, maybe that day, you’re the line leader, you sing a solo in the school assembly, and your mother picks you up at recess, with ice cream. Or whatever it is that you like. These were the things that I wished for, one day when I was six, and the things that I got. And so I felt I understood something. You wish for something, you wait, and then there is some sign, some strange greenish light, and then you get it. Sometimes.

That is childish thinking. But perhaps nowhere, besides in the realm of romance, are otherwise logical adults so mystical as in their thinking as about ‘gifts’ and ‘vocations.’ The notion of having a ‘calling’ is such a beautiful idea, asserting, as it does, that a person has an unquestionable reason for being on earth. It is an idea so satisfying that it still has a lot of purchase with the more secular and realist types.

Artists in particular are usually convinced that they would not go through what they go through if they hadn't been called to do so. F.Scott Fitzgerald has this to say about his own early success:

“The dream had been early realized and the realization carried with it a certain bonus and a certain burden. Premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will power—at its worst the Napoleonic delusion. The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining. The man who asserts himself at thirty has a balanced idea of what will power and fate have each contributed, the one who gets there at forty is liable to put the emphasis on will alone.

The expectation, for someone who has discovered in him or herself, a talent, a certain amount of “beginners luck,” is that one must labour because one’s star is shining, and that shining is supposed to be a gift given by one person to many. That is ‘success’ for the artist.

So it is really something when artists turn that equation inside out. Sometimes they make things and never show them to anbody. Or, there is this– a few weeks ago, I went to the Brooklyn Museum to hear a talk given by a former student, a young woman who documents for a group called Odyssey Works. The speakers told the tale of two young artists having a discussion about the ‘ideal audience.’ They were noting something that the writers of love poetry have long noted…sometimes one’s talents only work if they are totally funneled towards one person, a person one knows, and wishes to give a gift to. This is a different measure of 'success,' and a strange way of thinking about a 'calling' but one that many artists might respond to.

They describe their project this way on their website:

An Audience of One

Imagine waking up to discover yourself immersed in a performance that is all about you. You're the main character in the performance. It lasts all day, surrounding you with extraordinary experiences that take place in your home, at your workplace, and all over the city where you live. The other actors are your friends and family and an eclectic group of artists, most of whom you've never even met. This is Odyssey Works.

If this is happening to you it is because, six months earlier, you chose to fill out one of our questionnaires. The questionnaire, thorough and intensive as it is, is just the beginning of our research; we watch the films you like, speak to your friends and family, visit your home and your workplace. We get to know you as well as possible and then we commission artists to craft a series of experiences designed to be the most profound artistic moments you've ever lived. Books are written, scores are composed, films made, installations installed, theatrical moments created – whatever the group determines would be most affecting.

The results are transformative, traversing the boundary between reality and performance. Each piece represents a remarkable collaboration among artists who are innovators in their own fields, both in the US and abroad, and each coalesces into a completely unique and unrepeatable production that leaves none involved unchanged.

As I stood in the back of the room, I realized that simply in hearing about so many people working together to make an experience for one person, I was moved in the way that I am sometimes moved, not at the theatre, but at weddings. This was some sort of rite, or ceremony being performed; a collaborative act of good will by many beings towards one person. You cannot, by the way, commission this experience.

I couldn’t tell if it would be more pleasurable to be the audience of one, or one of the artists. My sense was that the artists collectively were playing the part of ‘fortune,’ planting experiences, trials, coincidences, and delights that we are usually only offered on rare occasions, when we feel were are intimate with the universe itself.

Odyssey Works members spoke, also, of something called ‘pronoia’ that they were trying to cultivate as a concept. This is the crazy conviction that everyone around you is conspiring to make you feel good for a while. To me, this is a new kind of good-luck story.

There seem to be two kinds of luck story that have particular appeal. There is the success-against-all-odds tales that Americans love so much and which are, of course, part of the myth that the meritocracy works well, and part of what actually obscures the deep inequalities of opportunity that mark our system.

The other good-luck story, that of the ‘charmed life,’ tells the tale of someone who was never the underdog, but whose life seems to follow an upward spiral to some unheard of heights.

It has occurred to me often that so much of identity-solidarity—and the self-segregation that you can see in much of America, comes not only from a sense of a shared past—but from a sense of shared prospects. When we choose our compatriots, maybe we are also saying: these are the types of things that we can expect to happen to people like us. We cast our lot together.

The great Gwendolyn Brooks, in a poem about driving past the homes pf healthy, wealthy white folks in a car says, with a hard sort of wistfulness: “It is just that so often they live until their hair is white.”

I suppose 'luck' really is nothing more than “statistics taken personally” especially in New York, where there are so many of us, and we need the luck quite badly. Still, the narratives about the city create a sort of thrill that seem to actually change the experience of living here. Which is to say, few of us seem to be able to live without good-luck stories. The temperatures of people’s bodies actually rise when they are listening to a storyteller, and feeling ‘warm’ feelings. Most of us like to keep a stock of these around, for hard times. Once, the great poet Lucille Clifton, who was born with six fingers on each hand, and whose life absorbed enormous fortune and misfortune, caught me worrying about some trifle. “Trust the universe” she said, and she did not say it lightly.