Thursday, July 06, 2006

Compete or Retreat?

I was having a meeting with a friend this morning, seeking some feedback on a project I want to start-- an arts organization. He and I have worked together on other things before and I value his opinion, especially because his views are often counter to my own-- a very valuable thing to have in feedback. So I explained my idea and we discussed it. We talked about other stuff I'm doing, things he's doing. And then the question came up, somewhat in relation to it all...

Are we not competitive? As a city, do we have that desire within us.

This word has come up a lot lately, and I am beginning to wonder where he truth lies. I loved going to grad school in England. I loved it even more because I did not find the students to be competitive, which is ironic in many ways. To get to university in England, you have to be bright, especially when it was free. Now that they are moving to a more consumer educational system like the US, the standards are falling off a little. That being said, to get to grad school, you have to be the freakin' creme of the crop, the best of the best. There are then only so many jobs for those people, but just getting that far almost assures you one-- even in the arts. It's not like in the US where your earning potential actually goes down with a MA. So, it always shocked me to hear my American counterparts talking about the competition in school, about the cattiness, the cheating, the push to get ahead at all costs, and the fact that the professors and administrators were perpetuating this. I work in an innerdisiplinary field, so my academic advancement and intellectual understanding is stimulated by different people, by collaboration. We would get done with a seminar and hop to the pub, where we would continue talking about what we read. If we had a bad class, which often happened in my Gender seminars, we would hit the pub and continue to ask the questions which were silenced in class. Point is, it wasn't just us. That's what people do there.

I don't believe in competition, personally. It's healthy to a degree, and it's somewhat nice knowing it's there, but I don't participate in it. Never have. I grew up liking individual sports because I wanted to have fun and beat myself. I don't like working for companies because they foster this eat-or-be-eaten attitude. And that's what I have always loved about St. Louis. I don't see competition here, but now I am wondering if that's true, and moreover, if that's healthy.

In recent discussions of my project, I have heard people say that they have observed just the opposite. That they perceive a lot of competition and perhaps an unwillingness to pull together in any real way. Perhaps a battle for an audience, or a market. Perhaps because people don't want to sell out or feel pulled in some kind of self-sacrificial way. Perhaps they just don't have the motivation. Last week I heard people call it a laziness.

It's funny though, because that's not what I see. I see a general, and genuine, desire for people to help one another. To collaborate and promote. I also see people without the resources to get much further than what they are currently doing. Some might be happy with that, but others are certainly frustrated. I see people being so involved in what they are doing and so passionate, that they don't have the time to become more visible. When you split your time between some kind of full-time paid work to get the bills done and your art or passion, something has to give, and it seems that's often the fine line of recognition and success.

My mission has always been to publicize what we're doing-- individually, collectively, as communities, and as a city. Is it to our advantage that we're not competitive, or is that why we are where we are? It's something I will continue to think about. When that word was brought up this morning, we found examples of ways we are competitive, and ways that's fueling our creativity. For me, it just makes me think maybe we break the mold. STL has its own style, and maybe if we pull together, we can make that work for us, and then as a city, as a larger body, we will be a force to be reckoned with. We will be competitive-- but only when it truly serves us.

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