Ditto Joe Rogan and J.K. Rowling. Cancelation attempts are making them wealthier and more popular for one simple reason.
When comedian Dave Chappelle first shot to super-stardom with his hit comedy series, “Chappelle’s Show,” his rise to fame and fortune seemed meteoric, overnight.
Like most overnight success stories, Dave Chappelle had already been hard at work honing his craft for many years prior to his sudden success. Doing stand-up in smoke-filled clubs; appearing in comedy specials with other comedians for a pittance; taking small acting and writing parts in small-budget pictures: Dave Chappelle, highest-paid, most popular comedian in America got his start as Dave Chappelle, starving artist.
Actor Judge Reinhold once gave a theater full of aspiring young drama and music students the following advice about show business: “If you can do anything else, if there is ANY other thing you can do, do that thing instead.”
He wasn’t being mean; Reinhold was explaining a basic universal truth in the simplest way possible: Being an artist is brutally hard, it is perhaps the hardest job there is. There are no guarantees whatsoever, no certain successes and failure is the general default.
Those who do choose art must do so because there is absolutely nothing else they can, will, or want to do with their lives and never will be.
Our society doesn’t make it easy. All those positive reinforcements built into our culture, instilled in us over a lifetime, drummed into our dear little ears since childhood- gold stars, grades, GPAs, test scores, awards, raises, salaries, parent-teacher conferences, performance reviews- working artists can expect none of those.
No gold stars. No pats on the head in the form of paychecks, raises, bonuses; only toil, blindly going where no one has gone before, making it up as you go along. Whatever your training as an artist, however many others have come before you- however many books, songs, movies, plays there are- every artist’s journey and every new project is the equivalent of sailing right off the edge of the map.
Being an artist means creating something from nothing. Into a world with no Harry Potter, Harry Potter. Into a world that never heard of Dave Chappelle, Chappelle’s Show.
It’s magic, spiritual. It’s lightening in a bottle.
“As profound as this ritual is, celebrating what you’ve been through and where you’re going, what you’ve accomplished, let’s remember what it’s really all about,” jazz bassist Esperanza Spaulding told music students graduating from the Berklee College of Music in 2018. “It’s about the Spirit.”
“So now, all of you have been initiated into this role,” Spaulding intoned. “You are vessels now to go out into the world and transmit this spirit, that none of us in this room understands. We don’t know what we’re doing when we play! The only thing that makes it matter, is the one thing we don’t understand.”
Art is so mysterious, so profound, that within the system of Japanese Aesthetics, the principle of Yugen encompasses both fine art and the majestic beauty of nature.
In Yugen, the highest form of expression in an art form, performed by a master after many years of study, is called, “the art of the flower of peerless charm,” and is so mysterious, it can only be understood through koan, if it can be understood at all.
Like nature, art is full of terrible, existential risk.
What activists are really doing with all these attempts to cancel comedians like Dave Chappelle and writers like J.K. Rowling is raising the level of risk involved in making their art, making them better artists.
Since there is no art without risk, cancellation is the perfect growth medium for an artist like Chappelle, Rowling or Joe Rogan: Being a target, everything they do has more risk, and is therefore more poignant and more potent.
Every time these cancelled artists write a joke or a character sketch, they do so knowing thousands of people (on Twitter) will object before they even see it. Far from sending working artists into hiding, this kind of attention is the artist’s bread-and-butter.
Chappelle, Rowling and Rogan wouldn’t be where they are today if they weren’t able to take criticism, disdain, rejection, failure- and mountains of it. They would have given up long ago, like so many other talented would-be artists who, like Judge Reinhold said, find something else they are able to bring themselves to do and do that instead.
If artists like Chappelle and Rowling didn’t like risk, they wouldn’t make art; they would be doing something easier like rocket science or politics. Risk is the lifeblood of art; the nature of art is taking chances, learning the rules to break them. It’s how we get things like jazz music, surrealism, and sci-fi.
Art without risk is why so much of what is coming out of Hollywood feels dead, canned, and flat. Art has become too a valuable commodity, a bet to hedge, an investment in need of a return; not artistic self-expression in need of an audience.
Wanting art without the risk of failure is the reason Disney won’t give full artistic control of the next Star Wars movie to George Lucas; and the reason Lucas won’t accept the job of directing without it.
By the time corporate gets a look at the project, legal signs off, the advertising people do their revisions and additions, diversity and equity weighs in, and the investors get their say, what is left of the original idea is barely recognizable. Usually, the process goes the other way; various corporate departments creating a Frankenstein’s art monster cobbled together from past successes- a new franchise installment, another reboot.
There is just too much money on the line to trust the process of creation to an artist. Artists must take risks. Sometimes those risks pay off and we get great works of art that move us, unforgettable movies that change our lives, books that become classics, genre-busting new musical styles.
Sometimes the risks don’t pay off. In fact, most of the time they don’t pay off. A wildly successful recording artist takes the record label’s money to make another all-platinum Grammy magnet, just like the last one, only to abscond to another country to make an experimental prog-rock album using traditional instruments from around the world.
Which of course, no one buys.
Ditto the ultra-famous country music star who wanted to reinvent himself for a time as a goth-lite singer of complaint rock.
Art means risk; great risk. Making art means taking the greatest risk of all, that eventuality all artists fear more than anything else, which they are guaranteed to experience at least once and probably more like once a day.
The artist risks making something that isn’t any good, something no one likes, no one wants to read, listen to, watch or care about. They risk making something that doesn’t move a single soul. Even successful artists often worry they will never make anything good ever again.
Dave Chappelle understands the role of risk in art; he has risked rejection, abject humiliation, and cancellation since the moment he told his first joke to a room full of paying strangers.
Stand-up comedians are even tougher than most artists; they risk bombing every single time they go on stage. They live with this fear: “What if I tell these jokes, do this bit, and absolutely no one laughs?”
Most artists would prefer the once-removed rejection of a book that doesn’t sell to the in-your-face humiliation the stand-up comedian must endure, delivering jokes into an abyss of unsmiling faces.
Being an artist also means being something of a contrarian. Artists, by their very nature in our culture, are already swimming against the current thing. Getting swept into corporate, workaday America, into a law degree, or a communications major, or a nice comfortable 9–5 is easy; resisting that bandwagon, every time it comes by, is hard.
Dave Chappelle did disappear from the public eye once, and for many years. At the height of the Chappelle Show’s popularity, the popular comic just walked away. Chappelle’s Show was a golden-egg laying goose and Dave Chappelle left a $50 million dollar contract on the table. He could have hired it out, paid other comedians to do the work and just cashed the checks.
But he didn’t.
If Dave Chappelle was into doing what other people expect and want him to do, behaving in socially approved and sanctioned ways; if he was committed to being utterly uncontroversial, he wouldn’t be Dave Chappelle.
The harder misguided activists try to send Chappelle weeping into obscurity, the higher they move that bar of artistic risk. In fact, the activists who just convinced a popular theatre venue to move Chappelle’s comedy show probably just inspired his best work yet.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)