Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – The Grim Reaper of performance?

I’ve stated many times that I consider professional wrestling an art form. Just like other performance arts, both the artist and the art itself can be compromised when the artist loses creative control, even if he willingly gives it up in order to make a sound career decision. In fact, where career goals and financial security meet performance for the sake of creative expression, art dies.

TODAY’S ISSUE: The death of art.

Take Ring of Honor. Once a proud maverick with a style very different from what the more financially successful feds were doing at the time, ROH earned a dedicated following of die-hard fans who shelled out hundreds upon hundreds of dollars supporting the beloved promotion. ROHbots kept Cary Silken’s company afloat for years via DVD purchases, live event attendance, merchandise and pay-per-view buys, but due to poor market penetration ROH wasn’t exactly thriving from a profit standpoint. Still, the core audience remained devoted to the little indy that could, and would have continued spending their hard-earned cash on the niche product even with loads of free wrestling on television each week. THAT is something a promoter can hang his hat on, to be sure.

But thanks to several questionable business decisions in the past six months, many of us ROH fans have been struggling to figure out what exactly Cary Silken was looking for out of Ring of Honor. It’s clear that he didn’t want to own a small promotion beloved by a contingent of dedicated fans. Instead, he tossed head writer Gabe Sapolsky to the curb and brought in Scrap Iron Adam Pearce to write a more “sportz entertainment” oriented product that completely eliminated the key factors we all loved about ROH. No doubt based on direction from Silken, Pearce introduced the first ever count-out rule in company history, started writing schmozz and DQ finishes to big matches, reduced the number of highspots per show, and even changed the roster enough to make ROH virtually unrecognizable to the core audience who’d supported the independent federation for over seven years.

Silken gambled that doing whatever was necessary to get on television would be worth it in the long run because TV would, in his mind, “make” ROH and bring a brand new audience to his product. The only problems with that philosophy were that for one thing, any new fans who laid eyes on this watered down version of ROH would be sure to see it as a lesser version of what they already watch for free anyway rather than the truly unique alternative it once was, and two, they didn’t gain any market traction by getting air time on HDNet, which has very limited viewership. Silken successfully accomplished the one thing he could ill afford to do; he alienated the ROHbots, the one group of fans he shouldn’t have been willing to lose. If he could have found a way to get those fans who are bored with WWE and TNA to take a look at his product as it was in 2007 (which I believe he expected the move to ppv to do), then ROH would have gained some new fans. However that didn’t seem to get the job done so he sought cable television as the answer, and he was willing to change his product so much to get there that as a result, I wouldn’t recommend the ROH Wrestling on HDNet program to any fans of the squared circle, because it’s so far removed from what ROH was once about that it’s become a compromised art form. And I LOVED the former version of Ring of Honor.

In a sense, ROH is a man who has dumped his dependable girlfriend who truly loved him in order to chase the hot chick. But the hot chick isn’t into him, so not only did he NOT get to sleep with her, but now he’s also lost the good thing he had going with the reliable girlfriend; Silken gambled and lost it all. Had he remained true to ROH’s original artistic vision and stayed the course while trying to find another way to expand and make more profits, the core audience, the die-hard fans, the ROHbots, would still be pumping cash into the company and raving about Ring of Honor on message boards and forums, which means quite a bit in the indies; a lot of “advertising” is done when folks rave about a must-see DVD or ppv. But now his die-hard core audience is dwindling, and most former ROHbots are so disgusted with the current version of the product that they no longer follow it.

The question is this: how much should an artist be willing to compromise his art in the name of making money? (Or in the ROH example above, how much should Silken have been willing to change his product in order to make it more popular?) Once someone decides they want to sing, act, write, paint, or anything else creative as a full-time career and a primary source of income, they have to start looking at their creativity in another light. If a well-to-do attorney feels like painting one weekend a month in her home studio, she can paint anything she wants using any sort of motif and medium she wishes. Whether it’s watercolors of duckies and bunnies on canvas or scenes of fantasy featuring dragons and wizards using oil on parchment, this hobbyist is allowed to enjoy the creative process and come back to a painting as often or infrequently as she likes, or she might just throw away all her paints for two years without ever thinking of it again before joyfully rediscovering a beloved diversion.

But the artist who must paint in order to put food on the table likely can’t afford to turn down a single commission, even if it means hating every brushstroke required of the boring flowers-in-vases paintings she’s required to churn out for each of the 72 rooms at the local Holiday Inn, or a parade of pet portraits for neighborhood aficionados. The struggling artist with no benefactor can’t turn down a commission because the project doesn’t fit with his artistic integrity. If one hasn’t had a new job offer in three weeks, he certainly can’t tell a client, “I’m sorry, painting bowls of fruit just doesn’t challenge my sense of creativity.”

It’s a difficult proposition; most artists’ backs are against the wall unless they’re giants in the art world who can maintain artistic integrity and paint whatever strikes their fancy. If the public will buy what they’re selling, they are free from monetary constraints. For instance, Jerry Seinfeld can work whenever he wants, or never again, so he’s at liberty to turn down project after project unless it excites his creative, comedic juices. But let’s face it, there have been very few of those legends in the history of art, and they don’t come around very often. The catch-22 is that once you change your product to seek a larger audience or bigger paydays, your core fans might no longer recognize your output as the special, unique product they’ve been willing to support financially.

This is a complex argument. If the artist turns to art as pure hobby and performs solely for the joy of the process, he can obviously afford to be snobbish about what he does and when or how he does it. But once the artist tries to make a living via art, he is forced to accept whatever opportunities are presented or risk starving and living on the streets. Do you think Santino Marella is living his dream? After years of hard work to make it as a pro wrestler, he now has the pleasure of acting like a buffoon on worldwide television week after week, cross dressing and prancing about as the punch line of a bad joke. I wonder if he spent hours running the ropes, getting manhandled by trainers, and taking back bump after back bump to learn his craft, all the while focusing on his dream of wearing women’s clothing and pretending to be his own twin sister. And what does any of that have to do with professional wrestling anyway? I’d love to know. Then again, it must be hard to turn down the guaranteed paycheck that comes with working for Vince McMahon in his private, one-ring circus.

Is it better to toil in obscurity, or is it worth it to do whatever it takes to become well known, even if you’re well known for being a moron? Take the crude, self-mutilating style of MTV’s Jackass and the garbage it spawned like Viva La Bam, Dr. Steve-O and too many others. These were men who decided that being famous for being an idiot was preferable to being unknown and retaining self-respect and dignity. I can’t image the weak, needy, “look-at-me” ego necessary to intentionally injury oneself, on a regular basis, just to ensure people know who you are. I wonder if they know their “fans” are laughing AT them; I wonder if they care. These stupid, masochistic, fame-hungry whack-jobs will do anything and everything to their own bodies just to make sure people keep looking at them. I’d rather be the greatest writer in the world and only have a few of my friends know it if the only other option was to be famous for being an imbecile. But I digress…

What happens when an artist gains a certain degree of notoriety and becomes well known and well liked for what he can do? Unfortunately, at that point he ceases to be the free spirit he once was and becomes a brand name, a corporate entity, concerned with management, marketing, market penetration, target audience, career longevity, and good publicity. The raw, primal, creative force that once drove the artist is forced to take a back seat to sales projections, advertising strategies, and fiduciary responsibility, and the artist loses something important in that exchange.

On the other hand, the original ECW never once compromised the vision under which it operated, which caused great problems once they earned a network television slot. They weren’t cut out to be a corporate entity. Extreme Championship Wrestling thrived on being the bad boy, and when they tried to stuff their square peg of independent spirit into the round hole of cable TV, they failed to do what they’d always done in the past – electrify small, dedicated audiences with a unique, one-of-a-kind presentation that crashed through boundaries and stood alone in its individuality.

But in a world where “Jackass” is considered humorous and entertaining, I find myself wondering if a true artist wouldn’t rather toil in relative obscurity with his vision and integrity intact, than enjoy fame and wealth established by churning out meaningless drivel. Artistic integrity versus money; it’s a difficult decision.

In the case of professional wrestling, if a performer has struggled for years in quasi-abusive training camps, risked life and limb before indy crowds of a dozen fans for peanuts, and sacrificed most of his adult life to try to break into the business, he can’t really turn up his nose when his “boss” tells him he’s about to become a lumberjack, or a cross-dresser, or a monster from a children’s fable, especially if it means more bookings, bigger paychecks, or a chance for screen time that he might never have had otherwise, unless he’s really willing to give it all up and get a 9-to-5 job, which most in that position wouldn’t be. Is Marty “Boogeyman” Wright proud of his accomplishments in the wrestling business, or does he even care? Is he the first one of his friends to laugh at how silly his character was, and the fact that he had to stuff live worms into his mouth in order to get onto television? Perhaps being on television simply isn’t that important. Or is it?

Once you compromise yourself enough to get ahead, what have you really accomplished except to sell out your creativity in the name of the almighty dollar? I know critics will argue that wrestling is a business and the ultimate goal is to make money, but it’s also performance art and in that regard the goal is to entertain your audience and get them excited about your product enough to “hook them” as we ROHbots were once hooked. Or maybe I’m completely off base here and it really is all about the money, and art doesn’t even exist in the world in 2009.

No, that can’t be right. I know I’m not getting paid to write this column; I do it for the love of creativity and as an outlet for my thoughts and ideas, and I’m certain there are other people like that all over the world who paint, sing, write music or poetry, dance, draw, or design jewelry just for the love of the creative process, even if nobody ever offers them money to do so.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “I’ve never believed in God, but I belive in Picasso.” – Diego Rivera

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Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this week…

John Wiswell writes a very insightful look at what Jerry Lynn’s ROH title reign should be all about in this week’s Cult of ROH.

Speaking of ROH, Jake Ziegler reviews the 16 Jan 09 Full Cirlcle Ring of Honor DVD.

Got time for 20 thoughts? Here’s Jon Bandit’s 10 Thoughts on TNA iMPACT! and Dale Clarke’s 10 Thoughts on SmackDown! for ya’.

Paul Marshall brings order to TNA’s chaos in Total Nonstop Weekly.

Jon Bandit reviews TNA’s 4-disc Jeff Jarrett: King of the Mountain DVD set in painstaking detail. That looks like a lot of work, Bandit! Way to hang in there…

Kevin Innarelli covers the most recent episode of WWECW.

Raffi Shamir delves into all things cyber in the WWE Universe with another WWE Dotcom Delivery.

Finally this week, Brad Curran shines a Spotlight on Danny Hodge.

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