Am I selling out, buying in, or growing up?


A few years ago when I was working in marketing, I spent the day on a project with the CFO, a six-foot-something ex-varsity shooting forward with an economics degree from a little ivy somewhere in the northeast. He had kids on the hockey team and talked college basketball and was as eccentric as sheetrock. With my black dress pants, button-up shirt and minor self-loathing I blended into the office decor and fit his image of what a marketing coordinator should be.

At the end of the day I changed into my cycling clothes for the ride home, revealing the two-dozen-or-so arm and leg tattoos normally covered by my white collar camouflage.

The CFO caught me at the elevator banks on his way out and in a flat monotone said, “Ben, you look different.”

I nodded at him in his off-the-rack suit and red tie and said, “Yeah, I guess I do.”

At the time, that interaction summed up my relationship with the 9-to-5 world: I put on the uniform to make some money so I could be my “real” self the rest of the time. The problem was, my “real” self was fundamentally and ideologically opposed to everything the white collar represented. I hated myself—and was jealous of others—because I could only afford to be bohemian part-time.

I felt myself being torn between romanticism and pragmatism—or in other words—art versus business. In simple thinking, there’s a real dichotomy here. The former is concerned with emotion, meaning, and humanity and the latter merely with profit, exploitation, and efficiency. But this kind of black-and-white dichotomy doesn’t fly in a world of color.

My own thinking came from a learned tendency to conflate authenticity with emotion and duplicity with utility. You can only be an artist or a pragmatist but never both. It’s a polarizing position, but one strongly rooted in the countercultural ethos I grew up calling Truth. My entire upbringing was in counterculture, from my education as a homeschooler and right-winged anti-humanist childhood religion, to my teen years skateboarding between punk and hardcore shows, to my pseudo-bohemian early 20s. All of these were expressions of authenticity, because through them I thought and did as I pleased, regardless of prevailing currents. Authenticity was less surety than stubbornness. If something is hard, it must be right.

As a devout counterculturalist I valorized art, poetry, experimentalism, aestheticism, music and cinema. My heroes were the martyrs and ascetics of art: those who toiled in relative obscurity and outright poverty in service of the Abstract; those who shunned the mainstream’s standard operating procedures for l’art pour l’art. My marketing heroes were Black Flag, my business heroes were Ian MacKaye and Dischord Records, and my advertising and economics heroes were Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, my political heroes were Che Guevara and the Haymarket rioters. My knowledge of these subjects started and ended in this sphere, with occasional extracurricular supplements from Adbusters Magazine and whatever new books Crimethinc encouraged me to steal from Barnes & Noble, because that’ll show ’em.

While this philosophy satisfied my anarchic appetites and allowed me to process and articulate the vacillations of my discontent as I transitioned into my 20s, it always seemed as if the solutions never carried on beyond the copy on their dust jackets. Plus, there were the nagging suspicions about my heroes: Henry Rollins of Black Flag has a net worth in the millions and a huge house in L.A., Noam Chomsky is the Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT, and so on. Naively I hoped that it was their anti-institutionalism or the Superior Quality of their art that won them their accolades and wealth, but as I faced a hundred thousand dollars of inescapable student debt and ongoing job insecurity, I realized that sitting on my bohemian laurels toiling away countless hours on obscurantist literary experiments and paying hundreds of dollars to enter unpopular arts award contests wasn’t getting me anywhere fast, and it surely wasn’t teaching mainstream culture any tough lessons.

So I started taking office jobs, which I said I would never do. Definitely not selling out, because the money was never that great, but always fighting the feeling that I was putting my “real” self on hold during the day before going home, changing into my Tragedy t-shirt and cut-off shorts, and browsing the punk and powerviolence forums online with a hope that I’d happen upon a winning statement of countercultural authenticity that would save me from the white-collar grind, freeing me up from financial obligations, personal obligations, and anything else distracting me from the free expression of my art.

But as I got later into my 20s, and spent time learning more about how the world works—including putting in 80-hour-weeks for two years straight to earn a master’s degree from a small public university—I realized that the lines between X and Y aren’t so distinct (I recently wrote here about this moment). But this didn’t stop me from phoning it in for most of the office jobs I had in my 20s, as if they were somehow below me, because if I were to learn the common languages of business, marketing, finance and politics, I would somehow still be an ideological sellout. So I resisted, one year reading more than a hundred postmodern and experimental novels and short story collections but never once reading headline news—or any kind of journalism. And then wondered why I couldn’t get a decent paying job.

Last summer my thinking started to change. A few months earlier I quit my job (with the condescending CFO) to focus on finishing grad school. I spent the summer working on random freelance projects and eventually, trying to find a new full-time job. I was 30 going on 19 again, jobless and walking into closed door after closed door. I realized it was because I was still thinking like a 19-year-old, that art and business can never work together; that you can only be one or the other. And this just isn’t true.

Separately I often complained that there weren’t enough philosophers or artists in business or politics. Or that there aren’t enough people advocating for the humanities or arts. It was at a low moment last summer where I finally had my ah-ha moment: that I can be this person. When people asked in job interviews what my greatest strength was, I’d say that it was the diversity of my experience. In our culture of specialization, I used to see this diversity as a weakness, but it’s diversity that makes the lines blur. And as a good postmodernist, I love blurry lines.

So if I want to demystify the false dichotomies between arts and business, romanticism and pragmatism, or however else you want to parse them—my “real” self needs to embrace both.

I spent a decade building a strong romantic vocabulary at the cost of understanding the actual pragmatic concerns that move our society. So now I’m learning. I’m resisting a countercultural urge to dig my heels in, because that’s how these false dichotomies get drawn. It’s exactly the same kind of shortsightedness I used to spurn the business world for. Today I have no more heroes—only those people or ideas I respect. And my only enemy is dogma, including my own.

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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