On Friday evening I was honored to be part of a roundtable presentation at the National Arts Club to celebrate the publication of Anahí Viladrich’s beautiful book More Than Two to Tango. The book details the struggles of Argentine immigrants trying to make their living in the US arts and entertainment industry as tango artists—as performers, teachers, producers, and musicians. Given that in the arts and entertainment field so few artists make a living from their art, one of the truly striking findings in this book was how many of the immigrants Viladrich interviewed succeeded in earning significant income, if not a livelihood, from their art. In contrast, very, very few of the writers I’ve encountered in the last several years can support themselves with their writing. What is different about tango that makes it such a promising entrepreneurial niche?
Viladrich describes the promise of a tango artistry for earning a living:
For amateur Argentine dancers, the possibility of making a living out of their tango practice (hopefully paid in dollars or euros) tends to be perceived as a chance to improve their fates—if not for good, at least temporarily. For professional artists living in Argentina, being invited to join a worldwide tour or teaching foreign patrons not only can translate into a juicy income, but may also allow them to make international connections that will eventually lead them to teaching and performing abroad. (p. 77)
It is difficult in comparison to imagine a community of writers deciding to immigrate to the US on the promise of supporting themselves and their families from their prose. Unlike tango artists, writers may dream of quitting their day jobs, but very few are able to afford to do so, and for many writers, publishing is not even a promising option for supplementing income. When we add up the number of hours and money writers spend writing, marketing, and publishing their work, many writers would fare better financially working those same hours at minimum wage.
As Viladrich documents, Argentine artists claim a privileged ownership of and skill in interpreting tango compared, not only to amateurs and enthusiasts, but even professional practitioners from other countries: “And this assertion is supported not only by a nationalistic pride but also by Argentines’ collective effort to be acknowledged as the pioneers and leaders of the tango’s worldwide reproduction” (p. 78). In this way, Argentine tango artists have set themselves up both as professional artists but also as important gatekeepers who manage the boundary of their art form, deciding who is an authentic interpreter and who merely a hack. Such designations determine tango artists’ success in competing for students and getting invitations to perform.
In publishing, a similar gatekeeping function was traditionally managed by publishers. Before the rise of digital publishing, getting a traditional publishing contract determined whether or not a writer got published and was therefore eligible for recognition as a true author. Although a certain amount of artistic prestige is still tied to publishing with a well-known publisher, the growth and destigmatization of self-publishing has effectively killed publisher’s gatekeeping function. Consequently, the market in recent years has been flooded with millions of books all vying for a limited number of consumer dollars.
The artistic boundary maintenance in the tango art world can both propel tango artists to stardom and marginalize others with consequences, as Viladrich so poignantly shows, for survival, immigration status, and self-esteem. While these boundaries have in some cases crushed dreams and bred heartbreak, they have also served a protective function “aimed at endorsing Argentines’ stature as the best performers of the genre” (p.81) and ensuring entrepreneurial promise for many of the members of this small and exclusive club.
In publishing, the diminished role of gatekeepers has meant more opportunity for would-be authors but also more competition to sell books, thereby making it harder for growing numbers of writers to earn their livelihood from their writing. Anyone with a computer and internet connection can publish a book, but, as Viladrich tell us, not everyone can claim status as “genuine interpreters” of tango.