Art for Money's Sake
It's okay to be creative and transactional
Some years ago, I was at a party in Los Angeles. The guests were mostly writers, photographers, actors, and musicians. It was the usual assortment of creative L.A. types – super hip, smart, the kind of people who revel in being eccentric. The venue was a mid-century bungalow house on a big lot off of Sherman Way in the San Fernando Valley.
One man, a lamp artist, described how he had just been approached by one of the largest tourist venues in Southern California to sell his wares. If everything went right, there was a lot of money to be made.
He agonized about whether to go through with the deal. Some of the other artists told him not to, warning him that he was “selling out” to corporate interests that would only corrupt him. What if he were forced, at some point, to go against his artistic vision for the sake of commercialism? What would he do then?
Well, it was a reasonable question. But it was a hypothetical. It might never happen. I spoke up and said he should take the deal, and then solve problems as they arose. After all, it’s better to be actually making money and then decide what direction to take your vision, rather than continuing as a struggling artist daydreaming over a cup of ramen noodles about how you’d handle a fictional future that may never come to pass.
Another way to put it is this. Problem 1 consists in being a struggling artist with no immediate prospects. Problem 2 consists in having an actual lucrative deal in hand, with a possibility that you’ll maybe make a lot of money and may have to face tough choices about artistic integrity later on.
Which is the higher-quality problem?
The answer is obvious: Problem 2 is the higher-quality problem. But let’s be aware of the way I’m framing this. Problems will always exist, at every level of achievement. In order to make any headway in life, the trick is to increase the quality of your problems. That’s what my advice to the lamp artist boiled down to: Increase the quality of your problems.
I can hear the objections. “I don’t really care about money. I just want to create.” Or, “I do art because I love it. Connecting with my audience is all I need. Money is secondary.”
If you want to go this route, this essay is not for you. It’s for the creatives who’d like to get paid for their work, but who’ve been told there is something wrong with being creative and transactional. I’m here to say that you don’t have to choose between money or integrity. You don’t need to scorn transactional relationships in a free market, because if you do, you limit your options for making a living, and you open the door for people to take advantage of you and your talents. They’ll expect you to give them everything for free.
Money is for the Grubbers
The problem for many creative types is that there is a love-hate relationship with money. The pursuit of commercial success reflects badly on the romantic (and admittedly over-rated) image of the inspired artist whose only passion is to follow a vision and not care what others think. But wildly successful creators are, in fact, celebrated. Think of how much media coverage goes to best-selling authors, famous actors, musicians, and visual artists such as photographers, movie directors, and painters who are household names. They’re pursuing their artistic vision and making money at the same time.
Creatives are so used to being on the outside that commerce feels not just prosaic, but corrupting. When I was pursuing my Ph.D. in an English department, a lot of the writers and filmmakers were avowed Marxists. They disdained the “commercialization” of artistic output because they saw free markets as exploitative. They regarded any commercially-successful author or filmmaker as suspect and inauthentic, even if that author was excellent and had been esteemed by these same people back before the commercial success had happened.
I eventually realized that some anti-transactional artists are just plain incompetent. They don’t have the discipline or ability produce something that people would want to actually pay for. On some level, I think some of them know this. So they turn poverty into a virtue, and console themselves that they’re not one of those evil capitalist oppressors. Their inability to create and sell in the free market becomes a badge of ideological purity.
What’s ironic is that these Marxists resemble European aristocrats more than the working class they claim to champion. It is considered bad form in much of Europe to ask people what they do for a living, whereas in the U.S. it’s a popular question. In Europe, commerce traditionally has had the reputation as being what the ordinary folks do, not the upper class. Money-grubbing is a mark of low status. Aristocrats mark their status as people who have money without actually having to get it. But workers don’t have that luxury. They must labor for their money. It’s the same with artists – unless they are of the trustifarian variety.
It’s good to make money from what you’re good at. Compliments are nice, too, but talk is cheap. Putting up the greenbacks is the most honest way to find out if people truly value what you do. Are they willing to trade their hard-earned money for your product? Connecting with people who are willing to pay for your talent means you can form networks with those who care enough about your creations that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is.
By the way, I never did find out what the lamp artist decided to do. I hope he signed the deal, and made a ton of dough.