Does content matter anymore? Reflections on art and competition

10155173_721625767871759_1174291982_nWhen I was younger and doing gallery exhibitions, I never wanted to explain my art. I don’t want to sully the viewer experience by telling them what it meant to me. “What does it mean to you?” I asked.

The problem with that is, viewers don’t know whether or not something is important unless you tell them what it means.

Beauty is ubiquitous and cheap: anybody can print out or just replicate a jaw-dropping piece of art by copying the great masters. But unless it is original (even if it is exactly the same) it has very little value. On the other side of things, something can be enormously expensive even if it’s ugly, simple and looks like crap.

That’s because art isn’t functional – it has been divorced from room-enhancing decoration to a statement about life. Quality, production time or material costs don’t factor into price.

All this means is that, depressingly, the artist who gets successful is the one that talks the best about his or her work.

In other words, the bullshitters. Joel Osteen and George W. Bush are fantastic bullshitters. They are smiling, people people; they deflect and tell stories that sound like they have meaning in them. Their unbridled self-confidence makes everybody else feel like they must know something about what they’re talking about.

Fine art consists of philosophical treatises on the meaning of life, punctuated by a series of visual works of any degree or quality (although bigger is usually better). That’s why I quit fine art, even though I have a degree in philosophy.

But now that I’m in graphic design, mostly offering author and publishing related services, I’m running into similar issues:

Somebody sets up their first website, so they offer web design services.

Somebody published a book, so they offer cover design and formatting services.

Who do you trust?

Don’t trust anyone – look at their portfolio. Look at their own website. If it isn’t amazing work, move on.

Recently I hired out a project on Elance. I used to try and pick beginners so they had a chance to build up their work history and reviews… that was a generous but losing strategy for getting quality work.

Now I compare their work history. Somebody who’s done 10 projects versus somebody who’s done 500 projects – who do you think is going to be better? Although it’s not 100%, experience usually improves skill and ability.

Somebody with much more experience should be more capable (but they’ll also probably cost more).

The problem is looking just at experience and price; for anything visual, like formatting, web design or book cover work, the visual part is all that matters. Their experience doesn’t matter. Their opinions or personality don’t matter. Their confidence doesn’t matter. Ignore everything except the work.

But what if you can’t see it?

It’s a whole different ballgame if you can’t judge the aesthetic quality. If you can’t see why one book cover is better than another, or why one website is “clean” and one “ugly” – then choosing a provider is going to be difficult. You’ll probably choose whoever says “Trust me, don’t worry, this is easy, I can take care of this for you.”

But right now I’m entering some gray areas, like book editing. I’ve been doing it for 7 years; I have an amazing team of editors (who all have at least an MA in Literature, while I’m working on my PhD). But you can’t see editing. Even with a sample edit, it’s hard to see what has been improved, or how much better it is. With multiple sample edits, it’s hard to know which altered version is better.

In which case, it largely will become a case of trust.

What enables you to trust someone?

  • A high price. The more you pay, the more you are likely to trust them.
  • Amazing reviews. Hopefully by people you know, like and respect.
  • A clean and professional website.
  • Confidence.

With that last quality however, we’re back to bullshitting. Someone who says they’re an amazing editor and makes big promises and lists benefits can trick you into paying them money for a service they aren’t really qualified for.

With design, to some extent you can measure whether or not you got your money’s worth (a good book cover should sell a lot of books). But with editing, it’s very hard to “measure” what kind of job they did. Sure they caught some typos, revised sentences and improved the flow… but how much better could it have been in the hands of someone more experienced? What about if someone cared enough to change the major plot and story flaws? You’ll never know.

Things get even more murky in a field like marketing: people will take thousands of dollars to market your book but caution that they can’t guarantee anything. (If I was offering book marketing, I would guarantee you at least sell the number of books is takes to earn your money back. Otherwise they either don’t know how to market a book, or they’re robbing you).

Platform and Power

The other thing that’s been annoying me recently is expert pundits who set up an amazing platform, very quickly, but have no content.

They use a great website theme. They build a platform around a mission, with extremely well-written copy that inspires (of course, they basically tell you that you can be successful and do what you love if you just believe it). Then they do a few big guest posts and start growing their lists, before they have any content or their own. Then, once the list is big, they ask, “What’s the one thing I can help you with?” or “What’s the one thing you’re struggling with.”

Then they make a product to fit that need. It’s not bad business; it’s excellent business. I find it annoying only because deep down I still want my work to be recognized even if I’m not available for content. I want work that gets shared. I want to be so damn good at my job, and so plugged into my industry, that I know what my clients and followers need even if they don’t.

That said, I’m doing things the slow way, the hard way. I’m plugging along. (I’m a Capricorn after all… we’re the slow and sure that wins the race). I think in 10 years I’ll have things pretty much perfect.

But since I pride myself on being intelligent and on focusing on the business of art, rather than the glorified soul-masturbating follow your passion selfishness of creativity, whining about other people who are doing things smarter and being more successful than me is pretty stupid.

Which is why I’m not whining. Not really. I’m irked. I’m annoyed. Because I should be doing it too. Only I should be doing it better.

One of the fastest ways to succeed is to mimic the successful people you want to become. Find out what works; find the people who are in the position you hope to be in; and copy what they did to get there. I guess what I dislike is people going through the motions without having anything of substance of their own. They’re never really made it big, or produced something masterful, or made a lot of money or built a huge tribe (until now).

These people form Facebook groups and everybody talks about their problems, but nobody really knows how to overcome their problems. They don’t have any experienced experts. And – if I speak out and offer some ideas, it’s likely someone else will refute me, because their own experience differ. In an open forum, whoever talks the loudest and most convincingly will be believed.

Art and the Cult of Failure

I got sidetracked, but I just remembered where my frustration is coming from: I’m reading a lot of motivational books by Millenials, who are young and inexperienced and overconfident – even if they did make a million books for that software app thingie they made when they were 23.

A couple years ago there was this trend of vulnerability, so everybody started posting their “biggest regrets” or “biggest failures.”

Then a bunch of books came out about how failure is important… we should always be failing. We should try and fail bigger and harder. We should do what we are afraid of or what makes us uncomfortable. Out of these ideas came a practice of drawing. The idea being that, as children, we were all artists, but most people started saying “I can’t draw” as they grew up.

So now a lot of people are publishing their really terrible drawings as a way to support their platforms as people who are unafraid to do things they are uncomfortable with. Which is kind of cool, I suppose. Unless you’re so happy being bad at drawing because you love and accept yourself, so you never actually care enough to learn how to draw. Drawing, like writing books, is a skill that you need to work on relentlessly to master. You need the goal of I need to draw better, not “I need to keep doing things I’m bad at until I’m so fearless I can do anything.”

Find something you like to do and get good at it. That was art for me, a long time ago. I studied classical realism in Italy and then started doing more pop idolatry stuff.

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But then I finally learned the world doesn’t owe me a living just because I’m following my passion and I have some skill. I needed to be producing things that people liked, needed or wanted – not just doing whatever I thought was cool or funny. If I went back to art now (I will after I’ve published some more books and am making enough passive income to have nothing but free time) I’d do more hipster sketches or line drawings, maybe with watercolor, because they’re messy, they’re easy to do, and they’d make great designs for t-shirts and iphone cases.

Ok, my rant is over…

What do you think about all this? Are you noticing the same things I’m noticing? How do you respond?

 

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Hard work does not make art – I have seen folk dancers who work very hard at country dancing – timing, music, costumes – and are incredibly graceless performers.

    I’ve seen YouTube videos of people doing amazing things with a dancing dog – again, with an utmost lack of grace after what must have been a long and detailed training program for the dog (the dog was actually graceful, the woman awkward and sticklike).

    But most of the ones that stand the test of time put in a lot of hard work – the splatterers on canvas are superseded by the next idiot with a paintbrush.

    You are correct – there is a lot of bad ‘art’ out there. I hope what I’m creating doesn’t fall in that category. Ask me in five years.

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