The ugly truth about creativity, inspiration and artistic production that nobody else is talking about

21548293_mI’ve been reading a lot of books about creativity.

All of them deal with the struggle of the creative life: art is WAR. Creativity takes effort. We have to fight through it. REAL art is about emotion, struggle, anxiety. Real art is about passion, True experience. Real art is Creating Something New – it’s a type of violence. It’s a revolution. Real art is not about people or end users, it’s about pure inspiration, solitude.

That all may be true: “real art” may be cathartic. It can make you feel good and happy. It can give your life meaning.

Here’s something else that’s true: this kind of art almost never sells.

Sure it had it’s hey-day; when all this stuff was novel, and each new deviation was a new movement: Romanticism, Pointillism, Cubism, Expressionism, Impressionism… All an artist had to do was make something new.

That went on for 100 years. Now we’ve done just about everything imaginable. Plus artists now face the competition of photography, posters, graphic design, cheap reproductions, Facebook. In both the fine art world and the publishing world, what gets sold for lots of money is almost never the pure expression of the anxious artist wrestling with his existential dilemma.

Instead it’s almost always a savvy writer or artist making something according to formula, writing or painting things that are already popular, cashing in on fads and memes, able to produce according to public whims. And also, usually, there should be at least an adequate display of technical skill.

Sure there are still ‘real artists’ and ‘real authors’ – something which the high-brow cultural snobs can latch onto and promote the hell out of until it’s become so hip and cool it’s not really aggressive or challenging or revolutionary at all. You know what happens when great writers “Sell Out”? Take the example of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Post apocalyptic novels are hugely popular right now. So he wrote one. And it’s a bestseller.

Did anybody say, “man, this writer is ruining his divinely inspired gift by creating books that people want to read instead of listening to his heart?” No. Because all that matters in the end is how many people liked the book, and how many copies it sold.

I’m not arguing that “real art” (done for the creative experience itself with absolutely no forethought to conception) is bad. It isn’t. It’s great. It probably does produce better quality works. You may be a genius. It may be healthier. Maybe there’s a God of Art, a “Great Creative” that cries a little when you deviate from the image he’s inspired in you. But:

A) I’ve never met an author or an artist, at least since the internet age, who isn’t acutely aware of and desperately covetous of recognition, fame, appreciation, and financial award. In other words, you’re already thinking about getting rich and famous. You just want everybody else to automatically like and support the thing you think you want to write about (as opposed to the things they are interested in reading). In my mind, that’s a very selfish and limited ideology.

B) Since this is the case, why are we so aggressively against taking into account the end user?

It sounds ridiculously naive to me when indie authors talk about book marketing or promotion. Internet marketers already know exactly how to promote a product, make it viral, and make millions. It’s not rocket science. (Read Ryan Holiday’s latest, Growth Hacker or Tim Grahl’s Your First Thousand Copies).

Book marketing is just as simple and easy – if you agree to create something that other people care about, listen to their advice and develop a product they want to buy, build up a solid email list by giving away free content, and are always thinking about how to connect with new people.

[Tweet “Book marketing isn’t selling: selling is dead. Marketing is a joke, a failure.”]

Because all of our books about creativity are telling us “Don’t make what people want” / “don’t just make something because it will be popular” and are conspicuously and radically avoiding any discussion of how artist and authors can actually make money and support themselves, we are stuck in a situation where millions of authors and artists are trying to pawn off the labor of their loving passion to total strangers.

Are the books on creativity wrong? No, but maybe a little misleading. They focus on creative production, how to make and finish your best work. The rest is up to you. There is an implied potentiality of fame and fortune once the work is completed, but this rarely works out, and almost always because the creative process was completely divorced from financial concerns.

I don’t believe that creativity refuses to kick in when I’m thinking about developing a product that people will like.

I don’t believe the muses withhold my genius ideas when I’m trying to make money. In fact, I get “epiphanies” all the time in the form of specific, creative, incredible business ideas that will make me tons of money; just as I get epiphanies for the organization of my non-fiction books or novels, or lightbulb-flashes of brilliance when developing ideas for paintings.

The truth is, creativity is about knowing what you want to achieve and wrestling with the problem non-stop, until something amazing bubbles up from your subconscious which blows you away. Scientists, engineers, mathematicians and inventors have them. Entrepreneurs have them. The difference is, unlike any other field, artists and authors are not supposed to use them for financial gain. An engineer wants to solve a problem for a lot of people by making something new. That’s his job. He knows it will bring him fame and fortune. He thinks about what problems people have, what they need, what he can make. The author, our warped belief systems tell us, shouldn’t give a damn about what other people need or want, he should tap into his personal experiences. So what if he doesn’t make money or if nobody likes the book. He didn’t fail – he’s just an unappreciated artist, an unrecognized genius.

Creativity is not the exclusive domain of artist and authors – unless you make it so by defining creativity as dependent on anxiety (as does Rollo May in The Courage to Create.) Personally I think an artist or author’s anxiety comes from the fact that he doesn’t know if all the time he spends creating is being completely wasted; if the damn thing will ever sell; if anybody’s going to like it; if it’s worth his time or if he’s wasting his life.

Entrepreneurs don’t have that kind of anxiety (or they shouldn’t) because they’ve done a lot of research, they take calculated risks, they experience and innovate, and because, at the project’s core, they are building something that people will want to use.

Artists and authors, on the other hand, are mostly throwing mud at walls and seeing what sticks. That’s why most of them fail. Less than 1% actually make a full-time living. Those that do are usually making what people want or what’s cool – even if they pretend they aren’t.

Can there be a balance? Absolutely – however, the classic creative process is to go into a cave and then come out and show off your work and hope someone buys it. That’s doomed to failure. The way that works, is to make things people like, help people solve problems, form relationships, support others, make your story and your work awesome, and develop incredible technical skills… It’s not romantic. It’s not emotional. Once you’re established, you make stuff that sells. Only poor, unknown artists are creating with anxiety – they don’t know whether they can buy their next meal. Maybe they should get a job. Their art HAS to sell. They need it to. They are desperate. Is that kind of anxiety really the only path to creativity?

I think not. Now that I have complete financial freedom (I work hard, but I don’t have a boss and I get more than enough clients) I feel much more creative than ever before – and also less anxious. I feel excited. Enthusiastic. Eager. Burning with desire to see my projects and goals become reality. I work everyday. I put in the time. But I also know that what I build will impact people. I know they’re going to love it. I know it’s going to be well worth what I’m charging for it. The more successful I get, the more certain I get about what I’m doing.

According to the crowd-sourced definition of creativity – I’m not really being creative anymore. I’ve sold out. I’m not using the same mystical portions of my brain. I’m not really being inspired by the muse. As Rollo May would say, I’m just playing, not creating real, “mature art” – which is a response to the confines of death.

That’s all splitting hairs. On the one hand there’s the idealized pursuit of true art which can lead to great stuff, but more often than not leads to garbage. It’s based on a pseudo-spiritual belief that the universe needs you to create something and inspires you to create it, and that doing so is your purpose on earth, whether or not anybody likes the work. But spending all your time creating something for your own purpose and for your own enjoyment is incredibly selfish, unlikely to pay off, and almost certain to make you feel alone, frustrated and angry. Plus you’ll be just another of millions of authors and artists screaming themselves raw in an oversaturated marketplace full of consumers who don’t want to buy what you’re selling.

On the other hand, there’s the other way, the way I like to call Creativindie: which is about making something that people will pay you for, using smart business tactics so that you can earn a lot of money from your creative talents, be a happy and successful contributor to society and culture, make real personal relationships with people, and basically have an awesome life.

I don’t believe in “Good Art” vs. “Bad Art”… or “Real/Mature Art” vs. “Selling out/just playing art.”

[Tweet “There’s only the art people know about and like, and the stuff nobody’s ever heard of.”]

Everything we do is creative.

We can create with intention, and make things with the aim of them being popular (like Hollywood does with blockbusters; or professional writers do with their next book; or almost all contemporary artists who make a lot of money). Or we can follow our passion and make whatever we feel like and not care if anybody likes it (leading us to be sad, frustrated and angry starving artists).

I don’t even want to say that there are “inspired” artists vs. “business artists” because that is also misleading, so here’s a revolutionary definition for you:

Artists who pursue “Real Art” are entirely self-centered. They focus ONLY on what they themselves want to create, and at the same time hope what they make will be meaningful to others (in fact they expect it to be, and when it’s finished they’ll demand attention and try to convince people why their work should matter.)

The other type of artists are entirely selfless. They think, “What can I make that people will like, enjoy, share? What can I make that will be meaningful and appreciated?” They ask, “How can I make a meaningful connection with the most amount of people, in order to influence and improve their lives? How can I make my work relevant to them?”

The creative process, of either writing or painting, is identical regardless of where our motivation or inspiration came from. We still have to put in the time and the work. We still will experience “aha!” epiphany moments – because these happen whenever we focus on being creatively productive. The final product is going to depend mostly on our experience, technical skill and work ethic – not where the ideas came from.

One of our major Myths About Art is that all the great artists in history produced their work without considering its reception.

This is not true.

Sure, artists like to talk big about “PURE ART” – especially through the modernist revolution – and they were desperate not to be influenced by outside sources, and they talked about their work in inflated terms of importance as if they were giving birth to a whole new amazing vision of everything.

But much of their work wasn’t really that impressive. And their philosophy was negated as soon as they were done and they tried to get into galleries, find dealers, or get published. In other words, the Myth of Art is fanciful horsecrap. All artists, especially the greats of the past few centuries, especially the ones we like to quote the most (like Picasso and Dali) were shameless self-promoters, jumped into any group or movement that seemed like it was going somewhere, were quick to copy and steal ideas, and always had their finger on the public pulse so they could capture “what’s hot.”

Artists and authors are all trying to take a hobby and activity they enjoy and turn it into a career. Some talk a bunch of fluff about the meaning of their work. Others are more pragmatic and they just make incredible work that sells.

It’s not either/or.

In fact to be a successful artist or author you have to talk the lingo – you have to invent a big inflated version of your story. You have to give your work meaning and purpose; but only because it increases the value. It’s part of the game.

The trick is not to take yourself so seriously. And, if you hope to be successful, stop pretending that you don’t care about reception or recognition. If you want to make money, recognize it. Accept it. Focus on the practical business of selling books and paintings. Maybe (God forbid!) find out what people are buying and make something you know they’re going to love and share.

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
  • Anon

    I can’t believe there are no comments on this. I found it to be very enlightening! Thank you for writing and sharing it!

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