The world is changing quickly, and a large part of that change is the shift from standard 9 to 5 career jobs to life-affirming, self-fulfilling creative small businesses. But the edge between creative expression and commercial success is a harrowing journey demanding delicate and dangerous balance. Can our love for creation persist amid client demands and expectations? Should we be true to our art or pander to the mass markets?
Frighteningly, our passionate and deeply held beliefs in creative freedom and autonomy are rarely supported by real-world examples. Artists who “make it big” are almost certainly adapting their skills to produce crowd pleasing work. But two of my favorite movies of 2014 – “Chef” and “Frank” – both encourage artists to stay true to their artistic ideals in the face of outside pressures. This is an unrealistic, and ultimately dangerous worldview for artists who want to make a living doing what they love.
The Chef movie
Carl Casper is famous chef, trying to impress a big food critic he knows will be in the restaurant. He wants to cook up something special, but his boss tells him to play his “greatest hits” – to stick with the same menu and focus on all the regular people, that that one lone critic. Carl caves, serves the crowdpleasers, and gets a scorching review.
He joins Twitter just to see how deeply the negative criticism has permeated, and he Tweets back to the reviewer – “You wouldn’t know a good meal if it sat on your face.”
He tells the critic to come back for a whole new menu; but his boss refuses to let him serve it.
“So now, suddenly you’re an artist. Well be an artist on your own time.”
Carl has a melt-down and accosts the critic in the restaurant, losing his job, his credibility and his reputation.
His ex-wife consoles him,
“You’re never going to be happy, cooking for someone else.”
Carl starts a food truck business instead, and almost entirely due to his internet-savvy son, who uses Twitter, Instagram, Geocaching and some other cool apps, to get a line of customers everywhere the truck stops.
Carl triumphs in the end when the food critic offers to buy him a restaurant where he can cook whatever he likes.
He even earns back his ex-wife, proving that following your passion and doing what you love will get you a smoking hot latin woman.
The lesson of the Chef movie is: never give up, never surrender. If your boss doesn’t like the way you do things, fuck him, you can go it alone and start your own business. If you have passion, success will always find you.
The “War of Art” is not against our crippling insecurity that the work is terrible.
The real war of art is trying to balance the work other people like and the truly daring creative work.
(Hint: it’s actually not hard at all. It’s not a war. You make 90% of your stuff crowdpleasers that people will buy, it earns you money. You spend the other 10% making crazy amazing creative work that is innovative enough to get shared and maintain your reputation).
Luckily, Carl Casper is selling food – a pretty basic need. People will always need to eat. But I doubt Food Trucking would have led to serious money; and it’s not a very scalable business. Carl’s fairytale ending is a crowdpleaser in itself, a neat red bow that nicely mirrors the beginning and ends the tale on a happy note.
But it’s unrealistic.
Food businesses are very hard to maintain. 90% will fail in the first year. And passion won’t be the determining factor.
The movie starts out with John, the wannabe song writer living with his parents, who gets a strange and lucky break, that turns into a real gig with a band no one can pronounce. The main singer of the band is Frank, and he wears a paper-mache head, all the time.
They move out to an isolated cabin and live there for a year. It’s hard work.
Frank won’t let them record the album until the music is perfect.
Everybody but John is psychotic.
John tells himself that this time of hardship is the fucked up childhood he needs, on the misguided assumption that true art comes from loss and tragedy.
The band members are cold and unwelcoming.
One tells him, “There can only be one Frank.”
Another tells him, “You are just 10 fingers that play where we need them to.”
John chronicles his adventures on YouTube and Twitter, without asking permission, and gets a surprise invite to play at a huge music festival in America.
Frank agrees, because he’s “Excited for this opportunity to finally play in front of people who know and love us. Until now our audience tend to be people who chance upon us, and realize after a few minutes that they don’t like us.”
But then they find out, their 23000 hits on YouTube isn’t really that much, and most people at the festival will have never heard of them.
Why don’t we write likable music?
I’ve always dreamed of having a band member who shared my vision of creating extremely likable music. So thank you John. Here it is, my most likeable song ever.
Frank plays a pretty bad song.
John improves it by making it more standardized pop.
Frank becomes increasingly unnerved.
John fixed everything. I’m incredibly happy to be here. I’m fine I’m fine. I’m perfectly fine. I’m totally relaxed.
Frank’s band wants to pull them plug and get Frank out of there – but John is hungry for his successful debut.
They’re ready to love us. They’re ready to love you Frank. Don’t throw that away.
Clara stabs John in the leg and gets locked up.
The rest of the band quits.
Frank is going nuts.
John is the only confident one. He takes the stage, with Frank, and says
“This is the happiest day of my life!”
John plays his crappy song that he wrote.
Frank has a meltdown and collapses.
“The Music is Shit,” he says.
After that failure, it’s just John and Frank.
Frustrated. Poor. Dirty.
John gets angry and tries to take Frank’s head off.
Frank runs off and gets hit by a car.
John follows and also gets hit by a car.
Through all this they’ve been building followers.
Their videos are getting watched, because they’re all so crazy.
John tracks down Frank at his parents’ house. It turns out Frank is autistic (or something similar?).
What happened to him? Something must have happened to him to make him like that.
John is looking for “The torment he went through, to make his music.”
His parents say, “He was always musical, if anything it just slowed him down. It was a good home.”
John somehow gets Frank back to his band, who’s been playing crappy slow old cowboy tunes in a shitty bar. They are depressed and empty.
An impromptu breakout session occurs, with Frank taking lead and the band supporting him.
But this time, instead of joining, John leaves during the performance in a significant way.
John has “fixed” the music. He had ruined everything by trying to make the band popular and likable.
He had paralyzed the already sensitive and volatile band of misfits by putting them in front of lots of people and trying to make them perform.
John wanted fame, he wanted to be liked, he wanted to Be Big.
The band just wanted to play great music.
Why Both Movies are Totally Bullshit
I enjoyed Chef and Frank, a lot. But I also recognize they are continuing to support unfair and unrealistic stereotypes about art and creativity that lead to tragic times and desperate circumstances. The myth of the starving artist is the result of these stereotypes, because they condone and even champion artists who suffer for their art.
Real artists, we are told, never “sell out.” They never think about who will like the work or how it will be received. They never think about the business, or getting followers or fans. They create in an isolated bubble.
And so this is the Standard Operating Procedure for many artists and musicians. Until they finish the work.
And then they’re like,
“OK, shit, I have made a masterpiece, how do I get anybody to give a damn?”
And it’s too late. Because nobody cares about them. Because nobody knows about them. They’re starting from scratch, when they should have been building their platform the whole time.
Carl Casper was a good cook, but he will always need support.
He needs a boss, or a partner, because all his knows is food (his art). If he didn’t have an ex-wife with a rich ex-husband who gave him a food truck; if he didn’t have a friend with friends to do an awesome paint job on the truck; if he didn’t have a social-media savvy son who could build his platform quickly, he would have failed, gone bankrupt, and ended up begging for his job back.
Carl didn’t succeed because he was good at cooking. He succeeded because a bunch of people he knew built him a smart business that showcased his talents (and incidentally, he grew a big platform by being a crazy bastard and having a public meltdown.)
Frank, meanwhile, was really pretty damn good at music, and he was lucky to find a band who loved him and would follow him.
It’s great that they love the music and want to just make music all the time.
But that’s impossible.
They ran out of money after a few weeks – John saved them by giving up his nest egg so they could stay at the cabin for a year and record their album. He’s the money; he became kind of their manager. He believed in them, and in Frank, and kept telling them “You should be famous.”
Why is John the bad guy? The band was exceedingly lucky to find him.
Most bands will run out of money, and stop playing music, and go back and get shitty jobs and have normal lives and settle down.
Very few bands find a backer with money who will fund them until they can record an album.
And all he wanted in return is that they play a huge venue and connect with real fans so everybody can appreciate them (and, probably, they’d sell some albums, so John would earn his investment back). John gave up everything for them.
But they chickened out.
Another implication of the movie could have been this:
Never support indie music, because they don’t want to be successful and just want to be left alone. If you try to make them popular, they will have tantrums and meltdowns and you will lose all your money. So just leave them alone.
If business isn’t your thing, that’s fine – but if you want to Do Your Art as a career, for your whole life, and you want to spend all your time making cool stuff, then you need to figure out how it will earn you money. And if you don’t like money, then you need a smart manager like John, or like Carl’s Son/ex-Wife, who can connect your work with the raving fans it needs to survive.
Meanwhile, artists and authors and musicians keep believing these cultural stereotypes, leftover from Modernist Manifestos of Creative Rebellion, and can’t figure out why it’s so Fucking Difficult to find success.
They want success to surprise them. They want to be discovered, and they want someone to give them a whole bunch of money without expecting anything, anything at all, in return. This is an infantile, immature, selfish approach to artistic production that shouldn’t be encouraged.
What it means to be a successful artist
In 2015, you earn your success by building your own relationship with your fans.
Sure you need your art or music or books as well. And they need to be really good.
But you also need an army of loyal supporters. And you earn that by letting them into your process, not by shutting them out.
You need to be open about who you are and what you do.
You need to share videos and photos of you doing the work on social media.
You need to interact.
And mostly, you need to care.
Your livelihood depends on your fans. You need to give them more than your work.
You need to give them your love, your gratitude.
You need to let them know that they are responsible for your success, and you appreciate them.
You need to let them know you see them.
(I have Taylor Swift in mind as I write this, because she’s the best at it – recently she singled out a few fans and hand-delivered personalized Christmas gifts she bought and wrapped herself).
Develop your craft, become the best at what you do, and cultivate honest relationships with people who appreciate your work the most.
Then, give them the opportunity to support you, with special opportunities or high-priced editions (read “The Curve” to understand the economics of making money from your art in the Freemium Age.)
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.
While I can see your point about Chef (I haven’t seen Frank, so can’t comment there), I disagree with your premise that the only (or even primary) theme was that artists shouldn’t sell out. In fact, in a way, I think Carl DID sell out. He never wanted a food truck. He fought against it. It was the people around him that encouraged and supported his art that convinced him that it was a viable way to support himself while still pursuing his own creative vision.
The movie did a great job featuring the son, who not only promoted the truck, but launched his social media profile in the first place. And his ex, while not featured as prominently, tricked him into getting the truck, putting him in a situation he could hardly refuse. And the friend believed in him enough to quit his own job and follow Carl.
I think that’s a great message! Artists often create in a vaccuum, but we can’t succeed without the help and support of our family, friends, and fans.
Yes, if we want to succeed financially, we need to learn the business and create a product that can sell, but that isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive of following a creative vision. I think Chef did a great job of bringing commercial success and creative vision together.