Why “The War of Art” is Stupid: How to be a hack without selling your soul

Why “The War of Art” is Stupid: How to be a hack without selling your soul



Recently a lot of my creative friends have been raving about “The War of Art” – a little manifesto about art, creativity and creative production by Steven Pressfield.  It’s an inspirational book that’s popularity is based on the fact that it tells would be authors and artists the New Age message that creatives have embraced for the past hundred years or so: that art is about passion and inspiration and transcendental wisdom. That it is the most important thing in the world, the ONLY thing worth doing. And that to think about mundane things like making money, or asking whether people would like it, is a horrendous blasphemy.

As a spiritual philosophy about the meaning of life, and being fulfilled and happy, I have nothing against the book (well, perhaps little criticisms with the ethic-perception. The author makes focusing entirely on art “SELFLESS”, while I think it is the most selfish thing in the world – which is not necessarily a negative thing). As a guide for contemporary authors and artists, it is at best historically misleading and impractical – at worst downright dangerous.

war-artToday I also read a book by DIESEL founder Renzo Rosso called “BE STUPID.” Surprisingly, these two books are based on the same basic principles: there is a division between our rational, selfish, EGO minds, and the universal, irrational, creative sides of our ourselves.  The point of “BE STUPID” is – don’t make smart decisions. Don’t be afraid to make huge mistakes. Listen to your instinct, play your hunches, make big bets, be daring and innovative. Both books, then, focus on listening to the heart rather than the mind.

However, while sharing the same core philosophy, there is an enormously wide gap between them. “The War of Art” makes no mention at all of material gain, selling your work, getting published or exhibited, or making any money. Success happens, sometimes, usually serendipitously and entirely by accident in unforeseen ways, to some artists and writers. The New Age culture of Southern California (Steven is from LA) promises that if you follow your passion, you will be successful. The Universe wants you to give birth to it, so it will provide for you. Just have faith and be true to yourself and keep creating.

In contrast, Be Stupid is about a billion-dollar fashion business, smart and witty advertising, risky entrepreneuralism, being a forerunner for progress and change. But it’s unabashedly about business; about creating a lifestyle that people want to be a part of enough to pay too much for some fatigued-jeans.

In contrast, Steven calls those writers and artists who actually think about what people want, and try to make things that will sell, “hacks”:

“When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for…He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for? It can pay off, being a hack. Given the depraved state of American culture, a slick dude can make millions being a hack. But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.
Pressfield, Steven (2011-11-11). The War of Art (pp. 152-153). Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.

Obviously, since the goal of this website is to help artists and authors become functional, independent and successful, I’m a little irritated by advice of this kind.

It’s nice to imagine that the history of art was forged by artists listening to their soul and ignoring the market, except it’s entirely untrue. For the entire history of human civilization, artists and authors created things that people needed, for function, or beauty or entertainment. Sure, they could be creative, but they also wanted to win. They were creative because they wanted to distinguish themselves, to be recognized, to command higher prices, and to make financial gain. Writing and art was a skill, an employment.

It was only the rise of modernism and the sudden break with centuries of artistic production focused on perfection and beauty and form, when artists hijacked the whole system and said “We don’t give a damn what people like, we are going to CREATE.” Suddenly art became whatever was new! For the first time, the average person couldn’t tell what was Good Art or Bad Art. It was all about theory. Buyers didn’t know what had value, which gave birth to curators and galleries.

The majority of what we think of as brilliant work was novel and daring and risky – because artists learned that this was popular and potentially lucrative. Picasso followed traditional realism for awhile until he saw some other artists doing crazy and cool experimental stuff – so he started doing weird stuff too. Some artists were successful and are now lauded,  but most starved and have remained unknown.

Even those artists who could focus solely on art and follow their passions, were almost without exception self-absorbed, anti-social assholes. Many abandoned their families, destroyed their relationships, and drank themselves to an early death or committed suicide.

We like to imagine that this is NATURAL for artists – that art is a kind of madness; that we can’t have a normal lifestyle and also open ourselves to the transforming powers of creativity. That we have to sacrifice to be successful.

Here’s why this is dangerous: It leads you to believe that financial failure is justification to continue.

The definition of insane is to do the same thing over and over expecting a different result – unless you are a writer or artist following Steven’s advice. In that case, just keep trying until you get it, or if you fail, at least you’ve spent your whole life following your muse and not selling out.

Spending your whole life focusing on your creative production, instead of producing anything of value to society, is the most self-centered act I can think of. Yes I know it’s romantic, and yes I’ve myself pulled a Walden several times in my life; locking myself in an apartment somewhere for months to finish a series of paintings or a book I’m working on.

Yes I love it, it’s enjoyable, it’s inspiring. But, before I started thinking about income, I was usually poor and could barely support myself. I could live a simple, minimalistic lifestyle, but who was I really helping? I could barely take care of myself – I couldn’t help others. I couldn’t be generous. Sure a lot of people like my art and writing, but I wasn’t changing the world.

I’ll let you in on a secret: Van Gogh is constantly cited as a Genius who went unrecognized; he is a fountain of inspiration for artists and authors who believe that their work has value even if the world doesn’t recognize it. They play the role of the martyrs on the altar of creativity. But of course, they all hope they will make money NOW, in this life. Millions of people are trying to write books or become artists, because we have a lot of leisure time and painting and writing is pretty easy.

Everybody has a website and paintings or writings and is emailing everybody else trying to get published. And most of them are trying to figure out how to turn their passion into profit and quit their jobs. I applaud the few who say “it’s a hobby and I’m not trying to make money” as long as they have a real job.

But I firmly believe that everybody should be able to do SOMETHING OF ENOUGH VALUE to the community to earn a living for themselves. I know MANY artists and authors and creatives who believe in following their dreams, and ALL OF THEM expect to be financially rewarded. They believe that their work is worth something, and their job is to pitch and hype and sell their art and writing or ideas.

Today, fame or failure happens very quickly. The chances of you getting “Discovered” as a genius after your death is extremely unlikely (and why would you want to be anyway, you’ll be dead). Instead, your work will either be recognized or dismissed in your lifetime. And it isn’t all fate or talent or luck. Often it’s the right thing at the right time that found the right audience.

To me, a “hack” is the 50 year old in LA who goes to the bar and tells all the girls that he’s an artist or a writer, when he’s actually NEVER SOLD anything; when he REALLY works at the gas station part time but doesn’t feel that’s real – that’s only a base necessity, it’s not who he really is. He’s a WRITER, or an ARTIST, and he’ll tell you all about his ideas and beliefs and work. That’s the hack to me (at least in the old-fashioned, negative sense).

Steven would call him a professional – which in his mind boils down to LOVE and not earnings.

These people may be very good. It’s possible that they will need to keep tooting their own horn until someone notices them, and suddenly they’ll get world famous. My point is, all of these people BELIEVE in the message of “the War of Art” except they’re STILL EXPECTING FINANCIAL GAIN. They expect to be reimbursed for all their hard work. They want the money, the fame.

Giving into a spiritually enriching creative process that makes you happy is great, enjoy it if you can! But to do it, while  believing in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, while deliberately avoiding practical considerations like how to get your work in front of fans and how to make a profit from it, is stupid. (Not in the risk-taking, Diesel-sense of the word; I mean really dumb.)

The reason I believe many authors and artists don’t like the kind of creative people who make things people want to buy is jealously. Steven lived in a trailer for two years, wrote several bad books, finally wrote a pretty decent one, and luckily it got a film starring Will Smith. That’s excellent. Many successful creative people have no idea how they got successful. They did it accidentally. So they can’t offer any practical advice, except, it happened to me, it can happen to you too! Which is exactly what all artists and authors want (and need) to hear.

But he criticizes those people who are making millions of dollars as hacks, because they aren’t REAL artists, they aren’t inspired by the muse. But look at the statistics: those artists and authors who do whatever they want are facing an uphill battle. A few of them, with crazy enough ideas and a big enough personality, may convince the world that what they do has value. But a majority of them are making products nobody wants and then trying to learn how to sell it.

The Responsible Artist

In any other sphere of life, a person who gets a job to provide for himself and his family is viewed as responsible. Someone smart, with excellent and valuable skills and experience, who finds a way to earn lots of money, is praised and envied. But an artist or writer who trades their skill and creativity for money is a hack? The claim is based on the idea that creativity is divinely inspired and is its own gift, but can’t this be said of every human skill and ability? Someone good at math who becomes an accountant, are they somehow unholy or spiritually deficient? Should everybody share their abilities with each other without earning any pay? (This will be the premise for a dystopian novel I plan to write).

If so, who the hell is going to do the boring labor, like taking out the trash or watering the plants? If art is such a high calling, shouldn’t we all refuse society, focus on our own joys and passions, and starve ourselves to death rather than worrying about earning a living? Is this what GOD wants from us? Obviously I’m only making a point, but I can’t see any other outcome of this kind of advice.

The truth is, creatives like this rarely exist any more, and when they do, it’s often diagnosable and treatable (a form of OCD or extreme anxiety, for example). Those that do follow this “Art for art’s sake” and “refuse to sell out by working for money” mostly fail. Successful authors and artists learn the business. They learn how to sell themselves and their work. And yes, they learn to produce work that has a market, often by researching formats and templates and elements of other successful projects. The top 50 YA books share dozens of identical elements and the same basic plot lines and characters.

I understand refusing money isn’t really what The War of Art is saying: it’s only saying, to produce something truly valuable (in the spiritual rather than then monetary sense) we shouldn’t listen to what people want, only our hearts and our inspiration. I’m not saying this isn’t true. This can be very true.

As “Be Stupid” points out, often the way to unprecedented success is by doing new things, acting on impulses, surprising people – but it still starts from the position of offering value to a core base of customers.

It’s not an easily solvable argument. I could write books arguing in favor of either philosophy. But Steven’s way seems likely to lead to frustrated artists or hobbyists, while my aim is to teach people to make a living from their art or writing.

I suppose I’ve reached the point where I would rather live a comfortable, successful life, making enough money through using my creativity and talent to make things that people enjoy and are willing to pay for, than to lead a tragic, depressing and lonely life creating things for myself that may possibly be appreciated when I’m gone.

Interestingly, whenever I say this to people, they look disappointed in me. When my friends and fans ask if I’ve been painting recently, and I say “No, because it’s too much work to make money, and I’ve found more lucrative ways of using my creativity,” they smile sadly. I’ve “given up on my dreams.” As the artist, it was my job to labor on with no financial reward while they bought cars and houses. But I don’t feel I’ve given in or given up: I’ve stopped trying to make money from my paintings and started making money by solving problems for people and giving them things they need. It’s so much easier.

I also find I can balance creativity with industry without losing my inspiration or creative spark. I use similar parts of my brain to imagine up book covers or edit books or write blog posts. I’m extremely skeptical of a fundamentalist position which refuses to believe that successful artists or writers can be inspired by muses.

What do you think, is there room for compromise, or have I sold out?


  • Amelia Robin King Posted

    I love it, this is the post/advice I was looking for. I’ve been pushing myself too much on being original and deep at writing,but at the end of the day I can’t nail it. Maybe I’m not a genius, so what?. Writing for entertain people and earn money does not sound that bad! There is this slogan from Diesel campaing: Smart may have the brains but stupid has the balls!

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Thanks! Yeah it’s a two-edged sword…You need the motivation and inspiration and passion… but if it’s not leading you to a better, more affluent life, and instead only more frustration… then what’s the point? God wants you to be unhappy?

  • Stephen Reed Posted

    This is an awesome article Derek. I’m very much at the beginning of my journey as an author, and am relatively poor, and with a family to support too. I feel I owe it to all of us to be able to have a fun, enjoyable, meaningful life, with travel, life experiences etc.

    I have read the War Of Art and enjoyed it, although I have a really strong desire to become financially successful, for my sake, and for my children and wife. However much I try, making a good living is high on my priority list. I find it hard to forget about making money 🙂

    That said, I am trying to refocus my attention onto, “if I provide incredible value, I will make money, and satisfy peoples needs at the same time”. This way, I will make a good living, and everyone will be happy.

    I only just found your blog, but so much of what you say really resonates with me, so thank you for that!

    Will be in touch re cover designs etc



    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Thanks Steve! It’s a balance, and I’m still learning: yes you need to provide value, but it’s hard to be very successful at something without passion as well. You need to be creative and do something you are passionate about, while also providing value and something other people want. It helps to have a mission or belief in what you’re doing (even if it isn’t factually true – the belief that what we make is important helps us to finish the work). I’m exploring creativity pretty deeply, lots of research, and will put out some books in the next year. Let me know if I can help with anything!

      • Stephen Reed Posted

        thanks, might just drop you an email 🙂

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *