You can do anything.
There is no limit to your glorious creative potential.
However, making things that other people like and that benefit other people are much more likely to bring esteem, financial security, comfort and happiness. Most creative people passionately buy into the idea that “True Art” is never made to please others – but you should know that the definition of art was drastically redefined at the end of the 19th century.
For thousands of years, art had been more or less equated with beauty. If you could make things well, their craftsmanship would be obvious, and people would want them because all people appreciate beauty. The more beauty you could produce, the more you could earn.
Which led to a point in European history when children went to art school early and if they weren’t already technical savants, they probably couldn’t even get in. Only the best artists could make any money, so it wasn’t worth spending resources educating anybody with less natural talent.
But that made a lot of artists angry, so they said “to hell with the schools” and began to resist the idea that art had to be technically perfect and beautiful. They decided (in keeping with the spirit and philosophy of modernism – the roots of which had already been sown by the romantic school and Wordsworth’s pronouncement that all good poetry was the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings) that True Art was not merely decoration, and that it was about the act of creation, more than the finished piece.
Which led to more and more ridiculous pieces – at first they were novel and interesting, but as each artist tried to make something new, soon they were just smearing paint around or installing toilets in galleries and calling it art. Anything could be art: Art became some kind of clever commentary, a certain innovation. But of course that completely destroyed the integrity of artistic value.
If the quality of the art depended on the mood and idea and not its beauty, how can you value it? And more to the point, if art becomes crazy or ugly things that nobody actually wants to put in their houses, the best art might have zero value in a fair market. Which is why, most artists in this period couldn’t make any money with their art. Instead they set up their own “gallery of refuses” for all those artists who weren’t accepted into the bigger, more credible galleries.
And everybody became an artist. Since skill or training no longer had much to do with it, any first time painter could pull off things as good as what they saw in galleries.
But the public didn’t know what to buy, or what was valuable – so we have the invention of curators and collectors, and the ludicrous philosophizing that gives art its meaning.
Today, we have inherited a very messy state of ideas concerning art, and things have gotten even more confusing with the addition of the online space and digital reprinting or publishing.
I don’t want to argue with you about what “Real Art” should mean. But I can tell you, after over a decade working in the literary and fine arts communities, that creative people almost never have a lucky break or get discovered after they’ve finished the work. Instead, there are creative people who run smart businesses and make a lot of money, and there are creative people who don’t.
The thing is,
Neither the quality of the work, nor the intentions of its creator, are necessarily good indications of the work’s success.
The beliefs you have about art may help you finish the work, but they won’t help you sell it: and they may actually hinder your ability to treat your work like a business.
Nobody else is going to be your champion and build your business for you. You have everything you need, right now, to connect with your own audience and build up a supportive platform, so that making things can generate sustainable income. And, I think, you also have a responsibility as a creative person to transcend the role society has chosen for you and create your own space, where you have the ability to generate two or three times the “average income” of your peers and reinvest your newfound time and wealth into actually tackling real world issues that most people never have the power to change.
One of my favorite Buddhist texts reads:
There is nothing you must do,
There is nothing you really must have,
And there is really nothing you must know.
Even still, it helps to understand that fire burns
And when it rains, the earth gets wet.
You need to decide, for you, what kind of creative person you want to be. Is it a hobby? Do you create for yourself, for personal pleasure? That’s fine. But don’t one day decide you want to start fires in the rain, and then complain about how hard it is: you need to learn the rules of the world if you want to see the results you are after.
All things being equal…
Do you want to make things that double your income and give you freedom to focus on your creative work? If so, I can teach you how to do that. What I can’t do is teach you how to market something nobody wants.
Some things matter to other people. Those are also the things you can earn money from. Not everything earns money; that’s fine. But some things do. I think, since you can do anything, you should focus on taking control of your time by making things that people value, that matter to people.
And it’s not about the money…
If talking about art and money rubs you the wrong way, think of it like this: do you want to make things that improve, enlighten, elevate and uplift? Things that challenge, question or shake up? Whatever definition of art you have, it probably involves getting a reaction from other people.
But people won’t react to just anything. It’s not their job to react to your work. It’s your job to make work that matters. That means you have to know who you’re creating for, and how to press their buttons.
For me, money is just a good indicator for how much your work matters to other people. Do they like it a little bit, but not more than something else they could buy for $5? Or do they love it, cherish it, adore it, worship it – and are willing to give up other things they also want to possess it?
Are you going to spend your time making things people like, or not?
The prevalent ideologies of creativity are a modernist invention that redefined art in the 19th century and created a horde of “starving artists” committed to “art for art’s sake” (not as a product, not for decoration, merely as forms of personal self-expression).
Continuing to believe these myths of creativity almost always leads to frustrated and tragic creative people who are very passionate about what they are making but inept at getting anybody else to give a shit about it – or at least care enough to pay for it.
Art doesn’t have to be associated with financial failure; it’s possible to be an abundant artist. But it rarely happens by luck. Art is a business; you are making products for an audience and convincing them to buy. Art involves production and selling. This is true for visual arts, publishing, music and other industries.
You CAN focus on producing PURE ART that comes straight from your soul, if you also learn to market it really well. But it’s so much easier to find your audience first, understand what they want, and make art that they will love.
Personally I find this approach liberating and empowering. You’re thinking about who you can serve and how you can provide value to the maximum number of people. Use your art for good and positive social change, by building wealth and a strong platform.
The opposite of that, what I see continuing to be the “normal” and widely accepted view of creativity, is to shut everybody else out and just do what you love or follow your passion. This can work out for some people, but it’s risky, and I also find it to be self-absorbed and a little selfish. If you want to do art for you – great. But don’t expect anybody else to care about it or support you so you can keep making stuff that you like. (It would be like, quitting your job to make artisanal icecream, making only strawberry icecream because it’s your favorite, and expecting other people to support you even though they don’t like strawberry icecream.)
You are capable of so much more.
Stop thinking small.
Dream of ways to change the world, then execute your plan with zealous dedication.
What do you think?
Is it somehow wrong or dishonest to be successful? Do you think making art that people love necessarily means the art isn’t “real”?
PS. A few months ago I put out a little book on doing meaningful creative work that matters, called “you are f#cking awesome.” I made a “safe for work” version, without all the curse words, and you can grab the PDF for free by clicking here. It’s LONG…. so bookmark it or download the PDF, or get the book on Amazon if you want to read at your leisure.
I also made a free video course about some of the ideas, but I wanted to write this article as a brief summary to get you started.
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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.