Some comments on the tension between creativity and commerce

The great composer does not set to work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired because he is working. Beethoven, Wagner, Bach and Mozart settled down day after day to the job in hand with as much regularity as an accountant settles down each day to his figures. They didn’t waste time waiting for inspiration.
Ernest Newman

Just got a question on Twitter regarding the tension between creativity and commerce. It’s an interesting issue, so here are a few comments/impressions. Before I start, I think it’s important to keep an open mind here and question stereotypes and assumptions.

In “Organizing Creativity“, I use a model that sees creativity as the interplay of the individual, the domain, and the field (going back to Csikszentmihalyi, see p. 32). The person does something in a domain and the field — the people in (or interested in) the domain — judge it as creative. You find it in peer review in science (science is a surprisingly social enterprise), but also in art. To use Csikszentmihalyi’s example, van Gogh’s work “became” a creative work of art when the public impression of his pictures changed.

One major issue here is understandability. If you go by creativity as “deliberately creating something that is new and useful” it’s the “useful” part here. It must achieve a goal (e.g., solve an engineering problem, answer a question, make someone happy, inspire people). And to do so, people must be able to understand it. You can explore new worlds, but you better build bridges so that people can follow you.

But isn’t this selling creativity short? Isn’t this just pleasing art, art without teeth, just comforting the recipient? Not at all. But it depends on how you treat your audience. Art sometimes confronts people with an ugly truth. You see this probably best with comedians (if you see comedians as modern day court jesters who are willing to say that the emperor has no clothes, akin to “it’s funny because it’s true”). And comedians manage to explore painful issues in a funny way. You could explore issues in different ways, but there is usually a way that makes people want to listen, hell, even pay for it. And good comedians find and use it. Same with other topics. No one wants to listen to propaganda, but you can tell a good story first and make the message secondary (to refer to a comment by Ben Shapiro). Done right, a good movie can explore an issue, convey a message and leave the viewer entertained and a bit influenced.

And you know you’re doing it right when people are willing to pay for what you have to say. Money is a very valuable indicator here. One of Heinlein’s characters captures it beautifully:

“Why do some people act as if making money offended their delicate minds? I am out for a legitimate profit, and not ashamed of it; the fact that people will pay money for my goods and services shows that my work is useful.”
“Magic Inc.” by Robert A. Heinlein

and there’s also this beautiful Dilbert comic (and yup, I agree with Dilbert and Wally here).

I also think that money from the customer keeps the artist (or the creative person in general) honest. It shows that the artist reached his or her audience and the work is actually useful. It’s a bit like doing science without publishing. As bad as the “publish or perish” pressure has gotten (and corrupted science), if it’s not published, it can’t be read and cannot affect others. And with artists, if the audience doesn’t see it or understand it, what’s its use? It’s one reason why I am very critical of government sponsored programs for arts. I go with another Heinlein character here:

“Thank you. ‘Artist’ is a word I avoid for the same reasons I hate to be called ‘Doctor.’ But I am an artist, albeit a minor one. Admittedly most of my stuff is fit to read only once … and not even once for a busy person who already knows the little I have to say. But I am an honest artist, because what I write is consciously intended to reach the customer — reach him and affect him, if possible with pity and terror … or, if not, at least to divert the tedium of his hours with a chuckle or an odd idea. But I am never trying to hide it from him in a private language, nor am I seeking the praise of other writers for ‘technique’ or other balderdash. I want the praise of the cash customer, given in cash because I’ve reached him — or I don’t want anything. Support for the arts — merde! A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore!”
“Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein

Even worse are people who claim they “cannot be creative” because they do not get funding. In todays world, you have access to almost anything you need to be creative. Exceptions are in some areas of science where you need (very) expensive machinery or materials. But otherwise, the tools are there. But it’s not easy to make a living as an artist. The competition is strong and the Internet has made the competition worldwide. Esp. if what you offer is digital. There’s also the “cult of the amateur”. Not bad in itself, but private individuals who do art in their spare time for (almost) nothing make it very difficult for professionals to live from their work (e.g., in photography). But yeah, if you want to live from art, it’s a good idea to keep your day job. Only switch to full-time creative work when you lose money in your day job (like Pratchett did).

There is also this view that commercial pressure taints creative work. I disagree on two counts here.

First, commercial pressure offers useful constraints. Nothing is as scary as an empty page and all the options in the world. It paralyzes. Constraints (what makes money, or specifically, what the customer who commissions the artwork wants) provide useful constraints in which the creative person can express his- or herself creatively.

Second, many of the famous works of art which populate today’s museums are commission works. People payed the artist to do, e.g., a certain painting. This is nothing new and nothing that compromises one’s integrity. Being an artist or having another profession that depends on creativity means you are getting paid for your creativity. If you are unwilling to do so, then don’t do it. But one way or the other any successful artist gets paid for his or her creativity. As written above, money is feedback. It’s not only nice to cash a check and get money for something you did, your customers are also the people who advertise for you (if they like what you did). In this sense, money drives art, enables art, and thus enables artists. And of course, this also applies to other creative work, e.g., engineering solutions or helpful apps.

And sure, museums do get public funding — and they should. This is well justified as they protect the cultural heritage. And the fact that the works they contain did speak to the audience at one time (even if they do not speak to the current generation) makes the works valuable and worthy to protect. It’s one of the strange issues when some people condemn capitalism, ignoring that the money businesses make indirectly funds museums. I think it helps to understand our past to understand what kind of art they liked — and why. And no matter whether you visit them at all, only on rainy days when the extended family is in town, or out of interest, they are educational.

However, there is also the issue that in some domains, marketing and other efforts manipulate audiences, or potential buyers. Not a topic I’m familiar with, but it seems to be an issue in the market for modern “art”. In part probably because some artists have “big names” and there’s a certain coolness to having an expensive picture or sculpture no one understands. But then again, there are few works of modern art I understand, and usually only with additional explanation. I think it’s detrimental to art, as it removes it’s connection to the audience. And it’s bad form to complain that the audience “doesn’t get it” in an attempt to claim cultural superiority. If anything defiles art, it’s using it for this purpose. To exclude rather than to inspire. I might be overusing the “emperor’s clothes” fable, but it might apply here as well. People believing that something is art, even if it doesn’t speak to them.

Not sure whether that answers the original question, but I’m happy to continue the discussion in the comments. And hey, thank you for the question. 🙂