Following up on the discussion from a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to brush through the various expectations and theories about art and writing and professionalism, trying to get to the lucent core of it all. Namely, if you divorce professional accolades from the production of art, what remains?
You create a work that the audience responds to (hopefully favorably). It seems a fairly simple transaction, yes? I write cool stories, people enjoy reading the cool stories, the cycle continues. Sweet. No problem, right?
Yes and no.
On a basic level, there’s no problem. But on a deeper level, there is an issue. Namely, perpetuation and spread.
It is innate in artists to want to grow their audience. If one person likes it, you then try to get two people to like it. If two people dig it, go for three. Or more. Right off the bat, however, I can’t tell if this is part of being an artist or something else. Is this artistic or is this competitiveness come from some other aspect of the human condition?
The other side of this is the need to support one’s self. Art takes time and energy (a LOT of energy). You might not think writing is that hard. It’s just typing after all. But the brain uses more energy than people realize, and the focus and concentration needed in writing is no trivial matter. It may not be digging ditches or hauling loads but you would be surprised – astonished even – just how exhausting working with a narrative can be. As such, we want our works to be successful professionally because doing so allows us to have income. Income supports us to produce more work.
But this turns cyclical: you create work to sell it so that you can make money to afford the creation of more work. Not a problem, unless you are creating work you don’t care for. Then you aren’t creating art; merely making a living. Not a problem in an of itself, but worth being mindful of.
The other reason monetary success is so useful and prominent is that it is a number. You can track it and measure it. You can compare it. You can’t compare Star Wars and the Godfather artistically, but you can definitely do so with box office take. Or DVD sales and Netflix views.
I find myself wondering if the intertwining of sales (be it in units moved or dollars made) has less to do with one’s artistic drive and more to do with competitive nature. I wonder if, somewhere along the way, did we – meaning artists – turn the professional side of art into a sort of sport?
It used to be that you were ‘major leagues’ if your book was in print. Then, it was you were big leagues if you were published by one of the Big Five publishing houses. Then if you were on the New York Times Bestseller’s list. Nowadays, it feels like you aren’t major league if you don’t have a movie or a TV series. How long until it’s an entire multimedia franchise?
See, concurrent to all of this has been a major shakeup in professional wrestling. The World Wrestling Entertainment (the WWE, formerly the WWF) has been the big dog for almost two decades now (maybe three, debatably four, depending on how you want to consider it). So much so, they’ve largely destroyed all competition. But now, a new upstart company called AEW (All-Elite Wrestling) has started and, well, things are getting interesting. This is on top of a massive level of dissatisfaction coming out of the WWE’s locker room, and more than a few of their talent selecting to leave and go to the independent circuit. This has inspired a debate as to whether they have taken a demotion, or something else.
What is ‘major league’ when it comes to art? How do you define it? And should you even bother to do so?
One argument might be to track success not in terms of dollars made or units sold but in reach. How many people know your work? That seems to be the argument for the WWE scenario. Nobody would care if such-and-such left a big company and went back to the regional circuits, but you care when it’s a big name.
The problem here is that makes art more about promotion than art. The success of a work of art would then depend on a good advertising campaign, and less the material. Need proof? If you’re over thirty, you probably remember the Celestine Prophecy. It was a major landmark book in the 1990s. Did you read it? Probably not. If so, do you even remember what it was about?
The purpose of an artist needs to be boiled down to the relationship between artist and audience. Everything else should be window-dressing, lest you complicate things. But then, does what gets boiled away matter at all? If not, then why does it occupy so much of the professional life of artists? And if so, can it really be removed?
Art is contextual. It comes out of a time and a place in the artist’s life. Remove that and the art loses something. Star Wars is surprisingly mediocre removing it from the context of the 1970s when it was made. All art – whether it is poetry or literature or graphic art – is a snapshot of where the artist is, in that moment. Whether it is emotional, creative, or societal, it is through their art that you see something that exists in the here and now.
Art then becomes an act of sharing one’s self with the world. And thus, the importance of the audience matters. One wishes to be liked. Whether it is a particularly high priority or not is not irrelevant, but anybody who says they don’t care about being liked is lying; to you or to themselves.
The success of art is the acceptance of the art, which becomes by extension the acceptance of the artist, at least in theory. The larger the audience, the greater the artist can say that they are accepted. As artists are often insecure people, the appeal of this makes sense.
I’m not sure where this has all led but it is clear that many artists (myself included) have mistaken acceptance of the art for units sold. Dollars made and thoughts provoked are not the same thing, although it is definitely easier to monitor one than the other.
This would seem to suggest that the goal of the artist then should be to cultivate the strength of the relationship, not the size. From the intensity of the relationship, size may come, but to pursue it at the risk of watering down the dynamic is hazardous.
So then, how does one build an audience in the modern age? How do you grow that dynamic without involving page hits and Likes and units sold and dollars transactioned? Is one the same as the other? Or are they different words for the same thing?
I’m going to keep pondering this, but I really get the feeling this is going somewhere useful. Got any thoughts or insights? Feel free to share ‘em.
Good talk, ya’ll.