Want to Be a Great Artist? Just Sell Out Already!

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– By James Powers –

One of my absolute favorite pieces of cinema anywhere is just over four minutes long. I couldn’t tell you precisely what the plot is, because there isn’t any dialogue to speak of and the setting is – foreign, to say the least. Reading between the lines, though, I think it has something to do with a world-weary convict’s last, desperate attempt to buy his own freedom in an underground gambling ring. It’s like a western, crossed with a rave, crossed with the cantina scene from Star Wars, full of neon lights and otherworldly costumes and some really whack dancing. Plus someone swimming around in a glitter-filled fish tank, because why not? You can watch it all for yourself here if you want, and find out how bizarre my taste really is. But be warned – you also risk getting sucked down a very particular Internet rabbit hole that can turn from dazzling to disturbing (and back) in seconds.

I’m speaking, of course, of the world of music videos. Depending on your level of experience, you may just picture that as a world of hip-hop artists in sweatsuits, flashing their grills at the camera and straddling impossibly shiny cars while a bikini menagerie dances in the background. And yeah, ok, you will bump into that nonsense if you’re not careful. But take it from me, there’s so much wonderful stuff to be found as well. In many ways music videos are the wild west of film, condensing all sorts of experimental, extravagant, poignant and sometimes surprisingly deep stuff into 3-5 minutes. And yes, sometimes it just gets really bizarre or even messed-up (hoo boy I’ve seen some things…). But what’s really interesting is that all this craziness actually serves a somewhat practical purpose – it’s not just a bunch of hipsters making the visual equivalent of slam poetry for fun. At the end of the day music videos are, quite simply, glorified commercials for artists and their record labels, tailored to the unique brand of weird that makes a given artist appealing to their fans. And I think that is kind of brilliant. They’re the perfect storm of harebrained creativity and calculated marketing ploys – but surprise! this is actually true of all successful art. Music videos just make it a little more obvious.

Creativity guru Austin Kleon (another one of those Instagram personalities who’s really popular for something, but no one is sure yet exactly what) wrote a book a while back about the derivative nature of art, aptly titled Steal Like an Artist. Although I still don’t know what makes him an expert on the topic, his central insight is both very simple and very important: namely, that no artist can create out of nothing. No work is truly original. If nothing else, it is influenced by the atmosphere of the artist’s experience, but it is almost certainly also ripping off other artists’ work to some extent or other. And that’s ok. In fact, that’s good; that’s the nature of art. Rather than being a bunch of isolated works of genius, all art exists in a sort of symbiotic ecosystem, nurturing and inspiring and borrowing from and pushing back against itself. If jazz hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have gotten either Nirvana or Lady Gaga. Without JRR Tolkien, Game of Thrones most definitely would not have happened. And in fact, entire cultural phenomena that we take as commonplace today – such as memes and remixes – fundamentally depend on having original works to steal from.

But we can push Kleon’s point even farther out. Not only are all works of art interconnected, but all art is inextricably tied to commerce as well. Obviously, we all know that commercial art is a thing; Star Wars and the MCU and the like are prime examples. We know that all of Hollywood is beholden to this dynamic. Nonetheless, we also have this persistent idea of the “true” artist: a lone maverick who pursues a pure creative vision, untainted by such corrupting influences as producers or sponsorships or market research. Ironically, the film industry at large and even Hollywood itself perpetuates this idea, billing many movies as “a film BY Steven Spielberg,” “BY Damien Chazelle,” “BY Lars von Trier,” etc. This despite the fact that even scrappy Sundance darlings almost always have a cast and crew of hundreds, as well as funding from a dozen sources or more. It’s odd, to say the least, that such an intensely collaborative medium as film is still marketed as if it’s the work of a few select auteurs.

We like to tell ourselves that true artists are these solitary geniuses out there who have transcended the system, perhaps because we hope to do so ourselves. But actually they’re all still part of the system. Even in an age where anyone can theoretically shoot a film on their iPhone or record an album with GarageBand, the fact remains that simply having a powerful conviction about your artistic vision is not enough. Spend 60 seconds in one of the back alleys of YouTube and you’ll see ample proof of this. You need to sell your vision to the right people, often in a very literal sense. And that means letting go, just a little bit, of the purity of that vision and instead thinking about what the others – programmers, investors, audiences – want.

For example, none of the indie darlings who “came out of nowhere” at Sundance actually came out of nowhere; as one correspondent at IndieWire points out, the Sundance programming team doesn’t find its sleeper hits by combing through its thousands and thousands of submissions. Rather, it finds them through the programmers’ many existing relationships with other film professionals, and it tracks and evaluates them the same way. The world of film (and of any other artistic medium) is made up of people who, while artistic themselves, also just need to make a living. These are the gatekeepers who need to be impressed, who need to be convinced that you’re worth them putting some of their paycheck on the line. And if impressing them means “selling out,” well…then all your favorite filmmakers and musicians are probably sellouts. Sorry.

Now to be clear, I’m not at all meaning to be cynical when I say this. My point isn’t that artistic integrity is an illusion and that everybody eventually gives up on truth and beauty for the sake of a quick buck. But you can hustle and achieve artistic excellence at the same time. In fact you have to do one in order to accomplish the other. Basically we need to stop thinking of art and commerce as opposing forces, because in fact they are close allies. A great example of this, to return to music videos, is the video that was released last year for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” – an engrossing, troubling hip-hop piece that explores race and violence among other things. It exploded across the web almost immediately and catapulted Childish Gambino to the top of the hip-hop charts – well, the top of the charts period. This wasn’t accidental. The artist (and his director Hiro Murai) understood very well the connection between art and commerce when they put together the video. They knew that the ongoing discussion of race in America, and an intriguing, symbolic engagement with it, could translate into buckets of views on YouTube and Vevo and a big national spotlight on Childish Gambino.

Ariana Grande and her director Hannah Lux Davis were arguably even more savvy to this dynamic when they decided to base her recent video “Thank U, Next” pretty much entirely on early-aughts romcoms. They understood the power of the nostalgia that people are already feeling for the beginning of this millenium, and they leveraged that for views. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t also genuinely want to make something that was imaginative, fun and (in its own way) even a little insightful for Grande’s listeners, many of whom are probably young and lovesick.   

Now, some pop-culture pundits would go so far as to advise that what you want, as an artist, doesn’t really matter at all. All that matters, they say, is what the audience wants, and so you’d better figure out what that is and deliver. Myself, I hope that’s not entirely true; I like to think that there is an intersection we artists can all find between what we need to say and what people need to hear. But we each need to figure out for ourselves where that intersection lies, and until we have established reputations behind us and/or oodles of market research at our fingertips, that’s gonna require a lot of guesswork and screwups. And that’s ok – that’s the work. Point is, being an artist doesn’t simply mean plugging away in some boho studio apartment, blocking out the world so that you can be alone with your profound thoughts. That may be part of it, but only part, because art is never a solo endeavor – it is relational. Your profound thoughts have to go in front of an audience and, in almost all cases, change as a result so that they resonate better with that audience, whether in the executive office or the movie theater. The artist’s heart has to move and flow in response to that of her audience.

And the funny thing is that it’s money that keeps us pie-in-the-sky creative types tuned into that reality. If it weren’t for the fact that we all need money to survive, then there would be no real reason to care what the audience thinks. We could just stay in our basements with GarageBand and our vlogs and our Big Ideas and it wouldn’t matter. But we would probably just end up spouting a bunch of nonsense to an audience of stuffed animals. So, ironically, it turns out that money is in fact an engine of artistic excellence. Ariana Grande, Childish Gambino, Hayao Miyazaki, Lady Gaga…they all understand this. So did every Renaissance painter who was commissioned by European aristocrats and now has their work up in the Louvre or the Getty. Nonetheless, there is always the temptation to think we have to choose one or the other: the art or the money. The thing is, we can’t really do that. We can’t be pure visionaries, because that is delusional; but we can’t just be mercenaries either, because that is degrading.

Now, as an aspiring artist myself, this isn’t exactly the easiest thing for me to hear. And yeah, I know I’m the one saying it. But to level with you, I don’t really know how to hustle myself. I mean, I’ve tried things in the past that haven’t really stuck, and I’ve got more ideas that I hope to try out, a lot of which probably won’t stick either. Which is fine; that’s the gig. The real challenge for me (and I imagine a lot of others) is to just have the tenacity to keep pitching things at the wall until something does stick. To keep trying again, tweaking things to see what connects with the audience, and not just sitting around feeling sorry for myself because “society” or “the world” doesn’t “get” me, doesn’t appreciate the genius or raw talent or whatever that I supposedly have sizzling from my fingertips.

Granted, they probably don’t get me, because I am pretty weird. They probably don’t get you either – I can’t even see you right now, dear reader, but I have a feeling you’re pretty weird yourself. Here’s the crazy thing – the wonderful, horribly frustrating thing: they are all weird as well, and if you keep at it, eventually you might find your weird matching up with their weird. And then, by golly, you might find yourself making money doing what you love.

Editors Note: To read James’ continued reflections after attending Sundance, click here.


About the Author

James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.

 

Article Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Photo by ‘Photographing Travis’, Author ‘Travis Wise’, license cc-by-2.0. Image has been cropped.

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