Embroiled as I am in an argument with a furious member of the artistic community, I’m feeling the need to clear up some issues about art in this country. And before anyone starts saddling up the old high horse preparatory to riding me out of Dullsville, let me point out that just about the only joy of democracy is freedom of expression. What gives me the right to add my Hellnotes’ worth? The same thing that allows artists of all kinds to pursue their work in the public sphere.
I’m going to try to do this as honourably as I can — no names, ranks or serial numbers — because it’s not about revenge. Writing is also an art, as the woman said. But it’s not a martial art. It’s about making sure that we’re all familiar with the basic rules of sociopolitical interaction that apply to the making of any kind of art at all — films, images, books, music, cupcakes, other humans.
The first misconception is about public and personal space*. By this I mean that artists — and I’m hoping it’s the outcome of rectifiable ignorance rather than massive egotism, though the plethora of reality shows seems to argue against this — can confuse who they are with what they do**.
You don’t get a special dispensation for being a “creative” (an awful term, God help me, but it’s the only one we have). Making art is a job, like any other job: not as strenuous as coal-mining, perhaps, but just as dirty, exploitative and poorly rewarded.
That aside, with the opportunity to do this job comes the responsibility to make a distinction between your public persona as artist, and your personal life. Saying that you’re only human when faced with criticism doesn’t cut it. Once you have sent your work out into the world, it ceases to be yours. This is both its burden and its wonder. This is, in fact, the power of art, and the reason we have it around: it is still, by far, the most moving and empathic realm we can access in this lifetime. Your job is to make your art as well as you can, and seal it up like the Ark so that it survives the Flood but also looks pretty on the water. If someone points out that your planks are a little warped on the port side, suck it up.
Second, once your art has left your baton or your studio or your frontal lobe, it becomes a product. Your intention is for as many people as possible to either buy it or buy into it, and somewhere along the way those two things got confused. As soon as you employ marketers to hawk your life’s work, it loses some of its integrity and some of its passion. That’s what consumption does: by the end of the process, all your audience is left with is a lingering taste in the mouth and — ideally — a hankering for more. Buying in is, to a certain extent, selling out. This is also part of the retail process. Live with it, or don’t let it happen. These are your choices.
Third, once you are a brand, you automatically become The Establishment. As soon as you are The Establishment, you’re going to get resistance***. You are The Man. And I don’t mean that in the Shaft way or the Lou Reed way: I mean that in the old-fashioned Bob Dylan way. What money buys is influence, and another word for that is power. It’s what you set out to do. It’s power that runs the machine.
But the frightening beauty of capitalism (and the whole world is capitalist, make no mistake about that) is its ability to absorb everything in its path. Being consumed — both artist and product — in that maw is the end point of every commercially successful artistic venture, whether you like it or not.
This is not bad. Use it. Make it into the next beautiful thing. It’s what you’re here to do.
* It’s a tricky one. Smarter people than I have argued that there are, in fact, three spheres — the public (accessible to all); the personal (accessible to the chosen few); and the private (accessible only to the artist). I’m going to get simplistic here and consider two, but feel free to multiply those out until you have more identities than Sybil supine on the couch.
** There are, naturally, exceptions. Me-the-noun can be more influential than me-the-verb. Sometimes this works, as when actors rule countries. Sometimes it doesn’t, as when actors have opinions.
*** Just ask Fidel Castro.