Originally published at The Homepage of Michael John Bertrand. You can comment here or there.
The real war has never been between art and commerce.
The real war has always been between art and ambition.
Think about it. The artist – whatever the medium, be it words, watercolor, or shadow puppets – would be completely true to their art if all they wanted was to make their art the way they wanted to do it, alone.
They could even stay mostly true to their art if all they wanted was to share their art with an audience who could appreciate it. The Internet has made this easier than it has ever been in the history of humanity and it will only get easier from here. You could totally be a completely fulfilled artist with nothing but a computer and a Tumblr account.
But of course, artists are as ambitious as any of the rest of us in modern Western consumer capitalist democracies. Our entire society raises us to want more, more, more, so much so that “lacking ambition” is one of the worst things you can say about someone. We take it as a given that everyone should be striving for more forever and if they are not, we think they are deeply defective.
And then we expect that to abruptly stop when someone retires. Strange.
This ambition entirely a societal construction. We are a social species, and thus we are hierarchical. And hierarchical species are ambitious because that’s what drives individuals to want to rise in the hierarchy, and without that desire to rise, the hierarchy would become stagnant and fall apart.
And hierarchies are the only way to get things done as a group. Trust me on this. Somehow, the group must figure out who makes the decisions so that everyone else can concentrate on doing their individual jobs.
It need not be a brutal hierarchy. It can be one where the leaders are thought of as people with jobs like everyone else. But there has to be a hierarchy.
So we are born ambitious, and society reinforces that. And it is this ambition is the seed of all corruption in art. It is this ambition – the desire for fame, acclaim, wealth, respect, a beloved status, a life of privilege, and so forth – that turns the artist away from their art and makes them willing to compromise their art in order to “get ahead”.
In olden times, this meant pleasing one’s patron. All the Old Masters earned their place in history by doing what their rich sponsors – like the de Medicis – wanted them to do. Sometimes the order was “paint what you like”, but the point is that they would not have been able to jack squat without their patron’s consent.
And what do you think they had to do to attract a patron in the first place?
In modern times, the entrance to Art Hell bears a sign that says “Doing This For A Living”. The modern world offers the tantalizing possibility of escaping the hamster wheel of the job market through one’s art, and seeing as for any real artist making their art is fun, doing it without having to do anything else is as close to not having to work for a living as any of us are going to get without inherited wealth.
At least, that’s the theory.
The reality is that absolutely all jobs are work. That’s because all jobs involve doing things you don’t want to do. Even if I had my dream lift of doing nothing but writing what I like then handing it to an agent to sell, there would still be times I had to do it when I didn’t feel like doing, and that, my friends, is the very definition of work.
After all, that’s the only difference between the things you’re paid to do and the things you’d pay to do.
Thus the tendency of artists to become disillusioned with their art once they realize it’s actually hard work. This costs the world a lot of artists, and leaves a lot of people in that hazy state where they are sure they will make it big some day with the art they are totally going to do any day now.
And this ambition to do nothing but one’s art puts the artist in direct competition with all the other artists with the exact same idea. A similar delusion leads young people to work hard to get degrees in things where the only job available is to teach it.
And when a lot of people want the same thing and the quantity of that thing is fixed and therefore cannot respond to the high level of demand, it becomes a buyer’s market for said thing, and the level of compromise the artist must endure (and be grateful to do it) in order to “get ahead” skyrockets.
And even if one manages to be one of the lucky ones who actually manages to get a job doing their art, or otherwise secure a living income through it, the compromise does not end there because now you will have to do what the money wants you to do.
And the money people will tell you that if you just play along and do what you are told, eventually, some day, you will get to do what you really want to do.
But what are the odds that the money people will be willing to let you do something other than what has made them money some day? When it costs them money?
And even if they do, who will you be when you finally get there? The passionate, ambitious young person with a mind full of amazing ideas the world needs right now, or a tired, content old person with a bank full of cash and a home full of comforts and distractions?
So here’s my conclusion : If you want to maintain your artistic integrity, you must abandon ambition. That includes the dream of doing your art for a living.
Otherwise, you are doing to have to make compromises.
And you will have to decide just how far you will go. On a daily basis.
There’s no third path.
Better get used to that right now, it will save you a lot of pain in the long run.
I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.