I’m really not into lose-lose narratives. We have a lot of them when it comes to art. As a rule of thumb, when you find yourself trapped in a complex situation that’s been simplified into an either-or situation, you are probably using a faulty mental approach to the situation. Hopefully I can tease out a few of these types of faulty narratives in a way that you might find useful.
1) Making art and being commercially successful should be mutually exclusive.
First, let’s make one thing clear. Buying and selling things is not capitalist. If buying and selling things using money is how you define capitalism, that means that we have to describe Ancient China and Rome as capitalist which is as ridiculous as it sounds. I’m not here to give an economics lesson, but selling things in and of itself does not make you a running dog. Economics is a bit more complicated than that.
Of course there are many good reasons to resist professionalizing/commodifying art. But I find the mentality that often accompanies this concern to be unhelpful. This kind of “I only make art for the love of it and I’m having an existential crisis because I’m making a fat profit selling art” line of thinking is not helpful. There is something vaguely Christian about the whole thing that irks me. The notion of moral purity. The fear of the corrupting influence of money (by the by, if you can be corrupted by fancy pieces of paper, you have bigger things to worry about than selling your art). The kind of self flagellating guilt that follows material gain. The sacrificial idea that generosity and giving only counts if you don’t get anything in return; in fact, if you lose, it makes it count more.
Am I saying you should then flog the hell out of your artwork and sell to the highest bidder? If you have to ask, you’re missing the point of this post. If you want to critique and resist the system of capitalism, I’m all for it. But trying to do it by angsting unnecessarily and subscribing to incorrect ideas about economics? You’d be far better off learning more about related topics, joining a radical organization or meeting people who can help you in this endeavour.
2) I should find a stable, boring job that I can do half assed and save my energy for art in my spare time.
People have tried to sell me this line for years. The unspoken implication of this advice was, “or you’re going to STAAAAAARVE.” This is total horseshit. First of all, there are no decent paying jobs you can do half assed anymore unless you are preternaturally lucky or settled in a senior position in some unionized government job that you scored in the 1970s. Second of all, unless you’re like T.S. Eliot and require a mindnumbingly repetitive day job to ground your soaring poetic genius, why would you want to do anything half assed when you don’t have to? Finally, if your creativity is your lifeblood, you better treat it that way.
Now I can see the logic behind this well worn “practical” advice. I understand, if inexperienced, how it might seem like you must set art aside and submit to a life of dysfunctional office drudgery in order to scrape past the poverty line. Or, maybe you’ve concluded that unless you sacrifice all on the altar of art, you will become a slave to a mind-numbing path devoid of meaning. Sorry, but this is horseshit.
The good news is, good workplaces/clients do exist. Just like how there are exceptionally intelligent and talented people, there are exceptionally good workplaces/clients that do exceptionally great things, some of which have the wherewithal and the will to afford its employees an exceptional level of compensation. But just like how genius is rare, these exceptional workplaces/clients are all wedged into that tiny end of the bell curve. My advice to you would be, regardless of whether you decide to work in creative industries or not, learn to be the kind of person that the good tail end of the bell curve wants and be the kind of person that you would love to work with.
I won’t lie. Aiming for the good tail end will take considerable investments of time and effort. It will require you to regularly push the boundaries of your comfort zone, take risks and most of all, fail. And at the end of the day, I cannot promise that the making-a-living sitch will take care of itself just because you work hard and you’ve got the chops and you’ve learned from your mistakes. Life, especially when working with a moribund labour market, has no guarantees. I don’t have an easy answer for you to extricate yourself from this rigid narrative, but I can tell you that life is almost never a zero sum game. You’re a creative person, so don’t let this story mess with your decisions and blind you to the possibilities in your midst; use your imagination to find a way to make all facets of your life work for you.
3) Whenever I take on a commercial project I don’t believe in, I feel like I’m whoring out my skills and contributing to what’s wrong with society.
Personally, I don’t care for pejorative uses of the word whore, but I’m not going to quibble over that here. Again, I think this narrative relates to a psuedo-Christian approach to commerce, a sharp divide between the sacred and the profane and a weirdly N. American obsession over moral purity. Ask yourself: are you being objective in your assessment of the situation or are you having a knee jerk reaction and oversimplifying the situation? The world of ethics is rarely black and white and it’s generally a good practice to deal with ambiguity in the grey areas and to grapple with it on a regular basis. And not to understate your importance in the grand scheme of things, but you’re probably no Adolf Eichmann…
Of course, if you find yourself working on crap that you hate most of the time or if you have a serious moral objection to your assignments/clients, I completely understand. You best be careful when you let someone cross your boundaries for money; after that point, it is only a matter of negotiating down the price. Whatever you do, don’t waste time angsting over whether you’re selling out. Do something to improve your situation. Be grateful that you’ve been born to a station in life where you actually have a choice to change your work situation because the majority of people in the world don’t.
The bottom line is, if you want to be a great cartoonist then be a great cartoonist. Subscribing to overly simplified ways of assessing a complex reality and avoiding commerce will not automatically prevent you from compromising your work and your values. Becoming and staying great at what you do is much harder than trying to live by simplistic ideals. It requires constantly working on developing your integrity, maintaining mindfulness over your conduct, being responsive to an ever-changing reality, balancing multiple priorities and demands, and believing in yourself. Good luck.