Does Stability Lead to Worse Art?
There’s an old stereotype of an artist’s (author, filkmaker, painter, really take your pick on medium) journey that in the beginning we’re expected to sacrifice and suffer for our creations; commonly it’s called being a “starving artist”. The idea is that rather than eat right or pay rent, we pour all of our resources into the work we love. We work all the harder on that next piece, because we’re betting heavily on success. We create to survive, churning out constant and increasingly ambitious projects in an attempt to gain some form of stability. This idea of the starving artist is problematic for a lot of reasons, and unpacking them all would be a blog unto itself, but for right now I just want to establish that the idea exists.
And, to some extent, there’s truth in the idea of personal-sacrifice. Working hard on your art demands, at the absolute minimum, time. That’s assuming you’re working in a medium with no other associated expenses to create your art, which is rare, but for now let’s stick with just time. Giving up time to create something means you’re taking it from elsewhere in your life. If it’s out of your personal life, then you’ll see the deterioration of friendships, and maybe romantic relationships as well. If you take the time from your professional life, then you’ll have less disposable income, or maybe miss out on promotion opportunities. So yes, there is an element of sacrifice even if all you give is time, and we often feel these sacrifices the most early in our careers.
There is also a flip-side to this equation though: what happens when the artist is no longer starving? When they have enough security to stop producing to survive, and instead can focus on creation for the sake of creation alone? Is it purer for the sense of focus, or weakened by the lack of that primal drive to survive fueling the creation? You’ll find people with different opinions all over the place, and I doubt anything I’ll say is going to impact you either way if your mind is made up. Still, it seemed like an idea worth discussing, and to do so I’m going to use an icon that I think almost everyone who reads my books will be at least passingly familiar with: Kevin Smith.
To grossly oversimplify the career of a man who has been all over the place, Kevin Smith is a director from New Jersey who got his start by self-funding (off credit cards) and directing a movie called Clerks. It gained notoriety and was eventually released to acclaim, giving Smith a career springboard to make more films like Chasing Amy, Mallrats, and Dogma, to mixed receptions. After some time though, he grew tired of what he was doing and tried something very different with Red State, then left movies altogether for a while, focusing on his newfound love of podcasting. That changed with the release of Tusk, a film inspired by an idea he had during an episode of Smodcast, in which a podcaster is surgically turned into a walrus by a madman. This was followed by Yoga Hosers, and the upcoming Moose Jaws will finish out the run he’s calling The True North Trilogy, since all 3 films are set in Canada.
You’re probably noticing that the further into that filmography I got, the stranger the titles and plot became. We went from clerks in a convenience store, to angels trying to break into heaven, to a human being turned into a walrus through horrifying torture surgery. Was he smoking himself into madness, or was the change due to him becoming rich and famous, thus giving him the freedom to explore what he wanted all along? And the real question: did losing his need to survive lead to him making worse art?
Well, no. No, it didn’t. True, he might be making art you don’t like as much, but that’s different from making worse art. You see, there’s a factor people often mix-up with quality: marketability. From a technical perspective (don’t worry, I checked with friends who actually study film before talking out of my ass) Smith’s newer films are written, shot, and directed better than most of his earlier works. Calm down, I know you like the old stuff better, we’ll get to that in a moment. But it really shouldn’t be that shocking that the work is improving. If you do something for 20 years, you’re naturally gaining more knowledge, experience, and resources along the way. Obviously his skill is increasing over time, that’s part of doing anything for several decades.
So if the new movies are technically better in most ways (and I know I’m asking a lot from some of you to meet me on that point) why are they popularly regarded as worse? You already know the answer, I told you in the last paragraph: marketability. With his first film, Smith tapped into the slacker culture in a way that few films had before at the time, and that appealed to a lot of people. From there on, Smith was working within the confines of Hollywood, meaning his films went through traditional corporate filtering like focus groups to make sure they appealed to a wide enough audience. Factors that didn’t fit the bill were cast off; everything was put on a path toward making a solid profit, because that’s what movie studios have to do to stay solvent. His work had to be marketable to get made, the art was required to appeal to the greatest number of people possible, and thus it was tweaked and tooled around with until it fit the bill. It does bear mentioning though that even in what many see as Smith’s heyday, his films were often too niche to be considered blockbusters.
The reason Smith’s films changed so significantly was money-related, though not in quite the same way as one might expect. To, again, really sum a lot of shit up, Smith began using independent distribution houses and investors in his films, keeping production costs way below what they were in the Hollywood machine. That means his amount needed to break even is far lower than it was before, and that allows him to make movies that don’t need to be exceptionally marketable. He can makes whatever he wants, even if it’s using nazi-bratwursts as the bad guys, trusting that there are enough people with similar tastes out there to break even or perhaps turn a profit. And so far, he’s been right. Despite not getting a lot of critical love, both Yoga Hosers and Tusk are already in the black. Did they earn enough that he’d still be okay without his existing fame and wealth? I don’t know, you’d have to ask him about that, but the point is that they both now exist and nobody lost money to make them happen.
That’s what really changes when artists are no longer trying to pay rent with their next work: they’re freed from having to write with the market in mind. Sometimes this leads to better work, freeing them up to take bold chances and risks that they never would have before and breaking all sorts of new ground. Sometimes the art we get from this is a little too crazy, or so niche to the creator that no one else finds joy in it. I’m not going to try and say that one is better than the other, only that it’s important we see this for what it is: fiscal stability providing the artist room to take more chances, not lessening their artistic drive.
I’m not saying you have to love the works of artists in their later careers. In fact, the less marketable they become, the higher a chance that you won’t like them. But I do think it’s important to separate out the idea that making something non-marketable somehow implies a decrease in quality. Taking risks is usually a good thing, and even when they don’t pan out there’s lessons to be learned from them. For my part, that’s why I try to structure my releases so I alternate between established series and new, untested projects.
Tying talent to desperation with the starving artist idea, on the other hand, is kind of a dangerous thing to put out there. Attempting to make your art into a career is already crazy hard; people need to know that it’s okay to stay at that day job until they’ve got a solid footing to step out on. Having rent and food doesn’t weaken your ability to produce any kind of art, you don’t need to go all in to be a “real” writer/painter/director/animal trapeze trainer.
Take your time, learn about your market and what ideas you have that might appeal to them, and build your work at your own pace. And probably don’t finance everything with credit card debt. That gamble worked out well for Smith, but it’s not one even he recommends others take.