Have you ever had a conversation like this?
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh? Anything I would have read?”
“I write short stories, mostly.”
“How much does that pay?”
These days, creative people have more opportunities than ever to get our work out to a wider audience. Self-publishing, the availability of the internet, online stores, easy shipping methods, YouTube, and countless other modern tools make the work of finding an audience seemingly easier and easier. Therefore, we’ve convinced ourselves that the most important part of being a creative is in how well our work sells, or how large our audience is. If you’re not able to make a living at your art in THIS environment, we think, then what value can your art have?
Several decades ago, something interesting happened with Hollywood movies. Tent pole blockbuster films with wide releases were becoming the norm (whereas previously, all movies would start in a select few theaters and then be booked for wider release as their buzz and interest grew) and audiences started to become aware of the amount of money being spent on productions. How many times have you heard that a movie cost over X hundred million to make, and you know how much it got back at the box office. Audiences started to equate “successful” movies with movies that made back their investments, even though that information is really of no interest to anyone but the movies investors.
This has trickled down into all creative work. We now know how long television shows have to become a success before they’re ripped off of networks, and how to save them with fan-based campaigns to the producers. We know the details of Kickstarter campaigns for movies and shows that were cancelled “too soon” and whether they make their goals or not is tied to whether they have value to us. The graffiti artist Banksy may have seeped into the minds and culture of any city where the art has been plastered on the walls, but we only started hearing about this artist as a global phenomenon when the art was ripped from the places it was originally placed and sold at auction.
Certainly, making a living at your art, or selling it for a decent price, or having a lot of people know about it can be a wonderful feeling, but is it everything? So often, I see artists who allow their frustration with the process of finding an audience or a market get in the way of the work they make. And while it would be a wonderful thing if all artists could be compensated for our work with a living wage based on that work and a wide-ranging audience, we don’t currently live in a world that’s set up to do this.
So should be stop making work, if it isn’t “successful” in that way, or should we find other metrics to value the creative work we do? What is the value in a play that’s performed for audiences smaller than the cast, if those audiences are transformed by the performance? What is successful about a painting that was made by an artist for their loved one, and never seen by anybody else? Why do we only value the opinions and actions of others, when we can be happy with our own work?
Success is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t everything.