The term Commercial Instincts has come up quite a bit lately. Across 2 or 3 days the term popped up 7 or 8 times. Almost as often as the word “donut'” and the sentence “I’m so glad the elections are OVER.”
I had a boss once, she was a writer when she wasn’t running marketing departments (and now is a very successful writer. good for her.) Anyway I was whining about this or that rejection. Complaining that I couldn’t find a place where my work fit in. That maybe my work just plain sucked. You know. All the fun stuff that those of us with artistic personalities are consumed with. The good part is my boss was doing the same thing. She had just had a novel rejected and we were having a long complaint-fest.
She asked me, “What artists do you admire because of the work they do, not whether or not they have had success.”
Well, as odd as it sounds, I had never been asked that question directly. There were lots of writers and artists I admired. But I had never thought about who I admired in a bigger sense. It’s easy to think that whatever the project you are working on only has value when it is OVER. And at that end point, (when a film is released, a book comes out ETC) if the money piles up, that has made the effort worthwhile. So the ‘end’ isn’t the finishing of a piece of work you like, it’s the success, or lack of success when it’s over.
Many of the artists I most admired, were not recognized by the general public in any way. Most of my favorite writers, at the time, were working day jobs.
There were dozens of exceptions of course. I love Ronald Searle’s work. And while his name may not be known in every house, he has had a fabulously productive and successful career. (and I still consider him the single best illustrator/cartoonist. He has 30 year old work that is still fresh and amazing. Same with Saul Steinberg). It’s easy to make a list of the people who are successful who have motivated us. But for me personally, I seemed to like a lot of people whose work was always outside mainstream success. Kenneth Patchen is still one of my favorite poets/artists. And he hardly gets respect in the academic world. One of my favorite films is Deadman by Jim Jarmusch. It didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Not like The Transformers did…(chirp, chirp)
I went down a long list of favorites. Favorite comics, illustrators, filmmakers, painters, poets, writers, musicians. And overwhelmingly the people I most loved, were mostly unsuccessful if you looked at success as money made and fame achieved. (Which isn’t a bad way to describe success. As the quote says – I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.)
Admittedly, you can’t say that monetary success in the arts defines the ‘best’ art. The best work may not be the most widely received. It is after all, as my wife reminds me, completely subjective.There is never a single ‘right’ answer when creating a story, a painting, a film. There are multiple right answers. And only the human creating a particular item can decide which way to grow an idea. That set of decisions is what gives an artist their unique voice. Some make decisions that communicate more easily with a wider group of people. Some make decision that keep their work isolated from the casual consumer. And more importantly, some artists make choices that broaden their work.
But I started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, my likes/dislikes and interests would mean I simply don’t have a commercial instinct. Because much of the material I love isn’t embraced by a wide audience maybe that means that my vision, my interests will not translate into artistic success.
That conversation happened over 10 years ago. I’ve kept telling stories using pictures. Sometimes they are more successful than others. Sometimes I get frustrated by an editor, a producer ETC who wants that final change to an idea that makes it seem all too uninteresting to me. But I’ve learned just as often that a good set of notes or thoughtful feedback from people who share some of my vision is helpful in allowing me to communicate more clearly to an audience.
As the years have passed the question seems less relevant to me. Less interesting. Because, as I have mentioned here before, you do this kind of work mainly because you can’t avoid doing it. You can’t do anything else. It’s a sickness with no cure other than to do the work. Work that is good, bad, ugly, unsuccessful, stupid, cool, failing or selling like iPads.
The work is the beginning, middle, end.
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