Art, Money, Fear and Passion

What is it about attaching money to art that tends to drain the lifeblood from it?

I think it’s the same thing that poisons so much of the human condition:


Fear blunts creativity. It silences intuition. And very few people are strong enough to overcome it.

Art done for money is fraught with compromise.

There are patrons to please and shareholders to appease, not to mention the layers of people who want to put their “two cents” in, often in the mistaken belief that their job is to second-guess the public.

It’s easy to find fault with something you’re paying for, especially if an idea is new or different.

But art done for art’s sake is different.

It isn’t created for committees. It’s bold and truthful and unapologetic. Love it or hate it, it doesn’t give a damn. It simply is.

It’s impossible to make safe art, but a lot of people try.

It’s called advertising.

For years I’ve watched talented writers, illustrators, actors, musicians, photographers and directors pour their creativity into projects, only to have it chipped away till there’s nothing left.

It’s strangled at birth by an agency employee fearful of his client’s reaction.

(“I like it, but Steve hates ads with animals in them.”)

Or it’s euthanized in a boardroom by a client who’s afraid of Head Office.

(“I love it, but we can’t make fun of the Swiss.”)

Or failing that, it’s gunned down at close range by focus group.

(“I’d buy it, but I don’t think other cereal eaters would.”)

And yet despite this, there is a pattern. Again and again at award shows worldwide, the same ads keep winning Gold.

Ads that have a distinctive opinion. Ads that are funny or heartwrenching or shocking.  Ads that demand your attention.

Just like art.

And in almost every case, the story behind how these ads got made is the same.

“We didn’t have time to test it, so the client just approved the script and we ran with it.”

“There wasn’t any money in the budget, so we shot it the way it was presented, and everyone worked for free.”

“It was a tiny project nobody cared about, so there was no one around to second-guess it.”

Ads like these don’t pay much, if anything. But people do them for something more valuable than money: they do them because it lets them share their art.

The results are often spectacular. So why is it so hard to sell great work?

Because art is scary.

Art will be noticed, and therefore judged.

No one judges wallpaper. It’s not interesting enough to have an opinion about.

Of course, it’s easy to like art after the fact.

Once it’s produced and has already gained acceptance, people are eager to jump on board. That’s why advertisers pay handsomely for hit songs.

When Royal Caribbean used “Lust For Life” to sell family cruises, they had to edit out references to sex and drugs.

It would’ve been easier to pay a music house to write a G-rated jingle. But a song generated for money wouldn’t have had the same authenticity and raw energy.

I used to think artists who licenced their work had “sold out,” but I’ve changed my mind. Whether it’s a Warhol t-shirt or a Weezer song in a KFC commercial, it’s still art because it wasn’t created by compromise.

Bands don’t write sit around thinking, “How can I make a Ford truck sound sexy?”

Banksy didn’t ask a dozen people if he should paint the West Bank wall. He just painted it.

That’s why I love improv. Some of the funniest, coolest, most interesting people perform for absolutely no money.

They do it because they have to. Because they love the connection with their team and the live audience, and because they have something they want to share.

It takes guts to onstage with nothing prepared. It takes guts to paint the first brushstroke, or type the first word on a blank sheet of paper.

Clients aren’t the only ones scared of being judged. So are artists. But they share their gift because they’re compelled to.

Here’s to everyone who fights the fear, follows their passion, and makes art, whatever the medium.


4 thoughts on “Art, Money, Fear and Passion

  1. Money and Art should be two separate things; that is so true. Is seems so contradictory that some great artists charge so much for their art.

    • It’s tough. I have artist, actor, writer, and musician friends who struggle with doing work they love and getting paid peanuts, or doing work that pays well but isn’t creatively satisfying.

      If you’re one of the lucky ones who becomes successful doing what you truly love, then you can charge whatever you like because people want your uniqueness.

  2. It’s not easy to keep creating when you’re not sure anyone will even like the work. I don’t think the money matters to me – it can’t have or I wouldn’t have been doing all the things I do, for as long as I have :)) But it does matter to me that people like my work. Actually, I don’t need them to like it. I value being able to do it and then, if I get a response, of a thumbs-up or down, that’s the best thing. The shared appreciation for that which was created without compromise is what I need more than money – I guess the feedback and shared community is the fuel that keeps me going!

    • Same here, Lisa. My blog feedback means more to me than all any advertising award I’ve ever won.

      I’m thankful for the internet opening up so many opportunities to write, be read, and read others’ writing – something that was the sole domain of publishing houses just a decade or so ago.

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