Money, Art, Fear and Passion

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

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


Fear blunts creativity. It silences intuition. And it takes a great deal of courage to overcome.

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 “what the public will accept.”

It’s easy to find so-called faults with something, especially if it’s new or different. Whether the art is a painting, a play, a movie, a book, or a building, money brings out what Stephen Pressfield calls “the lizard brain.”

The Fear Monster.

And fear leads to making safe choices. Ideas that are already tried, tested – and done a million times.

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, art done for art’s sake doesn’t give a damn. It’s content simply to be.

Making safe art is impossible, but a lot of people still try.

For years I’ve watched writers, art directors, illustrators, actors, musicians, photographers and directors pour their creativity into advertising. Too often – probably 95 percent of the time – that creative spirit is squelched.

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 one angry customer in Regina.

(“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.”)

Little by little, they chip away at what made the idea great. Until all that’s left is pablum.

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

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

Just like art.

And in almost every case, the way 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 gained recognition and 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 cruises, they had to edit the references to sex and drugs. It would’ve been easier and cheaper just to pay someone to write a G-rated jingle. But it wouldn’t have had the same energy and authenticity.

I used to think artists who licenced their work had “sold out,” but I’ve since changed my mind. Whether it’s a David Shrigley 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?” Picasso didn’t ask a dozen people if they liked Weeping Woman before he painted it. He just painted it.

The same is true of everyone who’s ever put up a fringe play, filmed their own web series, put out their own music CDs, or dozens of other passion projects.

It’s one of the reason I love improv. Some of the funniest, coolest, most interesting people perform for zero dollars.

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

It takes guts to go 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.

I’d love it if everyone got paid for their art, but I’m grateful for those who do it anyway.

For everyone who fights the fear, follows their passion, and makes art, bravo. And thank you.


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