T his morning in my writing time I again stumbled over a basic question for all creative people: How do I find the sweet spot between writing something I care about and writing something that sells?
What I care about – what any creative cares about – starts with what is honest, not what sells. Honesty is the active ingredient of art. Unfortunately, while we celebrate honesty in our art, it doesn’t necessarily translate to eyeballs and clicks. Often, honest expression is nothing more than therapy.
Of course, Pat Conroy made millions with his therapy. The best therapy is universal – good artists raise questions in a way that connect and resonate with us, so that their questions become our questions.
But the universal connection doesn’t always occur. Most of the time, it doesn’t. There’s a reason for that.
Art and design employ different world views.
Art is the spirit, raising questions, and design is the craft, providing answers. And, ultimately, it’s not art that sells, but design, because people buy answers, or at least the promise of answers. The most successful products sell these promises – even if in their pages is nothing more than a recycled set of clichés.
My former business partner Jason Moore says that it’s important to create what is interesting to the world, not just to us, and that there’s a name for people who create personal art: the starving artist. He says this in defense of paying attention to references and trends, and making your work relevant to the larger culture, and what he says is completely true. Your work has to be current.
Yet when we create art that speaks to the culture, the danger is that we don’t exercise our soul but just try to make a buck. Which brings us back to the question: is it possible to find the sweet spot between art and commerce?
At work my team recently produced a series concept that was really nothing more than a set of photos treated to look like Instagram pictures. This had been requested by the leadership team. We groaned, but the larger staff loved it. It was great to them, even as it felt like a cop out to my creative team. The “pure” artist rails against these moments, but perhaps this is just the way it is. Every creative has to on occasion make something that lacks personal connection.
Your Best Chance at Finding the Sweet Spot
There’s an apocryphal story about Clint Eastwood, who in the 1970s and 1980s made the transition from global movie star to critically acclaimed director.
The story goes that he had a deal with Warner Brothers where for years, he alternated commercial and personal projects. He would create a movie greenlighted primarily for the purpose of selling tickets, such as Heartbreak Ridge, and then create a deeply personal reflection like the The Bird, the biopic of saxophonist Charlie Parker, which exercised his love of jazz. (The real miracle is not any supposed alternating deal, but that projects like The Bird are ever made at all.) He created The Rookie, a buddy cop move with Charlie Sheen, followed by White Hunter Black Heart, an exploration of filmmaker John Huston’s art. True or not, Eastwood’s story holds promise for creatives as a model. Eventually, his dating dance of spirit and craft produced the sweet spot: the 1992 Best Picture Oscar for Unforgiven.
Creative people need to find an honesty in their work. Without it, they will never achieve greatness. Yet honesty, which comes from a personal place, doesn’t always have an audience, because it can unsettle the soul, and what the audience wants is solutions to their problems and the promise of ease and comfort.
The best chance artists have at marrying spirit and connection is through mastery of their craft. In fact I wrote a separate post about the relationship of spirit and craft, and the need for a mastery of craft in order for spirit to shine. That’s the best chance we have for finding the sweet spot.