The Delusional Freedom of an Artist

The only limits artists have is their imagination (right?)

Let’s face it, part of the fun of being an artist/writer/musician is being able to do whatever the hell you want.  After all, if we wanted people telling us what to do, we would have become an accountant or a manager at Taco Bell.

But what if this freedom as an artist really nothing more than an illusion?

I mean of course we have the freedom to paint, write, or record whatever we want; but if our art is too personal, then it becomes meaningless to anyone other than ourself.  The piece is no longer an expression of artistic freedom, but simply an exercise in self-gratification.

But isn’t art all about freedom?

In our society, we seem to have this image of the artist as some counter-cultural rebel.  The artist is seen as this person who lives outside of society and is therefore not subject to it’s restrictive rules.  As artists we are expected to stretch the boundaries, push the envelope, and break the rules.  

The obverse of this freedom is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. ~Annie Dillard

 It is our job to undermine the establishment and “stick it to the man”.  But then again if we’re sticking it to the man. . . who exactly is going to be buying our art?

The irony here, of course, is that it’s “the man” who has usually got the money to buy your art.

So perhaps we need to revise the above statement and say that artists have the freedom to do whatever they want as long as they aren’t expecting to get paid for it.

It’s the mainstream that supports the fringe

If you think about it, it is the millions of  “normal people” who make Lady Gaga a star. In order to be commercially successful (i.e. sell your stuff for actual money) you need to appeal, at least to some degree, to the mainstream.  Not only that, but once we create a public image for ourselves as an artist, we need to maintain that image or risk alienating our audience.

We see this all the time with musicians and authors with the so-called sophomore slump.  Either their newest release is too much like their previous work and it’s seen as the same-old-same-old, or they end up alienating their fans by putting out something that is completely different from what their fans expect. 

An audience is never wrong.  An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in dark—that is critical genius. ~Billy Wilder

As cultural consumers, we naturally crave the comfort and familiarity of our favorite artists/authors/musicians and we have this tendency to resist when they attempt to grow and evolve as artists.  Some of you might recall that Bob Dylan got booed off stage the first time he showed up with electric guitars in his band.  In other words, as an audience we want the comfort of getting more of the same, while as artists, we are constantly trying to reinvent ourselves and our work.

It’s of course a no-win situation because if we appear to be catering our work to our audience, we are seen as “selling out”; but if we dare to follow our work where our inspiration takes us, we risk losing our audience completely.  This has happened countless times with artists, authors, and musicians who have strayed too far from their chosen genre and watched as their sales dropped dramatically.

So where do we draw the line?

How do we know when we have crossed that fine line between following where our inspiration leads, and going to that place where no one else cares about? Where exactly do we draw that line between following our personal path and creating what others actually want to read, hear, and see?  When does our Art stop being an act of creation and turn more into an act of production?

If you want to make money writing, write for those people who move their lips when they read ~Don Marquis

In other words, do we really want to do what it takes to become a commercially successful artist?

What if we don’t want to become the next James Patterson, Nora Roberts, or Thomas Kinkade?  What if we don’t want to follow a successful “paint-by-numbers” formula, even if it could potentially mean wealth and fame for us as an artist?

Who exactly are we creating our art for?

Sooner or later, we have to ask ourselves who we are creating our art for?  Are we creating our work in order to sell it, or are we using our art as a tool to develop and evolve as an artist? Is it even possible to do both at the same time?

In the end, what good is perfecting our craft if no one else cares about it?

How many loaves of bread can we buy with our “self-respect” as an artist?

Is there a difference between giving your audience what they want and “selling out”

Finally, is “selling out” better than not selling anything at all?

Tell us what you think . . .


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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book “Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work” is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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