In my early twenties, an instructor at the Art Institute in Chicago told me that all art is commercial. I didn’t want to believe it, because I was a young idealist with no idea of what “art” or “commercial” really meant. I was all about meaning and unbridled creativity and other forms of self-importance.
I’m not saying that art isn’t creative and doesn’t have meaning, but creating art for the sake of art doesn’t remove from it its economic connotations. Even if you don’t sell your art, you’re still trading in ideology or awareness; the artistic career is one of constant exchange, even if it’s just time for attention, unless you’re doing some weird solipsistic thing where you never show your work to anyone.
The Life Artistic
One of the first things you learn as an independent creative professional is that you have absolute freedom to produce what you will. The second thing you learn is that if you don’t consider the economic potential of a project, you’re investing a lot of time into something that might not earn you any money.
Time is the resource we need to be most precious with, because whatever you do, you only get so much of it.
I like to say that there’s no failure in pursuing an artistic career, only “made it,” “on your way,” and “quit.” Most of us are On Our Way to Made It, and until we get there, our artistic choices are guided by economic reality. What will editors accept? What will audience buy, read, and listen to? What is the most efficient use of my time, the most effective way to spread my personal brand?
For writers such as myself, we need to understand that many of our choices – covers and titles in particular – are driven by audience purchasing habits. When you write in a genre, your book has to look like it “fits” alongside the others in the marketplace, while also standing out enough to be noticed.
And when you’re building a readership, you grow to understand that every work you release shapes reader expectation. The key to turning readers into fans – and keeping them there – is meeting those expectations.
When you’ve made it, when you’re famous, you can write whatever however and be sure that you’ll recoup your time investment in sales. But few of us are there yet.
Untethering art from the free market
You may notice that the above doesn’t leave room for large-scale innovation. And not just in literature, not just in art. The same theories apply to scientific advancement and product design. Sure, tweaks can be made here or there, but big scary steps are discouraged by risk-adverse editors, supervisors, and readers really do want “the same thing, only different.”
So how do we escape the tyranny of market-driven incremental innovation? How do we free ourselves to take entrepreneurial risks?
By cutting the cord tethering creativity to survival.
In a capitalistic society we mandate that survival must be justified. To be worthy, you must work. You must contribute in a practical manner. There is a basic bar that must be surpassed in order to earn basic rights to food, shelter, clothing.
And for artists and other creative types, that means that every innovation is a calculated risk. “Can I afford to fail? Will I be able to pay my rent if nobody buys this story?” The stakes for failure can be high, and yet humanity needs people who create culture.
Patronage is a way around those economic uncertainties. In the past, it was only the wealthiest who could afford to sponsor art, and so what was created was heavily influenced by those interests. Renaissance artists like Michaelangelo and Da Vinci didn’t create religious themed art because they were so devout; the Church simply had the deepest pockets. Again, art was driven by commercial concerns. “Who can patronize me?”
The internet and crowd-sourcing have given birth to Patreon, a site where multiple patrons can combine their donations to provide greater sums to support the artists they enjoy. While artists and other creators still have a vested interest in keeping their patrons engaged and involved, they now have a greater freedom to experiment.
If your patrons have pledged $500 to you per sketch, you know that every sketch you make will earn you that $500. If you want to keep your patrons and grow your network, you have an incentive to produce quality work, but you’re more free to expand your brand.
A Self-Serving Case Study
I’m a novelist, and I have a Patron that currently earns me in the range of $20-$25 per “thing” I create. These “things” aren’t my books… they’re little fun side projects that I’ve been dying to do. Audioplays. Short stories. Games. Whatever.
If I want to work on these things, I have to spend time not working on my next novel… and the novels are what earn me my living. I might be able to sell the shorts, but it’s hard to commodify the other weird side-projects, so chances are they wouldn’t be earning me any money. From an economic perspective, they fail the cost-benefit analysis.
Does this sound mercenary? It is. But that’s the realities of being any kind of entrepreneur, not just a creative one – our margins of error are slim, and the penalty for failure is economic ruin. All it takes is a run of bad months with abysmal sales, and I’m on the streets with no savings.
Now, with a Patreon, I find it far easier to justify these side excursions. The people who are supporting me are taking from me the risks of failure, on faith that I will create good art. It’s still commercial – I still have to create interesting and entertaining stories or I’ll lose my patrons – but I have a lot more breathing room.