Thursday, November 30, 2017

Going For The Bucks

     “Oy! Every prophecy I fulfilled! And now He tells me consistent I am not! This is justice?”
     “No. It is Art.”

     [Robert A. Heinlein, Job: A Comedy of Justice]

     I’d intended to write about the plague of sexual-harassment accusations we’re experiencing, about the irrational responses those accusations have elicited from the political class and the partisan press, and the range of attitudes private citizens have adopted to them. Then I regained command of my senses, realized that anyone could write that piece, and decided to address something more pleasant: the clash between the artistic impulse and more commonplace human desires.

     Relax, Gentle Reader. This won’t be one of my more demanding screeds. Though if you’re near to my age, it might evoke a few memories. I can’t guarantee that they’ll all be pleasant.


     The “starving artist” is a stock figure in cultural discourse. He might be a novelist, playwright, or poet. He might paint, or compose music. He might sculpt. One way or another, he strives to create things broadly recognized as art (whatever that is) and suffers materially for it.

     Why the suffering? What makes that necessary? Well, nothing, really. He could have been a plumber. He could have sold linoleum. He could have written Harlequins, a category which (I’m told) will keep a writer in “well upholstered poverty” if he can stand to live with himself. But he didn’t elect to do any of that. He put devotion to his art (whatever that is) above all the rest of human action.

     That makes the starving artist’s Muse sound like a far crueler taskmaster than any corporate supervisor. The former haunts one’s dreams but promises nothing. The latter usually lets one leave the office at 5:30 or 6:00 and pays a decent wage.

     In the usual case, the starving artist doesn’t produce much. Perhaps his vision is fitful, unpredictable and un-schedulable. Perhaps each gem from his pen, palate, or chisel takes too much out of him to rush from one to the next. Or perhaps he’s just too starved. His life output tends to be lower than that of his competitor who elects to “go for the bucks” – i.e., who strives to cultivate popularity and a following that will pay for his work.

     A fair number of starving artists quit young and revert to fixing pipes or selling linoleum. But some go through a difficult mental and emotional transition. It’s not difficult just for them.


     I’m not privy to the financial records of other artists. (I can barely keep my own straight.) However, certain careers in the arts have experienced transitions that are broadly suggestive about inflection points in the life trajectory of the starving artist.

     When the “folk music revival” of the Sixties began to flag, late in that decade, Bob Dylan and others prominent in that scene decided to transition toward the more popular electrified format. Many of their followers were horrified. They described the change with terms such as “sacrilege.” And in some cases, the musicians who’d tried it reaped nothing by it, or fell by the wayside. But not all. Another group got increased air time on commercial radio stations, expanded its following, and prospered materially. Dylan was nearly booed off stage when he first appeared with an electric band, but he persisted, to his ultimate advantage.

     A curious sort of inverse-transition occurred when the Grateful Dead, originally beloved of a relatively compact group of fans, produced Workingman’s Dead. This iconic San Francisco rock group chose to embrace a softer, more commercially acceptable mode, and sold big for the first time in its existence. The group’s followup albums, from American Beauty onward, maintained the new approach...and the sales.

     Writers have done much the same. The one who comes to mind at once is Robert Silverberg. His early novels, such as Thorns and A Time of Changes, were sensitive emotional explorations set in science-fictional contexts. He was critically applauded for such books. Yet in the Eighties he transitioned almost completely to the commercially more popular field of fantasy fiction, starting with his novel Lord Valentine’s Castle. Those fantasies displeased many of his previous fans, but they sold far better than his earlier work.

     In each such case, there were fans who would have preferred that the starving artist continue to starve. The artist in question felt differently.


     Sometimes it’s as much about a desire for broader appeal as about money. That could easily have been the key to any of the transitions described above, or all of them. What’s common among them is the move from a less widely received mode to a more widely received one. After the move, the artist was both more popular and better off materially.

     There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also nothing wrong with “sticking to my guns” and “doing it my way.” The artist’s priorities are his alone. So are the consequences thereof.

     When I first decided to try fiction – as an adult, that is; I’d tried my hand at it at a much younger and more callow stage, got nowhere, and set it aside in favor of sweet-talking computers – I knew from the first that conventional publishers were unlikely to approve what I wanted to write. My first agent, who actually liked my stuff, nevertheless exhorted me repeatedly to “write a nice romance, Fran.” Though I had no objections to that genre, I didn’t think romance was “in my wheelhouse,” and kept on with the Christian-flavored / semi-mystical / half-fantastic stuff I’d been producing.

     (Yes, I did eventually write a romance. But that’s yesterday’s news, and anyway, it’s at least as weird as anything else I’ve written.)

     Eventually my novels began to sell, but it took both time and the willingness to admit that the reader who prefers my sort of crap will not be a person of common tastes. He’ll be an exception looking for exceptions to the fictional norm. He’ll never be numerous. And I decided that that’s quite all right...because I don’t depend on the revenue from my fiction to keep food on the table.

     If it were the other way around – if the income from my novels were all I had to keep body and soul together – I’d write the most commonplace, unoriginal, formulaic garbage you can imagine. I’d sell millions of books, because I know what the great majority of fiction readers actually want, and I could produce it just as shamelessly and copiously as anyone who’s ever prostituted himself. And I’d bloody well do it with my head held high. My priorities put survival and a good life for my family above all else.

     No artist can make such decisions for anyone else. Neither is it cricket to slam an artist who makes such a decision for “betraying his art” (whatever that is).


     I’m not perfectly sure why this subject was at the top of my stack this morning. There it was, and I was tired of current events opinion mongering, so I decided to make use of it. Still, it’s heartfelt, and as I cast my eyes over it one last time, I find myself thinking that there have been artists of all sorts who “maintained their vision” despite initial unpopularity, were eventually “discovered,” and ultimately became world-famous.

     Of course, most of them were dead of starvation by then, but those are the breaks. Who said you could “follow your Muse” without making a sacrifice or two? The garrets of Paris will always call out to starving artists. Somehow I doubt they’ll go unoccupied.

3 comments:

Jim Rock said...

My father was a Mason(as in mortar and trowel mason), now retired. His love was stone. Here in the Missouri Ozarks, stone masonry is an art.
I am a Mason. Building something out of actual rocks is a thing to be proud of.
For the last decade or maybe a few years more, the popular material for veneering fireplaces or even entire houses has been what is called "cultured stone".
Cast in moulds, different shapes, colors. In different styles. Diverse and numerous manufacturers. Thing is, no matter by whom, or from where, in any production run, there are rarely more than eight or ten different shapes and sizes. Same same.
No art. Dad wouldn't have it.
I do alot of it.
For the money.
Something is lost.
More's the pity.

Linda Fox said...

I don't look down on any poor artist who gets tired of doing without. However, I'm not the tortured soul sort. I just like telling stories and shooting my mouth off.

s j said...

I work in wood. People have suggested I sell my stuff, but that never appealed to me. As it is, I can "pursue my vision" and make one-of-a-kind items, taking as long as it needs. Fortunately, I have a day job, so I don't have to worry about making a living off my avocation. If I did, I would make whatever junk would sell in the craft fairs.