What is art?
People have been trying to answer that question for centuries, but we still don’t have a definitive answer. We know art is borne of creativity. It’s meant to impact whoever is experiencing it. And it comes from a place within the artist that we don’t truly understand.
Art remains a mystery, both in its definition and its origin. Why is art a cornerstone of every culture on Earth? Why do some people flock to artistry while others prefer to sit in the audience? Why do people need art, whether it’s music, films, paintings, sculptures, dance, or literature?
The Commercialization of Art
We all know what commercialism is. It’s the intent to make money, preferably, lots of it. Traditionally, art was safe from commercialism. Big business just wasn’t interested, and artists could freely create. The market was open and it decided who succeeded and who didn’t. Fine art rose to the top.
But once the money makers filled up all the shelves in the grocery markets and lined all the racks in the department stores, they turned to art, and they commercialized it.
Screenplays were streamlined into formulas. Big publishing houses tried to figure out which books would turn the fastest and easiest profits. Clear Channel bought up all the radio stations and started using bottom lines and internal agendas to decide which songs the public would listen to.
And artists took jobs at advertising agencies. Filmmakers created 30-second mini-movies called commercials. Songwriters penned jingles. Writers crafted slogans. And illustrators developed logos.
In a world driven by commerce, art became a commodity. Some artists cried out in protest, claiming that commercialized art was dumbing down the masses. The purpose of commercial art is not to get people to think or feel. It doesn’t care if it changes the world or makes a profound statement about humanity or nature. All it wants to do is get people to buy.
Fine Art vs. Commercial Art
Everything we humans create has some basic purpose. Commercial art exists to make money. Its motivation is revenue. Fine art exists because people need to articulate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Its motivation is expression.
While the definitions of commercial and fine art are pretty clear, the lines between them are actually so blurry, it can be difficult to tell the difference. If you and I worked our way through the Times bestseller list in an attempt to classify each book as either commercial or artistic, I bet we’d disagree a few times.
Can we define that gray area that connects yet separates fine and commercial art? Can we then apply it to our own creative writing?
Art and Commerce in Creative Writing
Sometimes I talk to writers who have wild ideas about the stories they want to tell. Their imaginations are bustling with characters, scenes, and themes that are inspired, unique, and original. But they’ll say, “Nah, it’ll never sell.” On the other hand, I regularly get emails from aspiring writers who tell me, “I think my story idea will be a bestseller.”
Whether or not the book will sell appears to be a more significant consideration than whether it’s a good story — or whether it’s any good as a piece of art.
Is One Better Than The Other?
You have to answer that question for yourself. Personally, I love all types of art. I think sometimes the big money makers were genuinely inspired by something other than money. And occasionally, the art that was supposed to make a mint barely turns a dime. The world keeps on spinning.
When Michael Jackson was making Thriller, his goal was to create the biggest selling album of all time. I don’t think anybody’s questioning the artistic integrity of Thriller or Michael Jackson, and he completely surpassed his own ambitions with that record.
On the other hand, J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when she was at rock bottom. She had nothing left to lose, so she decided to do what she wanted to do and be happy with her art. Nobody could have guessed that Harry Potter would have found success beyond the sub-genre, children’s fantasy. But it became a worldwide phenomenon.
What Drives Your Writing: Art or Commerce?
Artists like Michael Jackson and J.K. Rowling are highly visible. We all know their stories, their motivations, and how they found success. But there are millions more artists just like them who haven’t gained international fame. Some are vying for commercial success; they want to be stars. Others want to express their artistic visions; they want to share some piece of themselves with the world. All over the planet, they are making their art.
I wonder how many artists have contemplated their motivations. I wonder if you have. Do you give much thought to whether your work will make you rich someday? Do you continue to create because you simply have to? Or are you somewhere in the middle, hoping to be able to find a way for your creative writing to pay the bills while sticking to your vision?
I don’t particularly care whether a piece of art was motivated by love or money. If Michael Jackson’s playing, you’ll find me on the dance floor. And I’ve read every single Harry Potter book. My music, book, and film collections are a healthy mix of big hits and underground or counterculture favorites. When I’m in the audience, it’s not about what motivated the artist. It’s about how the art affects me.
But when I’m sitting at my desk writing a poem or drafting a short story, I care very much about the artist’s motivation.
So, what’s yours?