Ever since I wrote my post on the economics of games, I’ve been thinking about the issues I raised. (Yes, apparently my writing is so good that it’s even thought-provoking for me.) In particular, I was thinking about my own approach to game design, which led me into thinking more about the economics of art, which led me back to the eternal question: “What is art?”
I don’t plan on answering that question. Or, at least, I don’t intend on offering an answer for the ages. However, it occurred to me that there’s a potentially helpful insight to be gained by considering this question from a certain perspective. It still won’t answer the question “What is art?”, but maybe it’ll help the artists out there who are trying to figure out how to make a living without “selling out”.
Let’s start there. What’s “selling out”, and why are artists so terrified of it?
I think the answer can be found in the idea of “artistic vision.” As an artist, there’s something that I’m trying to bring into existence that is, first of all, a form of self-expression. I’m trying to evoke some aspect of myself into the world. That slice of “myself” could be my internal emotional life, or it could be an insight I’ve had into the way the world works, or whatever. The point is that it is a part of me that I’m trying to externalize.
So, if I’m not evoking my own “artistic vision” and I’m instead implementing someone else’s vision, then I’m not being true to my art. I’ve sold out.
Does that sound right, fellow artists? It’s especially bad when money gets involved, because now you’ve prostituted your art for money. Of course, money lets you eat, which we all want. So how does that work?
But let me rephrase that mess more positively. You’re an expert, working with a client to create something for that client to use. You are in constant dialogue with the client, seeking to understand that client’s needs and ensuring that the item being created meets those needs.
Broadly, this is product development. But, really, what I’ve described is all the consultative professions: architects, industrial designers, software developers, marketers, and more. The same skills are in play; the only difference is the client.
In product development, the goal is to meet the needs of the client. In “art”, the goal is to meet the needs of the artist.
When I say it that way, it could be tempting to swing the pendulum in the other direction and accuse the artist of being selfish. But, really, I think that both approaches are valid. The world needs expert servants who can aid people with brilliant ideas and bring them into existence in order to serve the needs of the world. At the same time, the world also needs prophetic visionaries who evoke their insights in order to cause people to consider their souls.
It could even be the same person.
Now, the economics are going to be completely different for these two approaches. Given that money is the abstraction that we use to coordinate human effort, it’s not surprising that product development can easily earn money. Art is more…complicated. After all, the utility of a product can be measured in various ways: time saved, money saved, effort multiplied. The value of art is harder to define. After all, what makes your insight so valuable? It’s trickier to assert, which makes it harder to justify receiving money for it.
Which brings us back to the traditional way this is done: an artist “sells out” by using his skills to essentially create product for others, in order to earn the resources to express his own insights. This is true in our modern capitalist system, but it’s equally true in a patronage system like Renaissance Italy.
And, maybe, this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it serves as a natural filtering process. It requires the artist to ask, “How valuable is this insight to me?” Enough that she’s willing to work hard elsewhere to birth its evocation? If not, then maybe it wasn’t worth bringing into the world in the first place.
(Now, this certainly doesn’t follow in its entirety. But maybe there’s something in here for all the artists out there–and the one writing–to consider.)
Anyways, this was an attempt to process these ideas out loud, so I don’t have a great summation. But, if nothing else, consider that maybe “selling out” isn’t always an act of treason to your art; maybe it’s an act of service to your fellow human.