Like most artists I’ve met, I’m kind-of-secretly obsessed with how other artists make their lives work (financially, structurally). So I was pretty interested to read this article, The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur, from earlier this year in the Atlantic. Despite the scare-tactic headline (“What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?”), the author, William Deresiewicz, has an interesting thesis, that the position artists have in society has changed over time, and there’s a change underway again right now in how artists think of themselves. And that all of these self-identifications relate directly to how we get paid (or don’t).
He starts far in the past, when artists were considered craftspeople, and depended for their livelihood on powerful (and fickle) patrons. Shakespeare would have considered himself an artisan, just like the Brooklyn beef jerky-makers of today. Deresiewicz: “Creativity was prized, but credibility and value derived, above all, from tradition.” I’d add skill—how skillfully had the artists absorbed the lessons of his (and let’s face it, it was usually his) master. Making it work as an artist often meant someone allowing you to make it work.
Then, starting during the Enlightenment, you had the invention of the Capital-A-Artist. “The artisan became the genius: solitary, like a holy man; inspired, like a prophet; in touch with the unseen, his consciousness bulging into the future.” This is the Ivory Tower-dweller we know so well. I love Deresiewicz’s comparison of the Artist to priests, who were apart from the world, and also had to be supported in some way, by patrons (who were now relatively less powerful), family, or “tithes” in the form of loans and help from friends and family.
In this model, the Artist is at the top of the heap socially. He (let’s face it, it’s usually “he”) is the strange creature who dwells among us, touching all with his magic. But that dictates that the Artist should have no truck with commerce, and that he should be protected from all that by a coterie of professionals, agents, publishers, sycophants. This is what I came up thinking was the ideal, the goal. I think most of us still idealize this model, whether we intend to or not. It feels like it’s the freest way to be in the world. You get to do whatever you want artistically, and fans will rave.
But in fact, it’s disempowering, because it dictates that the only way to enter that privileged class (without starving) is to be “discovered” by someone else—a critic, a journalist, a gallerist.
That’s just not sustainable. No one wants literally to be a starving artist.
Deresiewicz posits that, while the myth of the Artist is intact, in this century, artists in pursuit of financial stability joined the establishment, getting MFAs, teaching, getting grants and jobs. But the model that comes from the age of the Artist—that (ironically, for a group of teachers) art can’t really be taught, and can’t be learned, and can’t come of hard work and training, but only of being touched by magical genius—that idea stuck around like a wad of chewed gum on your shoe.
Relative to other ways of making a living at art, it’s very comfortable to be a tenured art professor. It’s also not possible for the vast majority of artists to make their lives this way, since this very professional system, bolstered by the “I’m a special flower” attitude of our individualist society, churns out more and more people every year who want to follow their creativity and be artists. There are only so many spots available for professional teachers lucky enough to be able to ignore the role money plays in their creative output.
“Artisan, genius, professional: underlying all these models is the market. In blunter terms, they’re all about the way that you get paid.” So now, Deresiewicz suggests, we have entered a new age, that of the “creative entrepreneur.”
But all this is, is a quick, painful removal of the band-aid idea that there was a viable path, a real way to make it to some level of (lower-) middle-class security as an artist, short of being “discovered”…without taking control of distribution of our work, and finding an audience on our own.*
I’ve had book-publishing contracts with Fantagraphics, Random House, HarperCollins, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, First Second (Macmillan/Holzbrinck), Dargaud, and Penguin Random House. Which means that I’ve signed deals with at least 4 of the big 6 (now 5) New York publishers, and one of the biggest in French comics (and Fantagraphics. Love you guys.). And I am here to tell you, even if your advance will pay for the time you spend making the book (unlikely, especially in the beginning), signing those contracts will not lead to future financial stability without a lot more work on your part above and beyond delivering the manuscript.
Yes, we can work with publishers, and these publishers will distribute books to stores. But neither now, nor in the pre-internet age, was there ever any reason to think that your books would actually sell enough to earn royalties, unless you figured out how to put them in front of the right people (the right people being those who like your books). Back in the day (for me, the early 90s), this meant getting reviewed, sending postcards out to a mailing list, going to conventions, doing signings, and crossing your fingers. I had some success. Each time I had a book, it got me to the next book contract. But I would always get worn out by whatever outreach I tried before I got any traction. Nonetheless, I kept at this model, as I have never wanted to warehouse comics or spend my days packing and shipping, much less write ads and send out marketing materials.
Making it work as an artist: The reality
Many of us, I think, grew up imagining that we’d make it into the Artist or the artist-teacher category.
That we wouldn’t have to get dirty with selling. Selling (again, for many, not for all) was set up for us as the inverse, the enemy of what we do as creators. At best, a dirty job, at worst, ruination of our artistic integrity. And it could be. It can be. But it’s our job to make sure it’s not.
In my experience, people who call themselves “creative entrepreneur” don’t do so in the context of painting or writing novels, but in the context of designing websites and writing copy. That is, they do creative work, but of a kind that is directly beholden to a buyer/client. People doing more what we think of as “art”—painting, drawing, sculpture, fiction writing, and so on, may call themselves “artist-entrepreneurs” (the hyphen is an important detail) but more likely they try to avoid calling themselves anything, and just do what they have to do. Maybe that’s just being squeamish. But the point stands: now, artists are most often really on their own, and have both all the advantages of a potentially infinite audience, and all the disadvantages of having to figure out basically all alone how to sell work to enough of them. Committing to make it work as an artist can feel like venturing into the great wide yonder, but also staring down the maw of an unfamiliar beast.
For the last few months—though it has been simmering for probably ten years—I’ve been in the midst of a basic rethink, and reassessment of what the hell I’m doing out here. It is so hard to strip away that belief that I just make the art, and it’s not my job to sell it, beyond a few signings and interviews. Someone (my agent, my publisher, a bookstore, Oprah) should do it for me. It’s such an ingrained part of how I (and most of my colleagues) work that I didn’t even understand that it was the basis of my life plan, but I see now that I’ve been waiting. Doing the same thing over and over and waiting for the results to change.
Ironically, not taking on the job of getting my work to readers via marketing hasn’t made my life easier.
Instead, I’ve worked like a dog, year in and year out, cranking out books as fast as I can to try to make it to the next contract, where I’m handed just enough advance to grind through another year or three, barely getting by. If I leave this job to other people, it just does not happen. So I’m taking it back.
Yes, it’s daunting to create marketing plans and commit to blogging and newsletters and social media, to tracking audiences and selling. I feel like I’m growing a whole new brain to handle and coordinate these functions.
But my art is about communication.
I make things for people to read. If people don’t read them, my art has failed. I don’t need every person to read them, but a good bunch need to. So thinking about what I want to communicate to those readers, and who those readers might be, helps me to write. It can also help me do marketing. Because what “marketing” actually is, is figuring out how to communicate what you care about clearly to potential readers. If you don’t lie about who you are and what your work is when you sell, then there does not have to be a conflict.
But to get back to the scare-tactic headlines of that Atlantic article: yes, I agree that it’s a pain in the butt that we have to figure out how to run our artistic lives with an eye to selling. It takes time and attention away from making art, and it would be nice to just do whatever we want artistically and trust that the audience will arrive. But we’ve been doing that for a long time, anyway, and it didn’t work before the internet came along, so there’s no reason why it should start to work now. Just having a website doesn’t mean you’re making it work.
I don’t accept the notion that if I get out in front of developing an engaged audience and selling my work, and if I make a strategy for my creative life that acknowledges that one of my goals with my creative work is to pay for me and my family to be housed, clothed, and fed (and even occasionally entertained), then I have to change my basic affiliation. I now have to call myself a “creative entrepreneur”?
I’m a cartoonist and a writer. I do this work because I have something I want to communicate. Communicating that (and continuing to produce it) requires selling it, and so selling it is part of the job. Shakespeare had to sell theater tickets. DaVinci had to sell paintings. Dickens had to sell magazines. Being in the business of selling my work does not suddenly make me a “business person.” It makes me an artist.
I’m working on my plan to make it work as an artist.
Tell me: what’s yours?
I really do want to know.
Here’s a piece of my plan that you can be a part of, right now. I’ve got a newsletter, where I send out posts and like this about making creative work and building a sustainable, resilient life as a creative person.
If this interests you, please sign up here!
*As a side note—comics, which comes very recently out of (artisan) traditions of press journalism and commercial illustration, has experienced this entire cycle of self-identification in record time. So fast, in fact, that all four concepts still exist simultaneously. Cartoonists considered themselves “artisans” almost exclusively until the 1960s, maybe even the 70s.
As I understand it, Kirby did not think of himself as an artist. Milt Caniff angrily rejected the idea. By my lights, they certainly are, but they thought of themselves very differently, and that entailed a different overall outlook: the work was tightly integrated with making a living from it. Caniff is among the most successful cartoonists of all time, and that means he was a rich man. Kirby is a more complicated case, in that, as is well known, he did not hold the rights to the majority of his most successful creations (The X-Men, the Fantastic Four, among others) and thus was not paid his due (to say the least. Kids, beware when signing contracts). But he went into his work with the intent to make work that sold, that connected with the audience, and to keep being paid to do so for as long as possible. And that, he succeeded at.
There are still today many comics artists who want only to make an entertaining product on a regular basis and to be paid for it. That path is getting tougher too, but it still works for some.