Saturday, January 9, 2010

Knowing the Why: The Importance of Clear Purpose in the Face of Artistic Commercialization

Ok artists of the's what I want to know: What is your point? What is the specific unifying purpose behind your work? Why should anyone care about it? Whether you are a musician, an actor, a writer, a comedian, or a need to have something to say that extends beyond a self-indulgent look-at-me-and-how-good-I-am-at-what-I-do mentality if you expect to be truly relevant and/or find lasting success. And now, as the relationship between commerce and art evolves in the face of technology, there is an even greater need for us artists to develop a clear and specific sense of purpose that we can articulate with confidence. Without it we may lose the very creative flexibility and freedom we so value.

Perhaps the need for purpose sounds obvious to some. But, sometimes what is obvious in theory is absent or at least under-developed in practice. For example, a musician might say something like, "I want to write great songs that really move people to think." A writer might say "I want to write stories that give voice to voiceless characters." A comedian might say, "I want to be edgy and make people laugh at their own discomfort." These may sound like valid purposes...but they aren't specific enough. If a musician wishes to make people think...she must have a clear idea of what she wants them to think about. A writer who wants to give voice to the voiceless must have a sense not only of whose voice she seeks to embody but also of the value in doing so. And a comedian who wishes to make people laugh at their own discomfort should have a specific idea she wants to communicate through that discomfort.

Many artists resist the notion of specificity of purpose because they see it as an artistic failure in the face of commerce; and they believe they must be fully un-tethered in order to create successfully. However, this is a misunderstanding of specificity, which is not synonymous with limitation. Rather, specificity is the unification of our varying artistic interests into a definable singular vision. A great variety of things may inform, inspire, and impact our work. But we MUST be able to synthesize those influences into a succinct and focused vision. Without that specificity, our audience becomes difficult to define, our work becomes unruly and vague and our overall success cannot be calibrated.

Take for example, Lady Gaga. In her work, she primarily seems interested in challenging and examining notions of celebrity. What is it? Is it real or a created construct? How does it relate to artistic expression? How can it be useful? How is it destructive? What does it say about us as a culture? Now, there are many aspects to Lady Gaga’s music, performance, and overall presence. She has an outrageous sense of fashion. Her performance is marked by suicide and murder imagery. She has a strong interest in issues of gender and in gay iconography. But these different aspects act primarily as tools to comment on celebrity…which is the driving purpose behind her work.

Comic Sarah Silverman is another example. Silverman is obviously inspired by a wide variety of political, racial, religious, and gender-based issues. But her work is primarily interested in pointing out and challenging hypocrisy in prejudicial thinking. Her ironic endorsement of various forms of bigotry, which creates discomfort in her audience, forces that audience to consider their own prejudices. Race jokes become not about race…but about the ridiculousness of prejudice…and this is what she wants her audience laughing at and thinking about.

There is no doubt that modern commerce has impacted the life and work of the artist. But our answer to this as artists cannot be a stubborn refusal to acknowledge commerce. Instead, we must understand that a focused, specific artistic vision is NOT a failure of art in the face of commerce. Rather, it is the best way to keep control of our creativity and to build and maintain artistic relevance. For if we aren’t sure what it is we’re doing, and why we are doing...if we can’t articulate it clearly and confidently, someone in marketing will; and that is when art fails in the face of commerce.

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