That kerfuffle a few months ago about “how to manipulate and cajole employees that you consider to be irrational children” got me thinking about a theory I’ve been refining for a while now. I call it “The Artist’s Paradox” and it goes like this:
According to the non-creative, artists are magical people. They have been blessed with supernatural abilities; they simply wave their hands and art falls from their fingertips. Incredible concepts and beautiful visuals spring full-blown from their foreheads like Athena from the mind of Zeus. They can’t help but create wonderful things every waking hour, and it gives them incredible joy and satisfaction to do so.
Because this ability is a gift from the gods, the artist has a moral responsibility to share it freely with anyone who asks. Asking for money for “just a little sketch” or “just a quick logo design” is selling out, a betrayal of the gift; the artist must never personally profit from his talent lest he prove unworthy of it.
Here’s the parodox: the instant that art leaves the artist’s possession, it somehow transforms into a valuable commodity; it can be sold, published, exploited, recontextualized, licensed and distributed by any and all means from silk-screened t-shirts to the Times Square Jumbotron, and each time it’s used, somebody has to pay the owner for it. He owns it, and he gets to regulate it any way he sees fit. Each of those users, in turn, is allowed to profit from the use of that art, selling products or promoting events.
The only person who is never to profit from the art is the person who created it. Artists are supposed to work for the love of it, for the dedication to their craft, or from their desire to express themselves.
And now here’s the truth: Artists are not magical people.
Remember way back in second grade, when everybody drew pretty much equally as well? When everybody was about as equally talented at music or writing or any other creative endeavor? We all drew, and we all liked doing it. Over the next few years, a funny thing happened; we all started falling in love with different things. Some of us found that we liked reading. Others loved math. Some found that writing was more fun than reading. Some devoted themselves to sports. Others became fascinated with music or drama or comedy or dance. And some of us liked art. Almost as important, we discovered that other people liked our art and gave us attention. By the time we got to sixth grade, there were only a handful of us in each class; girls drawing unicorns and designing dresses in their notebooks, boys drawing superheroes or funny animals, a few of us even taking painting lessons and learning about fine art. By the time we got through high school, the self-proclaimed artists in our graduating class could all ride to the ceremony together in the same minivan. What happened?
We didn’t discover some inner magic; you stopped trying. While you were doing the things you loved, we did the thing we loved, and we got good at it. That’s all.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sure, we learned some shortcuts and trained our hands and brains to move in certain patterns, but we still have to work at it. Just as with playing a piano or pitching a baseball, there are skills we needed to have and knowledge we needed to acquire. Creating art is no more magical than creating a spreadsheet. It’s a set of skills and a way of looking at and thinking about problems, and it’s something we learned how to do over a long period of time. Just like you, we found something we were good at, worked hard at it, studied, trained, and got better at it.
And now we expect to get paid for it.
If it helps you to feel better about yourself to believe we do it by magic, that’s fine. As long as you’re willing to pay for the result.