The Artist’s Paradox

Image by Just some dust Used under a Creative Commons license.

Image by Just some dust
Used under a Creative Commons license.

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 isĀ  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.

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Banana Republic: A Look Back

Banana Republic cover, Winter 1984.

Banana Republic cover, Winter 1984.

You may know Banana Republic as a typical clothing store not unlike the other brand names in their corporate parent’s portfolio, which includes the Gap and Old Navy. Banana Republic is the upscale version; currently they feature a retro-styled line inspired by AMC’s Mad Men show. But once there was a time when Banana Republic was known as an inexpensive line of funky and unique clothing inspired by military surplus and flea market finds, but better known for its beautiful and inspiring catalog. If you’re under 40, you’ve probably never seen one of these catalogs and probably never knew they existed; it’s been 30 years since The Gap acquired Banana Republic from its bohemian founders and systematically destroyed everything cool about the chain. Let me tell you what you missed. It’s pretty cool, and an example of what artists with a vision can come up with and how easily corporate drones can ruin it.

In 1978, the husband-and-wife team of Mel & Patricia Ziegler found themselves in the clothing business. Having met when both worked at the San Francisco Chronicle (he as a photojournalist, she an illustrator), the couple enjoyed travel, and they also enjoyed buying interesting clothing in little shops around the world. Eventually they began buying these items in bulk and selling them in the Mill Valley area of northern California. Before long, they had opened a store, and not long after that they began publishing their catalog.

Some of Banana Republic's women's fashions in the '80s.

Some of Banana Republic’s women’s fashions in the ’80s.

The Banana Republic catalog was unlike any catalog you’ve ever seen. First, it had no photos of the clothes, no models posing attractively; instead, it featured beautiful illustrations of the clothing, printed in soft duotone, alongside engaging journalistic stories of exotic locations, adventure and the romance of travel.

By 1983, Banana Republic had five stores in California, a handful in other locations, and was bringing in $10 million a year from ghurka shorts, madras shirts, Israeli paratrooper bag, photojournalist’s vests and a variety of khaki trousers. They attracted the attention of The Gap, and for a while, the Zieglers stayed on with the company to oversee the operation. Before too long, the new owners decided they could make more money by rebranding the chain as an upscale line, ditching the funky military clothing and safari-themed decor, killing the catalog, and just generally turning a unique enterprise into just another clothing store.

The Banana Republic Bush Vest was a staple of the company for several years.

The Banana Republic Bush Vest was a staple of the company for several years.

I was going to scan some sample pages from the small collection of old Banana Republic catalogs that we kept because they are just too dang cool to throw out, but then I discovered that somebody else has already done a far better job of it. Scott C. Adams, an animation background painter from Oakland, California, has created a wonderful archive of scans of the catalogs and written several articles about the company. I highly recommend that you pop by and see what you missed out on.

The Abandoned Republic site includes articles by Banana Republic staff artist Kevin Sarkki and production artist Mike Madrid, who provide a look into the daily operations of Banana Republic under the Zieglers. Madrid went on to a long career as an art director at Gap, but Sarkki left after less than four years with the company, chafing under the change of management as the corporation took over the operation. “The Gap stores demanded an upscale, urban look and feel-slicker and slicker-until the original concept of anti-fashion was superseded by fashion,” Sarkki explains.

For its time, Banana Republic was one of the most successful examples of niche marketing; one can only imagine how much more successful they would have been, had they been able to exploit the instant communication and global reach of the Internet.

If you’ve got a unique and wonderful idea for a business that makes the world a more fun place, that adds a bit of magic and color to your customers’ lives, please resist the temptation to sell it for a lot of money to the philistines who hate magic and despise wonder.

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