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A Selfishness I Wish To Share

Why do I make? I write, and publish online. My creations are accessible freely and globally, with a potential reach unprecedented for most of human history. You are reading my words right now.

But, you excepted, my "impact" is not that great. Everyone has a megaphone the same as mine, and my creations are stubbornly eccentric (this does not make them original or worthwhile, but is true nonetheless). I eschew marketing - you (being here) probably know that, but it is worth emphasis.

The need for artists to be marketers is fairly new - for most of history, art did not need mass appeal to succeed, and indeed most of what has lasted is art that pleased the elite. Popular works spread organically and were relegated to the world of "folk", and generally not recorded as fastidiously. We are left only with "high art" impressions of it, a subset of its original creativity.

Past art depended on the sponsorship of elites - modern creators have more options for monetization. But as with most things, these reference points imply a continuum of possibilities, not discrete outcomes. To answer why I make, I will consider the range of reasons why people have made.

Art and Power

Traditionally, art has been supported by those with wealth and authority - the church was an early sponsor of much creativity, with nobility and independent wealth slowly supplanting it over past centuries. This aligns with a more general, gradual, decentralization of affluence - a process that is (hopefully) nowhere near complete, but one where we can already see fairly radical shifts over the centuries.

The artist needs this support, as their direct product is generally not of practical (biological survival-aiding) utility. To be able to devote themselves to their art, they require sponsorship from an entity with resources to spare. The folks with that luxury are often educated, and playing a very different sort of game - one where signals and status are the true currency. They also carry their own beliefs, as we all do, and in most cases prefer reinforcement to challenge.

Artists, supposedly, don't really care for the games of the wealthy. They are expressing an inner voice, creating for an intrinsic reward, and only seeking sponsorship out of necessity. And so their pacts with patrons are uneasy, a balance of artistic vision and social posturing, often with a side of politics.

"To make his fortune I wish he had but half his talent and twice as much shrewdness, and then I should not worry about him." — From a letter by Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, a Paris-based sponsor of a then-22-year-old Mozart, to his father Leopold Mozart (from Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life)

For most of history, artists needed to play this game. The centralization of wealth meant that creativity had to conform, or at least not be so obviously challenging as to alienate its sponsor. The creations that survive, the great works of the past, are those that both pleased the wealthy and inspired the audience (who were perhaps not as rich as the primary patron, but likely well-to-do and educated).

As wealth decentralized, the number of possible patrons increased, until eventually it became feasible to support art entrepreneurially. After Mozart struggled with satisfying the nobility, Beethoven took advantage of the burgeoning music publishing industry to establish a largely independent middle-class lifestyle. Though when publishing he did not need to please any particular patron, there was still a market to consider - middle class households could afford pianos and possibly string quartets, not private orchestras.

Many artists after Beethoven continued the transition from patrons to the market, with technology enabling more products (recorded audio in its various forms, as well as branded merchandise). Has technology and capitalism liberated artists from their past sovereigns?

Art and Markets

Simply having a product is not enough - most well-known contemporary creators sell. Depending on their scale, they refollow, periodically re-engage, or otherwise reward those who consume them. This mutualistic incentivization of mental consumption is not unlike the relationship between artists and patrons of old, but with a significantly different discovery and scaling process.

At large scale, the balance of power is almost reversed - "rock star" level success gives an artist power, and often notoriety. They wouldn't have it without the support of their fans, but they have so many fans that considered individually they are insignificant. The artist becomes a brand, an institution - often one that outlives their own biological existence.

Does this power give famous artists independence and true creative freedom? The only general answer is "it depends", but it is clearly not a guarantee. Some level of wealth and material comfort is necessary to simply have the time to create, to not be constantly fighting for subsistence. Celebrity is clearly well above that threshold, but comes with its own liabilities - being a brand in our modern capitalism is immensely complicated, and requires lawyers, social media marketers, personal security, and a variety of other assistants and gurus.

Depending on others doesn't make somebody "not a real artist" - but it does mean that their product is more complicated, and is being shaped by forces with varying goals. Are Marvel superhero movies "art"? They are certainly entertaining, but they are also very "safe" - with big production cost comes conservative business practices such as censorship and formulaic music. Stan Lee got to do cameos, but there was clearly no auteur - these are movies by committee.

In short, stars inevitably lose control of their creation. This is also true historically, if for no other reason than mortality - Shakespeare in Love was clearly not written by its namesake, and is instead an "inspired-by" creation set in a universe that has continued to live after its creator passed. In modern society, this typically happens even while the creator is still with us - scale, capitalism, and technology conspire to depose the author from their own work. They are usually still in a good place subsistence-wise, but instead of artistic independence they become dependent on how society interprets and persists the universe they birthed.

Of course, most creators don't have these problems. They scramble for every potential follower - technology has given them reach, but it has done the same for everyone else too. And so they face a choice - fully invest in their art, and likely require the charity of others, or treat it as a hobby and obey the dictum "don't quit your day job."

Art and Balance

Hobbyists necessarily lack time for the same level of mastery as those with focus, and stars are ultimately authorially dissolved by their own success. What remains is the oft-cited situation of the independent "starving" artist - an idealist and nonconformist, at war with the world, wielding weapons of ideas and aesthetics. Are these the only true artists?

Again, the only general answer is "it depends" - hobbyists and stars face challenges in creating art, but so do their starving brethren. Besides the challenge of basic subsistence, being an idealist does not alone make one independent. Everyone is beholden to their own impulses and insecurities - a bohemian creator is still part of a subculture, and can still end up conforming and failing at original creation. Their self-image, and how they imagine they are perceived by others, shapes their choices - this doesn't mean they aren't making art, but it does mean that being independent is quixotic.

All attempts at creation are hard - that is what makes them worthwhile. The nature of the challenge varies - hobbyists need to be clever and efficient in their use of time to deliver quality, stars need to think about how to place the system they are making in the larger world, and independent artists need to maintain an open mind to both the mainstream and the mediocre. Going to war with the world yields nothing - it's bigger than you, and is going to be here after you too.

For any path, the key is mindfulness and balance. Going back to the opening question, I make because I wish to find my own balance. The above categorizations are a simplification, a mental model - though I (and likely most of you) fit most neatly into the "hobbyist" bucket. I'm not expecting to achieve material success through art, but neither am I quitting my day job.

I create because I wish to give form to my thoughts. I share because I am selfish - I have made things of my self, and want those things to have some life in others. My aspirational balance is one of sufficiency - to have enough, and to share the rest.