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***** "Indie" has become so mainstream that mainstream is the new underground, graffiti is funded by corporate advertising budgets, and marketing firms around the world are paying 13-year-old urban hipsters to keep them informed of all things "edgy". Creativity seems to be the commodity of the moment and everyone wants a piece. Which begs the question - once commoditized, does creativity cease to be, well, creative? And with all these creative juices flowing to commercial purposes, are our creative resources drying up as quickly as our oil and water reserves? To help answer that, or at least try to, we enlisted a panel of artsy types who create for a living and asked them about forced creative production, whether and where they find "true" creativity today, if creativity and commercialism are necessarily mutually exclusive, and if money has any effect on the creative process.
"I could still paint, I'm just lazy," says Renee, a painter-turned-graphic designer and information architect. "Sometimes my work is creatively fulfilling, sometimes it's not, and yeah, it has definitely lowered the amount of energy I have for art on the side, but I have never enjoyed a job more, and the fact that I enjoy it means a great deal. There are definitely times I fantasize about not working and just doing art, but I'm worried that it would turn into a job and then I wouldn't enjoy it. Still though, if someone said eRenee, I love your art and I want to commission you to paint for me,' I'd be all over it! Sometimes it helps to have some external motivation."
I agree with Renee, (I being me, Amy, the freelance writer who works for magazines and newspapers, and also spends a good chunk of time writing press releases and marketing copy) and I'll add to it that I don't think commercialism necessarily cancels out creativity - in fact I think the whole idea of "selling out" doesn't really exist anymore. The fact that you don't make any money off of your art doesn't mean that you are a true artist - and sometimes it means that you're not a very good artist. As for money having an effect on the creative process, I actually think it is a great motivator in that process at the moment. That is sad really, but it's true. I know dozens of other writers, all writing for various magazines, newspapers, advertising firms, and all of them would love to write or finish their novel. If someone came along and offered any of us an advance to churn out a book, we'd be novelists by next year. It's not just the money, of course, it's that money often equals time, and you need time, quality time, and not just a few hours in the evening when you come home from your "real" job and are exhausted, to create.
"Yeah, I do think that our creative resources are drying up a bit, " says Sima, bass player in an indie rock band by night, sound engineer for TV commercials by day. "I mean, there hasn't been a new idea in music or fashion for awhile that's for sure. Film, too, it seems like we're just tapped out. I don't know if that's due to commercialism or if there are just only so many ideas that us humans can get in our little pea brains and they've all been executed already. What passes as an "original" idea these days is a unique use of an old idea-which I suppose IS a new idea in its own way. Still, though, it seems like there are an awful lot of people doing the same thing. Like one person or a handful of people decide what's cool and then a bunch of people do that, then the trend shifts, and everyone jumps over to the new thing, but none of it is new these days, just old stuff that no one remembers well enough to jump up and say ecopycat!'"
Summer has a slightly different take - she is an artist who works during the day at a gallery in DUMBO. "I've been thinking a lot about this lately and have actually decided to leave the gallery after this renovation is over. I've been involved with the gallery for 2 1/2 years. It has been a really great way to make connections and meet people involved in art, especially since I had just moved to New York when I started. I got to do some things I would not have pursued otherwise, like curating and being involved with the renovation of an amazing new space and I definitely learned a lot about administrating not only for a non-profit art space but how to apply that to my own work. I've looked at thousands of artists' submissions which has given me a good idea of what might work and what doesn't in terms of packaging your materials for an application, plus it's just a good way to gauge what is going on out there. But most importantly, after sitting in on the panels for choosing the studio artists for our year long studio program, I learned never to take any rejection to heart because really, so many things can affect how a panel works and who gets chosen. That was really important to learn and makes me feel more prepared for rejections to come. But lately, I've been realizing that this is a job for someone really wanting to devote themselves to art in this way, like a young curator or arts admin person, not necessarily for an artist trying to make work. The job requires a total commitment of heart and being able to devote time to it there and outside of being there. Like I'm in the shower in the morning thinking about it-what needs to be done, who I need to email, etc when really I should take that time to think about my work. Another problem with it is that people I meet end up associating me with this gallery space but not as an artist. They see me as a curator or some kind of connection they should get to know when really I want them to see me as a fellow artist. Or an example, I was on a panel discussing residencies with someone who runs a program that I really want to be a part of. It feels strange to be answering the questions when really I should be on the other side asking them. Well, maybe not because actually I already know the answers because of my work but you get what I mean. So that's basically where I'm at on this. I've realized that even though it is something I feel attached to and when I do leave I know there will be a void there because I'm so used to having this as a part of my life, I also know that having that extra space in my head to think will greatly improve my own productivity. Yup, that's how I feel about it."
"I've actually found that my job has increased my creative output," claims Amanda, an advertising copywriter. "It requires a whole different part of the brain than what I use for more creative stuff, so it basically keeps my brain sharp without draining the area that I need for other types of writing. And-well, I make pretty good money and my hours are decent so I think that gives me the time and mental space to pursue other avenues. If I were worried about making money with the creative stuff I was doing, I don't think I'd get nearly as much done because, well, first of all I'd be worried, which doesn't help the creative process at all, and secondly I'd be censoring myself and my ideas all the time - nah, no one's gonna want to read that! That sort of thing. Coming from the most commercial industry of all, I think that, while I agree with Sima that it seems like our creative resources are dwindling, I don't think it's because of commercialism. Like I said, it's a whole different kind of thing - creating text and visuals to sell something is more like solving a math problem than doing an art project. You approach it completely differently, think about entirely different things, and are motivated by totally different outcomes too. If I write a story and I like it when it's finished and other people read it and like it, my desired outcome has been achieved. In advertising it's more about the success of the campaign, awards we may or may not win, client satisfaction, etc. So, to me, those worlds are completely separate - they may influence each other a bit, but I don't think one is taking anything away from the other."
Amanda brings up an interesting point - her salary. While I'm not going to disclose it here, I will tell you that on average, a mid-level copywriter at an advertising agency or marketing firm makes $60,000, while more senior employees pull in anywhere from $75K - $100K. Contrast that with the average community newspaper reporter, who makes $28.900 (*source for stats: Media Bistro salary survey 2005). That discrepancy, though, is more about who's paying the salary at the end of the day - in advertising that's big companies with hefty ad budgets; the community newspaper doesn't tend to have that sort of financial backing. Heather, also a copywriter, has a completely different take on things, "I get paid to write, as an advertising copywriter. eGetting paid to write' was always a dream of mine, however little did I know that every word (every comma!) would be subject to corporate scrutiny. Every headline must be approved by creative directors whose judgment is often questionable, and everything must be executed on a tight, rigid deadline. While it is nice having a steady income, i must say other endeavors (the "work that i love") suffer more than they benefits from the juxtaposition of the two, simply because of time. Devoting one's time to a full-time creative job and a creative side project is tricky, and usually the paying gig wins out."
"On the other hand," Heather continues, "trying to juggle these pursuits allows very little time for procrastination, nor is there any sympathy for "writers block." And I would agree that being forced to parlay one's writing ability into a commercial message does keep you disciplined. Also, the social element of the office helps you from going crazy inside your head. I guess the bottom line is, if you find something you truly want to devote all your time on, even if it's risky, you have to bite the proverbial bullet and quit the damn corporate job. Or else you're really just wasting time. Some people claim to get total artistic fulfillment through their corporate job, finding ways to navigate the system to get their voice heard and take comfort in the sheer diffusion of those ideas (millions of viewers!). But most of those people are jerks."
Clearly this isn't a question that's going to be answered in a few paragraphs, if ever. At the end of the day, I think people make their choices; some people would feel like they were selling out if they worked in advertising, others find the creative freedom they were looking for. What I've found through this exercise though is that, while none of us think commercialism is necessarily the cause, we all do see an alarming downturn in the amount of creativity around. Unfortunately, unlike other commodities, "creativity" is not something that can be measured or sourced; there are no activist groups fighting for the protection of creativity Unions do a fine job of protecting creative people and their creations, but what of the juice that inspired those creations? The morale of the story is this: treasure any true creativity you see or find in yourself, and be on the lookout for new creative outlets. Renee has recently come to realize that gardening is "totally creative, but at the opposite end of the spectrum from painting. It's much more physical and tactile." Basically, find the art in everyday life - wait a minute, isn't that Banana Republic's new slogan?
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