Excitement. That’s the first thing that happens when disruption hits an industry. A world of possibility opens up and the future gets brighter than a supernova. At the same time comes the fear—something of such power will upend everything we know, and maybe the wrong people will wind up winning. Maybe it will threaten our way of life. But man, that light is pretty, particularly when it’s been so dark around here.
Eventually, the brightness dies down—or, at least, our eyes adjust to it. And, like thunder after a lightning storm or the wind after a nuclear explosion, just as we think we’ve got a handle on things, the blast wave hits. The potential that we saw becomes reality, and things start to seriously suck.
The world’s most stable businesses get destroyed, and people get thrown out of work. The things that make up the fabric of our everyday lives get tossed about like so much debris in a tornado. Governments and laws start to look irrelevance as they take at least two generations to catch up to change that’s happening at an exponential rate.
By inches, your entire industry starts to feel like a toy boat tossed around on hurricane seas, and everyone you know starts throwing up. The people look across the water for a savior walking towards them. They try to find a way back to the stable, dry land they left, writing off the whole adventure as a bad idea.
This is when authority is most appealing, because control seems most necessary in the face of things that cannot be controlled. This is the time of gurus.
And these new gurus, preaching comfort and outrage and righteousness—and sometimes, even saying things that are true—help people climb out of the boat and onto the surface of the stormy water…
…where they promptly drown.
We are in an age of great disruption—it may well prove to be an age of permanent disruption. And, in the arts, the disruption cycle has finally reached the “guru” stage.
The Difference Between a Guru and a Mentor
Of course, the open field means that we all have access to LOTS of seemingly authoritative information, good and bad, and that means we have to decide who to listen to. So, very quickly, here’s the way to spot a guru:
The guru is selling you THE answer. It’s usually a secret recipe, it will usually appeal to your vanity, and it will usually make you feel smug when you’re reading it. Your reaction to their material is what they care about. Some will try to piss you off, some will try to inspire you, but your emotional reaction (and subsequent engagement) is the primary aim of what they do. Thus, right or wrong, a guru is usually not good to listen to, because what they’re selling will not enable you to build your own career (except obliquely, if you’re a very self-driven individual already).
A mentor, whether their advice is right or wrong, is interested in sharing information. Interactions with a mentor should stretch you, reveal to you areas of knowledge and sophistication about your business (and yes, your art IS a business—we’ll get to that in a bit) of which you were hitherto unaware. They will share their techniques for refining their craft, or for accessing different markets, and let you do with those tips what you will.
In other words, a mentor might tell you if they think you’re right or wrong. A guru will tell you if you’re good or bad.
That said, there IS one piece of secret knowledge when it comes to the arts. It’s probably the most terrifying truth in the world, because it is something we artists simply cannot control, so we spend a LOT of money and time and effort trying to avoid it.
I call it Bruce’s Law. Here it is:
The Audience Is a Genius
Bruce was arguing (in his defense as an offensive comment) that the audience itself sets the standards of quality and acceptability. The audience laughs at the things which are funny, and doesn’t laugh at the things that aren’t. They talk about the artists whose work they connect with, and they ignore the artists whose work they don’t. Even in a tightly regulated, gatekeeper-controlled environment, the audience is the ultimate arbiter.
Well, the audience controls the only two things that make art work: money and attention.
And in an open marketplace where anyone can hang out a shingle, the audience is the only arbiter. They are all that matters. If they like what you do, they’ll spend their time and money on it. If they don’t (or if the like it less than they like something else), they won’t. Period.
You can’t make them like you by jumping up and down and yelling loudest. You can’t make them like you with social media campaigns. You can’t make them like you with advertising. You can’t even make them like you with what you consider “quality” (because the things that you love about your work are rarely the things the audience loves about your work, and the more complex your art form, the more distance can open up between your tastes and your audience’s tastes).
The Futility of Protest
Since the late nineteenth century, the arts in America have been divided between the “fine arts” and the “popular arts.” The “fine arts” are presumed to be ennobling, spiritual, grand, and morally good, while the popular arts are considered commercial, crass, cheap, degrading, and corrupting of good morals.
So, for example, Shakespeare, ancient myths, sculpture, classical music, opera, painting (in established genres), literary fiction, classic stories, foreign films, erotic painting and film, etc. are all considered fine art—while rock’n’roll, erotic photography and film, genre fiction, burlesque, three-door comedies, cartoons and stop-motion, comic books, and popular movies are considered pop art (unless they’re done with a certain flavor of irony, in which case they become fine art. See Warhol).
However, this equation somehow has never stopped (nor substantially attenuated) the flow of pop art. For every Nabakov or Kubrick you have dozens or hundreds of aspiring James Pattersons and Roger Cormans making a very comfortable living “pandering” to the audiences tastes. The arts have always pandered to the “lowest common denominator,” since the days of the earliest recorded English bardic poetry (and since long before that).
With a little reflection you’ll notice that there’s as much perversion in Shakespeare, mythology, and opera as there is on any Internet porn site, which gives the lie to the defenders of culture who grouse about perversion for profit and the corruption of the morality of children. Such objections are not about morality per-se. They’re about class and presentation.
Artists, Culture Warriors, and Disrupted Businesspeople Fear The Audience
The real difference between the fine arts and the pop arts are not the difficulty of the art form, or the brilliance of its best examples. The difference is between a white-collar-or-better audience and a blue-collar audience. Basically, if you’re rich enough to cultivate “good taste” you’re a “connoisseur” of “fine art.”
If you’re not, you’re a “consumer” of “popular entertainment.”
This is a thinly veiled form of top-down class warfare, waged by people who, by virtue of their wealth and position, feel an obligation to be “defenders of taste” or “culture” or “morals” or “quality” in order to save their preferred art form from the raging torrent of crap that always threatens to engulf them.
“We need gatekeepers!” they say, because, at bottom, they do not believe that, in an open marketplace, they would succeed—or, alternately, that their discipline would continue to be respectable. The audience, they believe, is too stupid, too base, or too mercurial to sustain great artwork (read, the art they produce and/or enjoy) without some guidance from people who know better.
And when the gatekeepers fail, they send out the second clarion call: “We must police ourselves, or we are all doomed!” Artists must band together to enforce standards of quality (technical, moral, taste, style, etc.) so that the purveyors of crap don’t destroy the market forever. If you shame the crap-purveyors out of respectable society, surely they’ll cease to be a threat. Because, they believe, the audience cannot be trusted to pick the most worthy artwork.
But they are wrong. They are so wrong they’re not even wrong, because they do not understand the very water in which they swim.
When you create a work of art and send it out into the world, the audience decides if it’s worth their time. If it’s a work of pioneering horror and you package it like a romance, nobody will buy it—they’ll read the sample and say “no thanks.” If it’s a tin-eared musical piece with brilliant lyrics, they probably won’t listen past the first few bars. If you do not give the audience a reason to give you their time or money, they won’t give you their time or their money. This is what economists call “the discipline of the market.”
In other words, in a sampling economy, the torrential volcano of shit (and remember Sturgeon’s law: “90% of everything is crap”) matters less than it ever did, and it never really mattered all that much. Whether in music or film or stage or books or comedy photography, the artist is the monkey that dances for the audience’s amusement—and if we amuse them enough, they might adopt us as their very own.
The Future of the Arts
If you live in a field that’s been disrupted (music, movies, books, etc.), get used to it. The gatekeepers ain’t coming back.
If you live in a field that hasn’t been disrupted yet, you’d better get ready. It’s coming for you very soon, and it won’t be pretty.
In either case, the future of the arts is one of the open market. Gatekeepers may form enclaves of self-congratulatory taste-making, but the access control over the market is permanently and irrevocably broken. If you intend to operate in the arts, you must wrap your brain around this, or you’re not going to be around for long.
What This Means For You
On a personal level, there are some weird things to get used to:
1) Your agent’s (or prospective agent’s) approval does not matter. They’re not buying your work, they’re selling it. Whether you’re an actor, a model, a writer, a playwright, a photographer, or a painter, your agent is merely your means to get access to a particular market. They may say “I won’t sell x”—that’s their prerogative. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. The agent is not your customer, they don’t get to decide what’s worth buying. Only the audience can do that.
2) Your mother’s approval does not matter. Obviously, with some mothers, it might matter personally—but it does not matter to your career or vocation. If you’re afraid of what your family will think, use a pen/stage name.
3) Your approval does not matter. Of course, it’s nice when you like your work. But what if you’ve got a piece that you hate and wish you’d never created? If you sit on it, and your name is Arthur Conan Doyle, you’d be robbing the world of Sherlock Holmes. If Doyle can be that wrong, then so can you. Your opinion of your own work is a sort of masturbation. It feels nice, but it doesn’t amount to anything, and it can get a bit messy when you work yourself into a lather.
4) Only the audience’s approval matters. If they buy your book, or watch your video, or pin your photo, you’ve got a winner. If they don’t, nobody will notice it anyway.
So, if this is the case, how do you build a career in the arts? If everything is that chaotic, is it even possible?
Yes, it is. Here’s what you have to do:
1) Create something
2) Finish what you create
3) Stop fiddling with it unless a customer is willing to pay you money to change it (and then only if you agree that the changes would be an improvement)
4) Package and present it to the market, to the best of your ability
5) Leave it out on the market for people to discover it
In addition to those five things (formulated and followed by far more successful artists than I), here are a few other suggestions:
1) With every project, work on something new
2) With every release, learn how to package things better
3) With every release, spend some more time learning about your market and the legal framework you operate in
4) Always, every day, be learning something new that feeds either your creative stew, hones your technique reportoir, or your enhances your business sense.
5) Always be on the lookout for new ways to push yourself.
6) Distrust shortcuts.
7) Trust the audience.
We all live in Lenny Bruce’s world now. The audience is a genius. Trust them to tell you what’s worth buying and what’s not. Stop worrying, and go make cool things.