On Creative Commerce: ‘Girls,’ Money And Happiness

April 16, 2014

I recently watched a short documentary (below) that got me thinking a lot about those of us whose who ply our trade in creative industries.

The grand question of whether to follow art or to follow commerce is something so many people wrestle with on a daily basis. Do you take the money and “sell out,” or do you stay true to your artistic and creative ambitions? Sadly, the answer is not cut-and-dried.

Wonderland | A Short Form Doc on Creative Commerce from Eskimo on Vimeo.

While the decision may seem binary, it often sits on a continuum. On one side, you have pure commerce devoid of art; on the other, pure art devoid of commerce. On the left, manufacturing widgets and selling products; on the right, painting a masterwork that no one will see. Certainly, selling widgets can be creative and painting can be an act of commerce, which is why the extreme ends of the continuum will usually never be reached. However, deciding where you’re comfortable on that continuum is one of the hardest choices you can make.

First off, let me say this: Creativity, or the need to create art of some sort, is not just an impulse. Sometimes it may represent itself as an urge or a visceral feeling to be addressed, but let’s get one thing straight: It’s an absolute need for some. It’s so deeply felt that it’s as real and immediate as the need to eat or feel loved. And while I’m not one of those touchy-feely types, it’s the one aspect in life that makes me believe in whatever amorphous thing may represent a soul. Creating, for some, nurtures the soul. Without it, they die wither and die on the vine. That may sound dramatic, but I’ve seen it happen so many different times. To me, the question is not, “What do you want to do with your life?” but rather, “What do you need to do with your life?”

I do not consider myself to be a particularly creative person in that I don’t, say, put oil to canvas. I am a producer by trade, which means my impulse comes from being involved in the creative process. I have a need to be around artists and to help them create. This usually takes the form of writers and directors, but I help designers, editors, musicians, illustrators and everyone else. Others feel a more direct need to paint, write, act, make music or put their creative selves on display. To be bold, fearless and create something from nothing. It is the noblest pursuit, in the classical Greek sense: to divine inspiration from the gods and make it tangible for the world to see. However, I think the process has become somewhat maligned.


Unfortunately, this notion of being an artist or a “creative” has been pigeonholed as the existential kvetching of aimless twentysomethings, or that it’s an impulse to explore at your liberal arts institution, but please get a degree in something practical.

Most recently, this was dramatized by Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on “Girls.” She is a writer who takes a job writing in GQ’s “advertorial department.” This throws her into a full-blown crisis of the soul. And while this may get lumped into the perceived trivialities of privileged white girls in New York, that cheapens the true struggle. The show itself is an expression of Lena Dunham’s real struggle with this notion. She creates a TV show, mere “popular entertainment.” She sells her art to HBO for money. But what does that say of her nobility toward her creativity? Would it be nobler to write black box theater plays that no one sees? To toil away in obscurity as a self-proclaimed novelist for years in the hopes that someone may read and acknowledge your work? Does the reception matter or merely the creation? While there isn’t an answer, I think it’s pretty clear that Dunham has found an ideal balance between artistic expression and commerce. She’s found her comfortable spot on the continuum.

Yet, while the pursuit of art is noble, we also live in a world of commerce, where you need money to pay rent and put food on the table. These realities do not mean you should go become a banker when you want to be a poet. What it does mean is that you must ask tough questions of yourself about where you can be happy. If your true impulse is to create poetry, could you make a living as a copywriter? Or do you need to wait tables during the day and write poetry at night? What do you need to be inspired enough and creatively awake enough to produce good work? Now, I’m not naïve enough to believe in the notion of “selling out.” A wise man once said, “Never, never apologize for taking the money.” There are cold financial realities, but in the long run, you must hang on desperately and fiercely to the things you know to be true: the art that you have a need to create.

I myself make compromises. In my creative industrial ecosystem, I exchange my creativity to people trying to sell you things. I’ve identified that I need to work alongside true artists and help them do their work, but I also need to strive for the best possible representation of whatever I am trying to create. Whether that’s a car commercial or soft-drink ad, I need to inject as much art into the commerce as possible. That’s my Faustian bargain. In exchange, I make a living wage and reserve time for pure — non-paying — artistic ambitions. I’m okay with that. It’s a fine balance. But I’m also hyper-aware of the balance, which means I’ll know the second it starts to stray. I’ll need to abandon what I’m doing and reassess, or I risk losing my happiness as well.

So, all of this is to say that one must be honest about their creative needs. You can’t let people tell you that it “isn’t practical to be a writer,” or “you should at least have a backup in case being a director doesn’t pan out.” What you need to do is assess and be honest about your artistic needs and then fight for them. Find a profession that makes you the amount of money you want to make and also allows you to create what you need to create. Pick a spot on that continuum and fight for it tooth and nail. If you don’t, the imbalance will wither you. And if the march of time has proven anything, it’s that art is simply too important to let go.