Why Creative People Constantly Feel Pulled in 2 Different Directions
I’m on a quest to discover why some people get famous and others get forgotten.
Often, this work results in a furrowed brow that will probably become a deep wrinkle. One day, my hope is that all those stray ideas might weave themselves theories, theories to blogs, blogs to chapters, chapters to a book.
For now, though, trying to write about fame would be like I suddenly decided to write in Spanish. I don’t have the vocabulary to address what I care about.
Last week was different.
Last week, I came across a simple diagram that showed why artists are so… well… confused.
There a waging war between art and commerce inside the mind of every creative person. Do you take the easy paycheck for dull work, or do you stick to the road less traveled in pursuit of greater meaning? Contrary to current thought, this battle hasn’t raged since the birth of art itself. Still, it’s a fierce fight today.
This is the diagram that puts our plight in a picture:
It was created by Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist and philosopher. French requires a lot of words. Philosophy requires a lot of words. Put the two together, and you wind up wading through a jungle of jargon with a machete, searching for the point of a paragraph like you’re headed west on the Oregon Trail, and you’ve just watched your partner die of dysentery (or, in this case, boredom).
All of that is to say, the figure above was explained in a tsunami of text. Here’s the short version:
That box in the middle (number 3) is the one we’re concerned with. It represents the field of arts and literature. Each plus and minus sign represents autonomy and heteronomy.
When autonomy is the dominant pole, an artist can make choices that have no meaning outside of the field in pursuit of field-specific recognition (like writing a 100-page poem in iambic pentameter that may sell zero copies). When heteronomy is the dominant pole, the same artist bends to the will of outside forces (like surrendering that 100-page poem in exchange for a sales page at the request of a boss).
The positive pole relates to what Bourdieu calls the field of “restricted culture.” The negative, to “large-scale production.”
When you think restricted culture, think high literature. Anyone can read it. Few can understand and appreciate it. Large-scale production, on the other hand, is much less subtle. Think 50 Shades of Grey.
Each artist is a dot inside that little box.
The positive and negative poles operate like magnets, pulling that little dot back and forth. Each pole’s strength depends on several factors — the culture at large, our own personal beliefs, values of the artistic field itself, etc.
All of these factors change over time.
Back when punk rock rose, the worst thing you could do was take a check from a big label. It was a point of pride to turn your nose up at the suits. Now, with the tools of art being more democratized, and with so many of us needing the extra cash to pay off student loans and other headaches, “selling out” is normal.
Austin Kleon, Artist King of the internet, even said as much in one of his books.
“We all have to get over our ‘starving artist’ romanticism and the idea that touching money inherently corrupts creativity.”
It’s okay to earn money now.
The art community accepts it.
(One reason for this is because that “art community” has gotten exponentially larger. Everyone is an artist in 2021, thanks to the rise of the Creator Economy. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
These subtle beliefs change how that little dot gravitates around its box, but you likely won’t be aware of these influences when you start. When you start, you are only aware of the plus side, the autonomy. You make art for the sake of art. You aren’t worried about money.
Cool. Sounds good. I’m on board.
One of the reasons that you aren’t worried about money in the beginning, though, is because you aren’t good enough to earn it. Your decision-making gets sticky the second you cross that threshold.
The artist, above all, wants to create more art.
How can you make more art?
One answer is to get paid for it.
So, the serious musician writes a jingle for pretzels and hopes to get back to his opera. The graphic designer makes a logo for an oil company while delays her concept for a climate change pamphlet. The writer cranks out self-help for a content factory while his novel waits expectantly on the hard drive.
We are buffeted back and forth, grocery sacks in the wind, attempting to find an anchor. We want to do work that has meaning, but we also want to feed ourselves something other than Kraft singles.
Which side should you steer toward?
It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you’re conscious of the powers that influence you, and that you’re making decisions that:
- are in your best interest as an artist,
- designed for that particular moment in time,
- and have the flexibility to change.
I’m thinking of Walt Whitman, who worked as a real estate agent before writing Leaves of Grass.
I’m thinking of Jimmy Stewart, who tapped along in cheesy musicals before It’s a Wonderful Life launched his second career.
I’m thinking (much more recently) of indie writer Zat Rana, who spent years on Medium before shifting to a Substack where he had more control.
Control. That last word is important.
It reminds me of the word “power,” which brings us back to that diagram.
Remember that second box, the one in which the field of art and literature is seated?
It represents the field of power.
The more power you have in your own life, the more autonomous your decisions.
The more autonomous your decisions, the more you are able to pursue the work that matters most to you, no matter if that’s a bodice-ripper or a Shakespeare clone.
More power, more possibility.