Art Needs an Audience (Why Art for Art’s Sake Doesn’t Work)

For ages, people have been debating the value of art. Should creativity be a vehicle for commerce, or something completely divorced from the marketplace? Is art for art’s sake a noble pursuit, or an exercise in vanity? The truth is a little more complicated.

art for arts sake

Art for art’s sake was a creed of the 20th century bohemians, and on the surface, it sounds like a good idea. We should not create work that is function or commercial, the argument goes, but rather because it is a noble pursuit in itself. After all, what creative would confess to wanting to make as much money as possible off her art? That just sounds greedy.

But at the same time, what writer, designer, or musician wants to be irrelevant or ignored? Who really longs for their work to not be discovered? No, what we fear is that in somehow caring about marketing, we might lose the purity of the art. And that’s a valid concern, but not an entirely rational one.

We have, I think, this idea that the more impoverished and unpopular a creative person is, the better their work will be. But that’s a limiting belief. Sure, some artists were poor, but others were rich. Some were social outcasts and others were incredibly charismatic. In other words, there is no such thing as a typical artist.

Today, I hear more and more writers scorning the need to blog or tweet or build an email list. They want to avoid being “self-promotional.” But artists have always had to worry about how get their work to spread. That’s part of the job.

In 1872, George Sand, a French novelist, wrote that the artist has a “duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible.” To put it more succinctly, art needs an audience.

Art needs an audience.

Jeff Goins

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Money is a means, not a master

Here’s the good news: you don’t have to become a sleazebag to be a successful artist. You don’t have to, as I think we all fear, sell out or starve. There is a middle ground in which you can use money to make art.

Here’s how Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, author of Make Money, Make Art: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career, says it:

If we examine Henson’s work in earnest, we can find an inextricable quality running through it, a constant that we can rightly call character… Now, Jim Henson was always a willing participant in the marketplace, and as Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point, Grover began as an IBM spokesman. Which is certainly true, and Rowlf the Dog did films for corporate meetings. He sold typewriters door-to-door in Henson’s early “meeting films,” a peculiar subgenre of the commercial designed for business-to-business sales pitches. It’s all there on YouTube.

Gladwell argues that “Sesame Street” was an extension of these commercials, but he’s got it the wrong way around. It’s the commercials that embody the ethos of “Sesame Street.” I laughed—forcefully, involuntarily and out loud—at one reel in which a character was shot at point blank because he said he didn’t use the product. Later, I couldn’t even remember the product’s name.

These works are not just making a buck for the buck’s sake. There’s a willfulness in them, a refusal to ever place the market’s demands above one’s own values.

In other words, money makes a better means than a master. Don’t give it too much importance in creative work. Sure, we need money to keep the lights on and buy supplies, but it’s not everything. As Steven Pressfield says, “Money buys you another season to create.” It gives you time, which gives you options.

Money makes a better means than a master. 

Jeff Goins

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When you leverage the systems available to you to create enduring work, as Henson did, you create the kind of art that impacts a culture. You join the ranks of those who were able to change the world by being both creative and entrepreneurial.

It’s a challenge, of course, to be both a marketer and an artist, but one that many creatives are taking advantage of today. The opportunity to do creative work that also pays the bills is unprecedented with the access we have to tools and technology those before us have never had.

To ignore this chance would do a disservice to their hard work. And as long as we leverage these tools in a way that doesn’t compromise our character, we honor their legacy.

Which brings us to an important subject: email lists.

3 reasons you should build an email list

It’s an odd transition to go from talking about Muppets to Mailchimp, but artists have always had to figure out how to get heard. And today, we have an incredible tool that many are still misusing or just not using at all.

I believe email marketing is the single best tool for an artist today. It is what TV was to Jim Henson and what movie theaters were to Walt Disney: an opportunity to be heard. My email list is my most important asset and most powerful creative tool (which was I decided to make some important changes to it recently).

So if you want to do creative work for a living and aren’t building an email list, you’re missing out. Here’s why:

  1. An email list gives you permission. The hardest part of doing creative work is getting people to want to listen to you in the first place. When someone signs up for your email list, they’re giving you permission to communicate with them. That is incredibly powerful. You don’t have to wonder what people want to hear or if they’re going to censure you. In essence, you can say whatever you want. And if people stick around, you know your message is resonating. If not, they’ll tell you. It takes the guesswork out of figuring out “what the market wants.”
  2. An email list gives you attention. Having an email list is like having your very own art museum where you control what work gets shown. It’s the best way to have the most control over who gets to hear what you have to say. You don’t have to worry about playing the political game of appeasing editors and performing for gatekeepers. You are now the gatekeeper. And of course, there is a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with this, but you never have to worry about not being heard again.
  3. An email list makes you money. We all know money isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing either (pardon the double negative). Money gives you freedom. And the verdict is in: the best way to make a living with your words is with an email list.

Of course, there are examples of writers and artists who succeed without an email list. But in my opinion, they are now the exception, not the rule. Having an email list not only gives you permission and attention, it gives you an advantage. You don’t have to wonder if people will listen to you, but when. It takes out all the guesswork.

So why would you even want to try doing creative work with your hands tied when you don’t have to?

For years, I avoided doing this, but when I finally got serious about growing my email list, everything changed. I reached more people, made more money, and got a better idea of what ideas were worth sharing with my audience.

Embracing the power of an email list will change your creative career forever, I promise. That’s why I hosted this free online workshop on list-building with my friend Bryan Harris, who knows more about this stuff than anyone I know. Check it out.

Resources

Do you think art needs an audience, or is art for art’s sake enough? Share in the comments.

21 thoughts on “Art Needs an Audience (Why Art for Art’s Sake Doesn’t Work)

  1. Jeff, you make great points here. And in the end, isn’t the attitude of art for arts sake another possible smokescreen for not putting it out there? A way to hide fear? Each one of us cringes when we hit “publish”, knowing that what we have made isn’t perfect. But those who believe their message is important press that button anyway. You are one of those people, and I admire you for doing so. Thanks for addressing this important topic head on.

  2. I can understand the idea that art for arts sake preserves the purity of the work, but art’s purpose is to evoke emotion. Without an audience the only emotion you are invoking is your own, and that’s kind of selfish. I also like the idea of leaving space in your work for the reader/viewer/listener to interact. Without an audience, there is no interaction and the work is therefore incomplete.

  3. Love this post. A lot of writers and artists are told not to think about the audience or who they are creating the work for, or that “real art” is made from passion, and more pure the less it engages with any potential observer. That’s why writers and artists are having such a terrible time trying to start businesses or make any money with their art. It’s not just that they have to learn business; they have to overcome their romantic ideologies which are limiting their ability to engage with their fans.

  4. I agree with the whole idea of an email list. I’m not fighting it. And yet when I send out an email and the rate of opening is average or even above average I start wondering if the people on the list are my fans. I’m not opposed to making sure I send something out valuable enough they have to open it, I just end up questioning the whole enchilada. And then when I think of all the people I had as customers who wanted to know when my book would come out, who signed up to know when it would come out, but it was before emails were really the way to go, so all I have are snail addresses. I sigh and fight it again. Yes, I’m stubborn but when I do get on board, I don’t jump ship.

  5. I love E.H. Stevens’ book. Have the hard copy and the kindle series. Two of my favorite takeaways from the book are Henson’s “shrine to the almighty dollar” and how he capitalized on the Commercial success of the Muppet movies so he could create his more “artsy” work like Dark Crystal. And yet, ALL of Henson’s work had societal implications that shaped “kids” my age to be who we are today. Gen X? Nahh. Generation Henson. Such a great example of being able to do both – make money and make art (as the title of the book implies).

  6. Choosing the correct environment for that art form. Open air for senior rocker, Mr Mick Jagger or the solitude of The Tate Modern. Both stimulate your taste buds for different reasons.

  7. Three things: (1) I don’t believe it is any of my business what people take from looking at my visual art. They are free to interpret it for themselves. I am free to create it for my reasons. (2) I need money to create my visual art. People seem to enjoy blog posts including my first one (written a couple of days ago judging by my subscriptions). Do I always need to turn this into a marketing funnel? It feels uncomfortable and manipulative. (3) I want feedback but prefer not to NEED it and be influenced by it during creation. Obviously, I’m missing something.

  8. If art develops in a void and no one sees it, is it art? Sure.

    Will it affect anyone’s life except its creator’s? Nope.

    Last week at the Financial Blogger Conference I met a salesman who, after pitching his product, talked for quite a while about his favorite writers: John Steinbeck, P.G. Wodehouse, Haruki Murakami and others. From the gleam in his eyes I could tell he is truly passionate about those authors.

    All would still be art even if they’d remained in the fabled writer’s drawer.
    But why deny them an audience? They need the chance to enrich our lives.

    (I also got to meet YOU at FinCon. Thanks again for the chance to spend part of the evening with you and your friends at Mimosa Grill.)

  9. Hey Jeff,

    Great post, and I love Steven Pressfield’s quote. It reminds me of that varied, oft-repeated question we’ve all heard: “What would be your job if you never had to worry about money?”

    That’s how I discovered I wanted to blog/write full time. Someone asked me what I would do if I won the lottery (a crazy proposition since I’ve never bought a ticket in my entire life), and I told them I would blog for a living.

    Someday… Someday… 🙂

    I’m really looking forward to your and Bryan’s workshop! I’ve been spreading the word to my subscribers, followers, and fans all day. My goal is to have the smartest blog readers on the web. 😉

    -Kevin

  10. Great post, Jeff, and quite timely for me. My new novel launched last week (whew!) and yes, we’ve all spent a great deal of time before pub date, getting the word out via my blogs, newsletter, social media, yada, yada (successful novels really DO take a village).
    We’ll see how much good we did 🙂
    But I can vouch as well for the sentiment that art truly does take an audience. Yes, the writing itself is deeply gratifying. But oh, how gratifying to know people are reading it, see the lovely reviews coming in, and hear that folks are “getting” it.
    That doesn’t happen if they don’t see it.
    Thank you for this post–from it I can see that we’re on the right track!

  11. It is interesting that we are having this discussion at a time when the potential audiences for our work is greater than ever before. Yet no one questions that the Great Masters created Art for Money. Most of the world’s famous art were done as commissions and are preserved because the PATRONS preserved them not the artist. Does Art Need and Audience is disingenuous since if it does not have one it is not “art”. If it is not consumed by someone it is just paper in a drawer, canvas on a rack, bytes in a computer.

  12. Here is my interesting challenge. When I try to convince readers that email and social media is killing their productivity. It invades the time and space of the most important things they do or people in their lives. Does it really make sense to ask them to opt out of everyone else’s marketing emails and opt into mine? I get the power of email marketing but I’m using the very thing I’m trying to change in my readers behavior to make their lives better against them. I kinda think it hurts my credibility and integrity? Especially my readers who I’m trying to convince not to chase every shinny object that they see and sign up for.

    1. Great point Kirby. I’m learning to refine my personal e-mail account. I’m unsubscribing from those who over promise & under deliver. Then, I’m selective about which e-mails I open. I scan all of my carefully selected e-mails–the ones from people who consistently add value to my life–and read only the ones that are most relevant.

      The bottom line is that I can see you adding a lot of value to others, and I know fore me personally, email is the venue I’m most likely to check. It might be better to help people intentionally refine their email vs dropping subscriptions entirely 🙂

  13. Embracing money as an artist rather than subscribing to the “starving artist stereotype” helped me find so much more freedom as a creative person and many more seasons to create. Now I need to grow my list!

  14. I share my stories with groups of people. For instance senior citizens meetings. I also wrote a story about looking in my mother-in-law’s face and seeing the story of her life. I told it at her 98th birthday and made extra copies of it to hand out.

  15. In the resource section above, I would also add Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch. It is a fascinating book that touches on this subject and focuses on how making art/something new is the way to transform culture.

  16. Love, love, love this! So spot on.

    This is the type of thing I worked through when launching my film production company.

    I’m preaching this stuff from the rooftops with my new business so I can help other artists as well: http://www.limitlessartists.com.

    Thanks for the brilliant piece, I’m going to share with my people!

    xx

    Nicole

  17. Yes! If you want to focus on your art full-time, you need to make money from it. If you’re happy keeping it as a hobby, that’s great too. But treating it as the latter and expecting the results of the former is delusional—and self-promotion is one of the big differences.

    It seems like a lot of people get tied up around not wanting to use specific channels (e.g. blogging or Twitter, as you mentioned). But these things are just ways of connecting that are popular right now. I’m sure there were people who scoffed at the idea of things like patronage in past times. This is just the modern version of that.

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