Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thoughts on Being an Artist and Making Money

I attended the Dallas Comic Con this weekend and had a great time. However, the show also gave me pause. I have been going to comic conventions since I was a kid and it was called The Dallas Fantasy Fair, but this one seemed a little less thrilling than normal, even though the guy who played Chewbacca was there.

I am sure we all have gone through this as we get older; the one thing we were so passionate about years ago doesn't inspire the same level of dedication anymore. Twin Peaks did not change the world. Beanie Babies did not put our kids through college. LINUX didn't turn out to be the operating system of the future.

One of the more heartbreaking moments at the con was seeing James O'Barr, creator of The Crow, sitting at his booth with all this merchandise and no one - NO ONE showing any interest whatsoever. There was a time people would beat each other up for a chance to just look him in the eye, and now... nothing. (To be fair, I was only there for a few hours. Perhaps all his fans like to sleep in and his afternoon was spent being held aloft by people dressed as killer mimes.)

That evening, I watched two movies that both made me think about how artistic people survive and prosper in a business world. The first film was Fredrick Weisman's La Danse - a documentary about the Paris Ballet, and the second one (viewed at 2am after being waken by a crying baby) was Anvil: The Story of Anvil.

La Danse is an almost three-hour documentary about a season of the Paris ballet. It covers not only rehearsals and performances, but the maintenance crew, the cafeteria workers, the costumers, and the administrative office. My favorite person in the film was the Artistic Director because she obviously "got it" as far as balancing artistic freedom and experimentation with the financial restraints and market forces. In every scene with her, she was brilliant, whether she was talking to a choreographer, a prima ballerina, a fund-raising team, or even the business manager. She knew how to work with people to make the magic happen - to maintain the balance between challenging art and art that alienates an audience.

(Just a side note - ballet is hard work. It takes work to make it look good and it takes work to enjoy it. Some poor guy in the theater fell asleep during the film and started snoring loudly during the same ballet sequences that had me completely enthralled. Seriously, Medea is disturbing in ballet form.)

The second film, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, was more along the lines of depicting artists who don't get it. Anvil had some minor success in the 80s "hair band" era and have refused to change their sound or look with the times. In some ways, their lives are little time capsules, trying the same thing over and over again until they get it right.

The most heartbreaking scene for me was the one where the dude from Anvil plays his demo for a record company A&R rep. Not even thirty seconds into the first song, the rep stops the music and starts talking about the "current radio landscape" and other trends in popular music. The guy from Anvil has no comprehension whatsoever about what is being said. His response is, "But this music just rocks."

And that is the issue. Their art calls them to make something very specific. Which is wonderful, but they somehow think they can make a substantial amount money off of it, which is horrible. They have the art side down, but not the commerce side.

This, of course, reminds me of Aimee Mann.

I saw an interview with Aimee Mann on The Tonight Show once. Jay Leno trotted out a picture of her in her full 80s glory and tried to shame her on national television by reminding the world of how stupid she once looked. Ms. Mann was completely unfazed. "As an artist, you have to decide if you want to be completely in the moment of if you want to be timeless. And to be completely in the moment, you have to be fearless and not ashamed then the moment passes. In the 80s, I was in the moment. Now I am striving for something timeless."

It easy to divide art into two worlds - one that is hollow and commercial and another that self-indulgent purity. But this sort of division is wrong. True art strives for a sense of transcendence. It seeks to be timeless. The people involved in making this art still need to eat. They can't be completely high-minded about personal expression to the detriment of everything else. So the money becomes a necessary component to the process.

These two films were about how there is an art to managing money. There is an art to managing a ballet production company and securing funding for edgy, modern choreography that might alienate people. There is an art to generating enough income to hire a great producer for your heavy metal album. And both of these films, both of these stories of struggle, were transcendent and timeless in their own way. Let's hope they fare better fifteen years from now than The Crow did.