High Art and Pop Art:  What’s the difference?  Classical musicians high and low, come weigh in on this one.  Most of my performer friends embrace pop culture, but I have a vague sense that this is related to their age.  My generation has come up with lots of cross-over performers, and when huge talent like Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell dabble in cross-over rep, it has a way of transforming “low” art to “high” art.  I’m not going to get into the Beethoven/Beatles debate here (i.e. Is there something intrinsically better about classical music vs. pop music).  Rather, I’d like to focus on what it is to create art and market it.

Culturally, our perception of commercialism is that it amounts to something “less” than high art.  There are many good reasons for this perception, not the least of them being that the more money that goes behind the product, the more hands there are in the creation of the product.  Hence, the “purity” of the product is diluted by all those marketing experts seeking to “brand” it.  Classical musicians rarely dwell on this.  We’re too busy learning to play in tune, with good rhythm, and spin a beautiful phrase.  Imagine how many more people might love Beethoven if we all spent even half that amount of time on marketing.  I know this is anathema in the purest corners of the industry, places where the notion of “branding” Beethoven is equal to diminishing him to the purpose of selling a car rather than lifting our souls from the murk of humanity for nothing short of a life changing experience.

But marketing isn’t intrinsicallyabout diminishing something’s value.  You can market a life changing experience, and that’s exactly what the car commercial is doing.  It’s telling you that driving their car is going to change your life.  What the artist should concern him/herself with is how can I market the art itself?  Consider: As much as some resent “reducing” Beethoven  to selling cars, he is getting play out of that commercial.  Think about how many more people watch TV who have never considered listening to classical music, and now those folks have heard Beethoven. Indeed, most people likely recognize Beethoven by an associated product already. When I was growing up, I was often asked to “play that one thing. You know, from the Doctor Pepper commercial.” And, being someone who also watches TV, I knew exactly what tune was being requested: Bach G Major Prelude.

It has been said that art comes from an internal well of inspiration, a source so personal that it cannot be touched by the consideration of how to market the product.  Merely contemplating its commercial value risks diluting the birth of art. But all great art is written for consumption.  (Strike that — unless you’re part of a movement called Dadaism.  Look it up.)  If you’ve written a symphony, you had to consider very commercial things.  Even Beethoven, much as he resented it.  You can’t write a symphony for a million performers and expect it ever to get played.  You can’t write a symphony that lasts 24 hours, etc.  So why are you writing it?  Is it art if your work can never be experienced?  If that artist is you, then you already know that you’ve no doubt dedicated yourself to operating in the very far fringe of human experience. Someone like Stockhausen, perhaps. But, for those who struggle to make their art otherwise relevant: read on.

Your symphony, opera, poem, book, movie — whatever — is there to share.  The art of marketing a product is all about getting in touch with what external influences are motivating you to create it.  Those influences are interconnected in the world around you.  In fact, you, the artist, are the only person trying to unnaturally divorce yourself from the world.  Letting those influences in, letting them take up residence, that’s where the good stuff is.  That’s where your artistic voice lives.  It lives at the intersection of main (you) and Beethoven (one of your inspirations, for instance).  It doesn’t actually carve up so neatly, but that’s the idea.  If you’re motivated by 50-cent, and you’re writing a symphony, you should invite 50-cent to the drafting table.  Get him there, symbolically, and feed him as you work.  Keep him happy, but keep him right next to you through the entire creation process.  Why?  To strengthen and clearly define your art.  And as an added benefit, you now know how to market that sucker when you’re done.

Most great art isn’t about one thing.  It looks a bit more like an oriental rug, with lots of patterns running through it.  But the artist is responsible for understanding what patterns are in there and reaching for more than the dilettante, who may adopt a “catch as catch can” approach.  The dilettante can afford to leave a thumb print behind because the thumbprint imparts spontaneous beauty which can’t be replicated.  The master artist wants to know how he/she did it, so they can do it again.  If you’re writing a novel, you don’t want to rely on chance to get that charmingly placed thumbprint.  You’ll want to know how to make it more charming than when it happened by chance.

There are a few typical mistakes artists make on the path to mastery.

  1. Knowledge blocks intuition.
  2. Don’t think.  Feel.
  3. Commercialism is anathema to art.

Let’s knock ’em off, shall we?  Intuition is important, no doubt.  Intuition without knowledge is a broken promise.  Intuition offers the potential for greatness and gives answers before we’re ready to understand.  Over reliance on intuition can be disastrous.  Knowledge, practice, study, comprehension, these things provide the framework for an artist to know what they’re supposed to do with all that good intuition.  So if you’re intuition heavy and knowledge light, it’s time to re-balance the equation.

Feel, don’t think?  Good if you’re a Jedi, but bad if you’re Han Solo.  Han Solo didn’t feel his way through a career as a smuggler, he had to learn it from the school of hard knocks.  Where is the Imperial Fleet and how fast do I need to be in order to outrun them?  (Make the Kessel run less than twelve parsecs, for instance.)  Without doing some research, he’d never have become the galaxy’s numero uno smuggler-o.  (You’re welcome Star Wars fans.)

Commercialism is bad? Commercialism can dilute art.  No question.  But it doesn’t have to.  Making something commercial is only about identifying who your target audience is and reaching out to them.  The stronger your conception of audience, the less you risk dilution in the commercial process.  If your product has no clear consumer, commercialism will likely bury your art beneath ideas that were never yours.  But since we already agreed that strengthening your conception creates greater art — you’re a perfect fit for productizing the art.  Commercial away!


6 thoughts on “Interconnectedness: Art and Commercialism

  1. Hey Dave, got your note at twitter, but I had already read this post before that as I’m subscribed and got that notification first. Great post–especially loved this:

    Even Beethoven, much as he resented it. You can’t write a symphony for a million performers and expect it ever to get played. You can’t write a symphony that lasts 24 hours and expect more than your mother or father to be interested in listening. Probably not even them. So why are you writing it? Is it art if your work can never be experienced? If that artist is you, then you’re not going to like what I have to say. For everyone else: read on.

    Yeah, if you can’t communicate your art with an audience, it doesn’t matter if you’ve created the greatest masterpiece ever known to mankind–it’s going to be little solace that someone discovers your work a century after you’re dead by accident to declare it as such when you died young because you couldn’t afford to feed yourself though your work, eh?

    Learning how to get your work out there is difficult, and for most artists is an incredibl steep learning curve!!

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