August 14, 2004

where to draw the red line


More thoughts on "How To Be Creative":

15. The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it. The more you need the money, the more people will tell you what to do. The less control you will have. The more bullshit you will have to swallow. The less joy it will bring. Know this and plan accordingly.

Recently I heard Chris Ware, currently one of the top 2 or 3 most critically acclaimed cartoonists on the planet, describe his profession as “unrewarding”.

When the guy at the top of the ladder you’re climbing describes the view from the top as “unrewarding”, be concerned. Heh.

I knew Chris back in college, at The University of Texas. Later, in the early 1990’s I knew him hanging around Wicker Park in Chicago, that famous arty neighbourhood, while he was getting his Masters from The School of The Art Institute, and I was working as a junior copywriter at Leo Burnett. We weren’t that close, but we had mutual friends. He’s a nice guy. Smart as hell.

So I’ve watched him over the years go from talented undergraduate to famous rockstar comic strip guy. Nice to see, certainly- it’s encouraging when people you know get deservedly famous. But also it was really helpful for me to see first-hand the realities of being a professional cartoonist, both good and bad. It’s nice to get a snapshot of reality.

His example really clarified a lot for me about 5-10 years ago when I got to the point where my cartoons got good enough to where I could actually consider doing it professionally. I looked at the market, saw the kind of life Chris and others like him had, saw the people in the business calling the shots, saw the kind of deluded planet most cartoon publishers were living on, and went “Naaaah.”

Thinking about it some more, I think one of the main reasons I stayed in advertising is simply because hearing “change that ad” pisses me off a lot less than “change that cartoon”. Though the compromises one has to make writing ads can often be tremendous, there’s only so much you have to take personally. It’s their product, it’s their money, so it’s easier to maintain healthy boundaries. With cartooning, I invariably found this impossible.

The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not. It is this red line that demarcates your sovereignty; that defines your own private creative domain. What shit you are willing to take, and what shit you’re not. What you are willing to relinquish control over, and what you aren’t. What price you are willing to pay, and what price you aren’t. Everybody is different; everybody has their own red line. Everybody has their own “Sex & Cash Theory”.

When I see somebody “suffering for their art”, it’s usually a case of them not knowing where that red line is, not knowing where the sovereignty lies.

Somehow he thought that sleazy producer wouldn’t make him butcher his film with pointless rewrites, but Alas! Somehow he thought that gallery owner would turn out to be a competent businessman, but Alas! Somehow he thought that publisher would promote his new novel properly, but Alas! Somehow he thought that Venture Capitalist would be less of an asshole about the start-up’s cash flow, but Alas! Somehow he thought that CEO would support his new marketing initiative, but Alas!

Knowing where to draw the red line is like knowing yourself, like knowing who your real friends are. Some are better at it than others. Life is unfair.

Posted by hugh macleod at August 14, 2004 2:40 PM | TrackBack

If you are the natural self that you are, you use your artistic abilities out of joy. When you use your artistic abilities out of reward you distort them.

You produce forms of art because you think you should, not because it is a joyful part of your being.

And you begin to question, "Who needs my art most?" Very few people can understand the true nature of his own creativity to draw the red line.

Posted by: mwt at August 14, 2004 4:42 PM

Part of drawing that line for me has been deciding who I am willing to work for and who I'm not, regardless. Before the dot bomb, I supported the art by freelancing as a graphic designer. At one point, in late 1999, I was working for a company who made accounting software. They had an "interesting" biz model... Instead of retiring products when they came out with an upgrade, they would continue to offer the older versions at a progressively discounted rate. So in Novemeber 1999, I found myself redoing the packaging for accounting software that proclaimed right on the box that it was *not* Y2K compliant. What kind of asshole would sell flawed software just hit the few cheap-os out there who would be happy to cry murder when they lost all their financial data? Yeah, I quit that gig.

Last month, for the first time, I had a client refuse delivery on a sculpture. They had commissioned me to do a piece to replace the two sculptures they had already commissioned two other artists to do, neither of which they liked. Red line? Well, red flag anyway, right? They were in every way the worst clients I've ever had, even putting aside the money issue. I took the gig 'cause I really needed the cash, and after wasting a lot of time and material, I walked away without the cash...

I think the red line is definitely something an artist needs to draw. The way to decide where to draw it? Think back to what Hugh has said before, "products are conversations." Do you want to talk to this client? *Can* you talk to this client? Business is also a relationship...If you take the gig for the same reasons you take home the last woman standing at the bar, are you gonna be happy in the morning? Probably not. The first place to draw the line is a solid distance this side of desparation... The best way to draw the line is to decide exactly what you want to do, then figure exactly which one of the 6 billion people on the planet has the money and the interest in seeing the project done. Track them down, and sell them. Having done your research, you will already know that you have enough in common to work on the project, hence, you already know that they *are* someone you would want to have a conversation with.

Posted by: john t unger at August 14, 2004 7:21 PM

Frank Cho (Liberty Meadows) left newspaper syndication to comic book format just because of people telling him what to do. So it happens alot in comic field it seems, when he was doing the newspaper form he had an email list that he would tell the changes he had to make.

Posted by: Thomas Vincent at August 14, 2004 7:40 PM

It is my considered opinion that folks will give you an idea of the kind of businesspersons / human beings they are right off the bat: just let 'em talk and take careful note. The anecdotes they choose to tell will give you everything you need to know.

Beware of the conversation with the producer that begins, "The last guy I had in here wound up with a broken nose. Well, he pushed me first."

Posted by: Love Detective at August 15, 2004 5:24 PM

I don't think that's the meaning of "suffering for your art".

Posted by: Cindy at August 24, 2004 3:56 PM