Cynicism and Contempt in Art

Believe it or not, there are some artists that concentrate on creating art that they think will pay them the most, attract the most fans, assure their place in history or make them a celebrity.  That’s their sole purpose, as an artist.  They use their art purely as a vehicle to wealth, popularity, immortality or recognition/infamy.  They’re constantly trying to do what they think the zeitgeist demands, trying to follow fashions and trends and suppressing their own taste and artistic impulses in order to become a servant to mass public desires.  They’re willing to sell their soul and sell out completely, to achieve their goals.  The fact that they create art is almost secondary to their first calling – finding a route to riches and fame.

I know that alarming assertion may be hard to credit, but it’s true nonetheless.  Just like the fact that not everything on the Internet is true (two completely unexpected and devastating shocks in one blog post – I know.  Stay with me, people).

I concede that there are very few artists that actually aspire to poverty, obscurity, evanescence and anonymity.  However, how far are some artists prepared to let the opposite goals distort their artistic integrity?  Does artistic integrity even matter?

If you approach art as a means to an end, what does that do to your art?  What do you lose as an artist?  Does your art suffer?  Are you even really an artist at all any more, if your business is, in reality, the ruthless, single-minded pursuit of money and fame?  I think prostituting your art for these ends does enormous damage to your artistic integrity and once that’s gone, it’s exceedingly difficult to restore.

It’s impossible to deny that appealing to the lowest common denominator, in the short term, does help you sell.  No doubt about it.  There are countless creative people that became rich and renown by the simple expedient of pandering to the basest instincts of their audience.  Reality TV programmes do it.  Many conceptual modern artists do it.  Painters, musicians, boy bands, girl groups, Svengali-like record producers and sundry impresarios have all followed this tried and tested recipe and made loads of money in the process, simply by releasing and promoting cynically conceived art.  Give them what they want.  Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the general public, goes the famous quotation.  Become flavour of the month and you could become richer and more famous than you ever imagined.  But what will you do next month?

What kind of art do these people produce?  Contrived, engineered, concocted, condescending, derivative art, lacking soul and authenticity, that’s what kind.  It’s manipulative and contemptuous of its audience.  It’s fake.  It has a manufactured feel and is of relatively poor quality.  It doesn’t lead, it follows.  It’s an ephemeral, superficial, cosmetic confection.  It jumps in on the trend bandwagon.  More spin than substance.  These artists are playing the market and playing the people.  In short, it’s utterly cynical.

(Aside:  the word “cynic” owes its origins to “one who sneers like a dog”.  Ironically, a dog may be the one creature singularly incapable of cynicism; they’re so open-hearted and trusting)

Holding the audience in contempt, as an artistic career strategy, has a fatal flaw.  As soon as the audience realises, they begin to see you as contemptible.  You lose all credibility and good will.  Milli Vanilli was despised, in the end, but not because the music was bad.  They were reviled because people had been duped.  Nobody likes to be made a fool by an artist.  When the deception was revealed, people reacted angrily.  Becoming a laughing stock, as an artist, is a condition that is difficult to cure.  Nobody will take your art seriously, after that point.

In the early seventies, the Osmonds released a very good record, containing songs they had written, recorded and produced, called “Crazy Horses”.  I have that album.  It still stands up well today.  Their record company hated it and steered the brothers back toward singing cheesier material.  And so that’s what the Osmonds did: sang cheese.  Yet I’ve heard it said that the Osmond Brothers were justly proud of their self-penned record and their heavier musical style, full of song lyrics with an environmentalist message.  They regret that they didn’t make more of that kind of music, spending more time in the studio and less time touring.  Of course, that chance has more or less passed now.  They can never rewrite their history and make the kind of high-integrity records they wished they had made.  We share that regret with them.  We wonder what else they might have produced, had they not been consigned to producing endless cover versions of romantic, schmaltzy, elevator Muzak.  It’s a lost opportunity of massive proportions.

When recently asked what he would have done differently, Richard Carpenter of “The Carpenters” regretted that they spent so much time making personal appearances and playing so many live shows to unappreciative audiences.  He says, bluntly, that they shouldn’t have done any of that.  Had they spent more time creating music in the studio, Karen might still be with us today and their musical legacy would have been even richer.  The loss is too sad and enormous to even contemplate.

Who can name any famous (dead) art forger?  We can name most of the artists whose work they forged, but rarely the forger.  It’s the same with the band members of tribute (cover) bands.  We know the names of the members of the bands they mimic, but not the names of the mimics.  It doesn’t matter that they’re note-perfect.  They’re nobody.

When artists that are well established and known for one art form try their hand at promoting their other kinds of artistic work (like when a rock star exhibits their oil paintings, for example), they are often (and maybe unfairly) suspected of cashing in, promoting their second art on the back of the acceptance of their first art.  It doesn’t matter if their second art is good or bad.  It is believed to be inferior.  The public is suspicious of being taken for a ride – perhaps overly so.

Some artists imagine, by default (and perhaps by indoctrination), that what you need to do is make money at all costs, however you do that.  They think that the smart artists design their careers and works to make themselves popular, no matter how contrived their art becomes.  But some costs are just too high.  Once the audience has dismissed your art, it’s hard to do anything that they will pay any attention to.  It’s almost impossible to be taken seriously ever again, irrespective of the quality and proliferation of your new work.  You’ve burned a bridge, using your integrity as fuel.

Looking at the most successful artists, you often hear a story of stumbling onto success accidentally, just by doing the only thing they knew how to do, the only way they knew how to do it.  Having a high degree of technical skill sometimes offers choices that perhaps tempt the artist to be cynical.  Counter-intuitively, having fewer choices can be beneficial.  If all you can do is what you do, your own way, the opportunity to bend your work into a different form, for deliberate mass appeal, simply isn’t available to you.  That can be a blessing in disguise.

I think it’s ultimately better to go your own way, make what you love and what you are passionate about, ignore trends and set your own, make sure that what you do is authentic and honest, do it with integrity and courage, be wholehearted and be prepared to put your real self into your art, despite knowing that it makes you vulnerable to failure, rejection, and even irrelevance.  None of that bad stuff matters, if what you derive from your art is the pure enjoyment of making it.

If you’ve ever worked for a company whose only reason for operating is to make money for the shareholders, you know it feels rootless and directionless.   It’s uninspiring.  It atrophies.  Every minute of every working day can seem like an eternity.  There is, of course, an alternative.  There are companies that are good at articulating why they do what they do and these places are, on the whole, far more vibrant, interesting and satisfying places to work.  There is a sense of purpose and people join together to achieve a common, worthwhile goal.

The same thing holds for an artist.  What is your creative vision?  People want to buy into why you are an artist, not what you produce.  What are you striving to accomplish?  The art you create is not actually about you, it’s about them.  In what way will your artistic output affect their lives positively?  Where is your art taking them?

Ironically, the decision to follow your taste with integrity leads to art that is far longer lasting, more memorable, more remarkable, more deeply beloved, more remunerative and more appealing to more people than anything designed cynically, to appeal to the masses and enrich the artist.  Authentic art leads to more of everything good.  You can’t please everybody or make everybody like your art, so don’t try.  Just make sure that the people that like your art love your art.

It’s never too late to start listening to your heart and soul, where your art is concerned and going where your creativity and originality takes you.  The audience can catch up later.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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5 Responses to Cynicism and Contempt in Art

  1. pauseobservereturn says:

    I must admit that I am regularly critical of a certain famous female “pop queen”, who follows the trends and does precisely what will snag the biggest audience for her next “re-invention”. This is fine, but when she calls this work her “art”, and gets all precious about it, I feel like responding that she is simply an exercise in amazing branding, collaboration with other (arguably far more talented) artists, and following market forces. This, in my opinion, is not art. It’s commercial music, made with the intention of getting rich and famous. Riches and fame are still held as the highest goal by a frightening proportion of the population. I hope that, beneath that, there are still some genuine artists, following their gut, their instincts, and their true creative direction.

  2. I hope so too, or culture is going to begin to get mighty stale. We need the mavericks and the loners. We need something fresh and new. Thanks for commenting.

  3. adventures says:

    Holding the audience in contempt is a defense mechanisim that allows an artist to continue their passion, their dreams, and fullfill that love that they have for the lines, colors, flow, & graceful rhythm of their art. It flows from inside out. Who cares if anyone else sees it, feels it, it’s been expressed once it’s on board, canvas or paper. It’s out there and if the anyone doesn’t “get it”, so what 🙂
    I appreciate art, but am not an artist.
    I appreciate music, but am no musican.
    I appreciate life, yet sometimes forget to live in the moment 🙂
    I appreaciate your writing, but am not a writer 🙂
    I love your blog. Please keep writing 🙂

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