Choosing an artistic collaborator is something that most artists do without giving the selection of their erstwhile creative partner too much thought. It either feels right, or it doesn’t. Mostly, the decision is made spontaneously. Unfortunately, it can be a life changing decision, so you need to make a good choice of collaborator. You may be together for a few years artistically, but spend the rest of eternity in bitter recriminations or in courtroom battles, enriching an army of lawyers, funding their jet setting lifestyles, paying for their swimming pools and myriad home extensions and putting their children through the finest schools. Just look at the Beatles: the poster boys for artistic brotherly love, gone wrong.
This list of things to look out for in a potential collaborator might be so obvious that this post reduces to nothing more than a checklist, but even so, it’s a useful reminder, I think. The list applies to all sorts of collaborators, as well as artistic ones. It can be a guide to choosing an agent or a manager, for example, or even an employer, if you are a creative person in the employ of another. Understanding why relationships with galleries and record companies often result in acrimony also becomes more obvious, when reading this list.
Here are some stereotypes you might want to be wary of joining forces with:
The greedy grasper – Most graphically characterised by the phrase “take the money and run”. This guy is the one that organises everything so that he maximises the monetary return from the artistic collaboration for himself and he doesn’t care too much about whether or not you get your money at all. In fact, if he can take some of yours and make it his own, he will. Why are some people like this? The greedy grasper doesn’t think they will ever have another good idea in their lives, so they have to make the best of this one, at all costs. They have so little faith in their own artistic talents and powers that they imagine any success they enjoy is pure fluke and that they need to milk it fast, for all it is worth. They also believe that money equates to success, even artistic success. Of course, it doesn’t. You have to wonder if this kind of artistic collaborator cares more about money or about their art. I think you can figure out which.
The untrustworthy betrayer – Their modus operandi is to “charm and cheat”. They take pains to be seen as plausible, credible, trustworthy, honest and believable at the beginning of the collaboration, making assurances and promises they have no intention of keeping. Their end game is calculated to leave you in the lurch. They don’t care who they cheat. They only care about their own reputation to the extent necessary to cheat the next collaborator. In lieu of a genuine reputation for honesty, they think appearances ans window dressing will suffice. They think their ability to pull the wool over your eyes, extracting real creative output from you today in exchange for imaginary rewards in the future, is their unique edge. Often, they see their artistic collaborators as gullible fools. In reality, what they are, in fact, are people who don’t deserve the trust their collaborators place in them. These people eventually find themselves alone and isolated.
The free rider – Ever noticed that in some collaborations, one of the collaborators is doing all the work while the other is having all the fun? Sometimes, the free-rider discovers that living the life is much more interesting than doing the creative work and while there is somebody else there to do it, why not pretend to be an artist, while spending most of your time in pure self-indulgence? The root cause of this behaviour is a lack of confidence in their own artistic abilities or being matched with a collaborator that is too far ahead of them or else too domineering to let them develop as an artist. It can be quite sad, really.
The credit taker – This person is happy to take all the glory, but seldom willing to take the blame. They’re driven by an unhealthy desire to be the best. Maybe one parent or the other never acknowledged and affirmed their artistic “self”. They’re terminally defensive about their own shortcomings and live with an inordinate amount of self imposed guilt and shame. What they are actually doing is reliving their less than nurturing artistic childhood, through a succession of artistic projects that can never fill the void where their parental approval ought to be. No matter what you create together with this person, their instinct will be to claim the collaborative effort as their own work, or largely due to their brilliant presence. For a talented collaborator, working with the credit taker is a perpetual drag. It will drain your soul of your love for your art.
The pathological narcissist – Also known as “the diva”, this person has been so indulged for so long, that they have begun to expect everybody fawning over them as their right. They will indulge in bad behaviour for its own sake, because that, they think, is how an artist should carry themselves in the world. Far from lacking parental attention and approval, this person probably had too much, to the exclusion of perspective, social skills, empathy with other humans, self-discipline or limits and boundaries of any kind. They make an art form out of being precious. They abuse underlings and think everybody is their underling. Collaborating artistically with this kind of person is a particular form of torture, reserved for one of the seven inner circles of hell.
The spotlight hog – These people sincerely believe that the entire purpose of your artistic collaboration with them is to serve as a vehicle to promote themselves and their interests. It doesn’t enter their heads that the collaboration might be about you too. They will elbow you aside to stand in the spotlight and comment publicly on the collaboration, but are less keen to put their full artistic talent into the venture. After all, that’s what you’re for.
The vaguely committed – They’re not too sure this is the best collaboration for them, but it’s the only one on offer, for now, so they’re on board with the project up until the moment a more attractive proposition comes along. At this point, they’ll jump ship without a minute’s hesitation and vaguely commit to the new project, for one never knows if an even better one than that is just around the corner. Like most bed-hoppers, if their new project doesn’t work out for them and another better one doesn’t come along, they’ll come crawling back to you, full of apologies, regrets and promises – until the next time. Don’t take them back.
The perennial victim – This collaborator knows that the whole world is against him and always has been. They’re equally sure it always will be. You’re just the latest combatant. Honestly, you don’t need this in your life. Seriously. Let them work their own attitude problems out and then consider it, but not before then. Sure, some of the saddest artistic work is the most beautiful, but you’re not a sacrificial lamb.
The self hater – Also known as the “black hole” or “bottomless vortex of doom”, this person is so convinced of their own worthlessness, both as human being and artist, that nothing you ever do together will pass their stratospheric quality bar, for release. “It’s all just rubbish,” they’ll glibly state, even if your contribution is plainly not. Known to burn collaborative works to make their point, they are not what you would call nurturing and encouraging artistic partners. There are, of course, sub genres of music that have made a virtue of this mind set, but it amazes me they get anything artistic done at all. Perhaps it is an act of self flagellation and penitence to share their inferior works with the world, so that the masses can excoriate them further, with withering criticism and reinforce their self-belief in their own inferiority. You don’t want to get caught up in this. The consequences are unpredictable.
The blind faith advisor promoter – They don’t have the confidence to assert their own opinions or artistic direction, but they have an advisor they trust implicitly, who they will wheel out, like some kind of second in a duel, to argue out any artistic conflicts. The problem is that the advisor is rarely an actual artist and only too willing to say and do whatever outrageous thing their paymaster requires them to do because, well, they are on the payroll. An artistic collaborator that hides behind this kind of charlatan advisor is cowardly. They are incapable of confronting you, as an artist, unwilling to handle conflict and yet fully prepared to ram their opinion down your throat, using their thuggish advisor. More often than not, these advisors turn out to be utter crooks, of the greedy grasping variety. Why would you put up with your paymaster’s continual crap, if you weren’t?
The fugitive from unmasking – These people have taken on board the idea that what they do isn’t a real job, not a worthy occupation for a serious person and in some way a fraudulent pass time, albeit a lucky break. They think that, at any moment, the Taste Police will unmask them as fakes. They’re not sure they know how to create the next success so, paralysed by self-doubt, they enmesh their collaborators in a period of enforced stagnation. Most collaborators eventually drift away for want of a purposeful direction or an invitation to make any contribution to the artistic collaboration whatsoever. Don’t waste your time being hooked up to an artistic partner like this.
The totalitarian leader – This “collaborator” (and I use the term loosely) will ruthlessly suppress all dissent to maintain absolute artistic control, including the elimination from the project of any and all collaborators that disagree with them. Like all totalitarian leaders, they will present all mistakes as part of some elaborate and deviously clever master plan, yet to be revealed to the likes of you. This, of course, is pure bluster. In common with all totalitarian leaders, they lack the wit, wisdom, talent and skills to succeed without the rest of their collaborators’ brilliance. There is no project too big or ambitious for their hubris, though. Rest assured, they can bring even the most fruitful and successful artistic collaboration to a state of utter ruin.
Regrettably, in some artistic collaborators you can find a toxic mix of more than one of the above stereotypical traits. If so, be doubly cautious about collaborating with them, if your career depends on it. Even more tragically, many of these traits manifest other correlated behaviours, such as an interest in substance abuse, above the goal of artistic collaboration. All of these people, in one way or another hate themselves. Their motivations are fear, guilt and shame. What they need is understanding and care. In the competitive (though collegiate) hot house of commercial artistic creation, that’s hard to achieve. By all means, collaborate with them in non-commercial settings, if you have the patience and humanity to help them through their pathologies, but even that won’t work if the artist you are trying to work with doesn’t recognise the traits within themselves or doesn’t want to change them.
It begs the question: can you really tell how a collaborator will turn out, when the money eventually comes in? You have to take some educated guesses and look for the tell tale attitudes and signs. Money has the power to corrupt absolutely, so even the best and healthiest artistic collaborations can be at risk, once the cheques start arriving. However, bad behaviour when you are obscure almost always “amps up”, with a little fame. What you don’t want is such a blatant unbalance in the artistic relationship that you are at risk of creating a monster if, heaven forbid, the collaboration succeeds commercially.
An even deeper question, though, is whether or not, under the joint name and reputation of your collaboration, you are prepared to back the failings and mistakes of your collaborator, who is, after all, trying his or her best? Will you be encouraging or crushing? Will you give them the time and space they need to express and perfect their own artistic contributions? Maybe we’ve all been guilty, to some degree or other, of some of the less than desirable traits listed in this article, at one time or another.
Are you a good artistic collaborator?