We all have a tendency to notice the things we want to notice, which reinforce our prejudices and ignore the things that argue powerfully against them. The whole notion of the starving artist is something that people believe in, because they can think of countless examples of artists that have tried bravely and failed utterly. What we tend to ignore are those other countless success stories of artists that have made a real difference, become well known and have become financially independent, through their art. If it can happen for them, why shouldn’t it happen for you?
Ideas are funny things that spread gradually, until they take root in the minds of everyone and become accepted fact. If you are an artist, your stock in trade is new ideas. How they spread and propagate turns out not to be due to shouting about your art from the rooftops, in a saturation publicity campaign. That rarely works. OK, you need to market your art somehow, but it isn’t sufficient to make your art a success. First you have to make great art, where “great” has a very specific meaning.
Take a look at this video, as a model for how ideas spread and take root:
This is telling us something very subtle. It tells us that the way to become successful, as artists, is very simple indeed. All you have to do to become successful, acknowledged and rewarded, as an artist, is to capture the imagination of the whole world.
That’s it. Simple, huh?
In a world full of random ideas, you just need a few people to nudge the others gently, but insistently and consistently, toward your idea and before long, the whole world is marching in step with you. It’s why there are ideas whose time simply comes. There isn’t a master plan and the whole thing doesn’t take much energy. The important thing is to get your ideas to resonate – to find the least resistance to becoming something that a lot of people will readily buy into, because there is already something in the wind that makes them open to the idea, or because the Zeitgeist of the times makes it ripe for your idea.
“Oh, is that all?” I hear you say, your voices dripping with sarcasm. As obvious as it sounds and as difficult as it might be to achieve, that really is all there is to it. Capture the imagination of the whole world and you have it made.
Think about some of the artists who did make it. Andy Warhol is a household name. Why? Because he made ordinary household objects extraordinary. J. K. Rowling , struggling and broke, wrote a work of such magnificence, yet it was rejected dozens of times, before finally capturing the hearts of its readers and becoming one of the most successful pieces of literature of all time (so far – your work still hasn’t been published, has it?). When I was a young man, Douglas Adams suddenly became widely known with his Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (in four parts). Why? Because it was laden with fresh ideas that a young audience were eager to absorb and embed in their own consciousness. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon remained in the charts forever, because its message was timely, personal, on people’s minds and it was presented in a soundscape that was fresh, powerful, emotive and memorable. The Beatles didn’t just make music; they defined and reflected the ideals of a generation. Jeff Koons also held a mirror up to the banality of our consumer lives and struck a nerve, which makes his works noticeable and lucrative. When Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was released, nobody had ever presented such a work to the pop music buying public. Queen figured that pop music consumers had grown up and were ready for something they could get their minds and hearts into. We’d had the starters and were now ready for a good, hearty meal of a song. It was served to us with the finesse of a Michelin starred chef.
Twitter, facebook, google and instagram all became big successes because people were ready for them. The appetite existed to connect with people at a greater distance and to dive deeper into the ocean of information available. In a world that was becoming more corporate, locked down, belligerent and propagandised, people found that connecting with each other and delving into the things they were told was something they needed to do. The proprietors caught the collective imagination.
When Leo Fender released the Fender Stratocaster, a design so successful that it has remained largely unchanged for the past half century, he tapped into the widespread need to challenge authority, even on a small scale, through the personal freedom to play electrically amplified rock and roll, once obnoxious to those in power. His guitar was not a mere musical instrument; it enabled its players to make powerful political and ideological statements. In a world where there had been widespread warfare, where young people were routinely killed to defend the interests of an older generation, playing a Stratocaster was a means to show two fingers to all of that. Artists like Jimi Hendrix embraced the Stratocaster and made music of such potency and unexpected power, that we still talk about it today, decades after his death.
These are all artists of one stripe or another (I include inventors and software engineers amongst them) who caught the imagination of the whole world and became successful because of it. They were not starving artists, in the end. They created indelible milestones in our culture.
Today, we talk about videos that go viral, memes and so on. All of these are examples of the resonance of ideas and the synchronisation of thinking that goes along with that. We’re all just like the metronomes in the video. That can have a dark side, of course, but in cases where the idea is a good and benevolent one, it’s a powerful force indeed, beyond the control of any government, tyrant or dictator. Those that would seek to control the rest of us hate the fact that ideas have the potential to resonate and propagate.
So what makes an idea, a work of art, or an artistic statement more likely to capture the imagination of the whole world? I think it has to be a work of quality, brilliance, originality, which confounds our expectations, surprises us, captures the mood of the times (the Zeitgeist), aligns with (or better still, creates) a fashion, which is somewhat unexpected and therefore further defines our times. It’s a positive reinforcement (or feedback) of ideas that are already bubbling beneath the surface. The artist’s role is to provide clarity of expression of those latent thoughts, concerns and feelings. The artists provides a language and vocabulary, be that musical, technical, verbal, literary, poetic or visual, with which to lucidly express what we’re all already thinking.
If ideas can be thought of as just waves of energy (which, at source, they really are), then synchronising those thoughts, across all of humanity, requires a little self-reinforcement of the nascent idea and some positive feedback. Before long, resonance kicks in and the idea takes on its own unstoppable momentum. The more the world thinks it, the more the artist can help them think it. An artist that adds value to this positive feedback loop becomes beloved, recognised and successful. They have played their part in refining and defining the collective consciousness and giving it expression. The work of an artist is very important, indeed.
capture someone’s imagination
Fig. to intrigue someone; to interest someone in a lasting way; to stimulate someone’s imagination.
If you are an artist and you are not succeeding, or if you are still starving, the reason is simple. You aren’t doing enough to help the world clarify its consciousness. That doesn’t mean you have to pander to the basest instincts and prejudices of the people, even though some artists do, regrettably, choose this route. No, what is open to you is to believe in the finest that humanity is capable of and provide artistic expressions so rich and redolent of these ideas that people cling on to them as ways of saying what they feel, when they, themselves, lack the ability to do so clearly. You’re the means of saying what they’re all thinking. You are the one that gives them a succinct means of stating what they believe, at the deepest levels of their consciousness. It takes courage, because sometimes you are called upon to rebel, speak out against the powers that be and proclaim startling new thoughts that people are, themselves, afraid to express.
If, as an artist, you’re not doing any of that, then you’re probably not going to be successful and probably won’t capture the imagination of the whole world.
The choice is yours.