jellyfishLast night we went to a preview for James
Cameron’s new movie, Aliens of the Deep. It was pretty spectacular in
3-D Imax, all shot on the bottom of the ocean with extraordinary
critters and lunar landscapes. Cameron chatted with us just before the
screening and told us he much preferred these personal efforts to
Hollywood fare and would be continuing down this path. Here’s a guy who
made many of the biggest blockbuster movies ever (Alien, Terminator,
Titanic, etc) and won Oscars (Top of the World, Ma!) and instead of
making more and more crap full of explosions and mayhem has
increasingly devoted his creative energies and resources to these
little underwater documentaries aimed at schools and scientists.
As I mentioned a couple of days, I am thinking these days about the
balance between creativity for one’s pleasure versus creativity for
hire. With the exception of the few Damien Hirsts and Richard Serras
making big bucks, art is a business done mainly for its spiritual
rather than financial rewards. As an illustrator, one can make an okay
living, probably about the same as an experienced postal worker. One
has a certain amount of liberty in the way in which one works but, by
and large, you are executing other people’s ideas or at best creating a
drawing to accompany a story someone else has created. If you work for
publications, you’ll have decent freedom to interpret the assignment
and most of your drawings will be accepted pretty much as you draw
them. If you get one of the rare advertising illustration assignments
still left around, you’ll make a lot more money but have to redo your
work many times to fit the exact visions of the art director, creative
director and client.
Advertising is one of the most lucrative businesses for creative
people. We make double what designers do but generally get half as much
respect from our clients (most of whom make far less than we do). Our
ideas have to go through many layers of approval and then rounds of
testing but millions are spent to share them with the world.
Make no mistake. There is a fundamental difference between the work we
do for ourselves and almost anything we do for hire. Art is an
exploration, an unfolding of things that are deeply rooted in who the
creator is. It is not meant to fit an agenda or even express a message
(though much art is decoded for its ‘messages’, an aspect of the work
that is usually a byproduct of the artist’s process and not its true
purpose). Creativity that is commercial is always restricted by its
purpose. It may seem very free and loose and personal but it isn’t.
Even if one uses a song or an image that were created for personal
reasons and one puts it into advertising or design, one changes its
spirit forever. You can’t help but deform it by changing its content.
The song may sound lovely in the commercial but it is twisted to fit a
different agenda and thus loses it true beauty, a bird in a gilded cage
At the highest end of the advertising and design world, it appears that
top creative people have enormous control and freedom but I know many
such folks and though they are freer than their peers, compared with
the freedom of true fine artists they are crippled slaves.
Making the transition from one world to another is awfully hard.
I have hired artists to make ads for the first time and they are
horrible at it. I have hired movie directors to make their first
commercials and they struggle with the whole notion of shooting
something to time, to fitting a story into 30 seconds. Even Martin
Scorcese balked at it and produced mediocrity compared to directors who
are used to fitting their skills to the task. Composers, photographers,
painters, actors, all have trouble making the transition to the narrow
confines of commercial creativity.
The inverse is equally true. When I first started working with
publishers, I completely misunderstood the relationship. I thought my
editor was my client and assumed I had to follow their suggestions to
the letter. My agent disavowed me of this, pointing out that I
was the client, I was the goose laying the golden eggs, the producer of
the product that everyone else was profiting from ( which is equally
true in advertising but that value equation is rarely acknowledged as
if one’s salary was a lump-sum deal that expunges any rights of
ownership). Sure, the relationship was one of business partnership but
my vision was what my publisher wanted. That was a tough one to get
used to but enormously satisfying and liberating. IWhen I write a book
(and it becomes increasingly so with each book I do), I am out to
express myself and to find the best possible way to do so. Others’
functions is simply to help me understand how clear and engaging I have
been in doing so but the direction and responsibility are mine. That
feels a lot more like art to me. The check one cashes in such a case
may do less for one’s bank account but much more for one’s heart.

These thoughts on the value of creativity are rudimentary and a little
conflicted. I’ll keep working on them and share them as they are