I’ve been writing a lot about game development and coding so far on the blog, especially from a creative coder perspective. However today I am going to empathize the “creative” more than the “coder”. I initially created this blog with the help of a book called Renaissance Business by Emilie Wapnick. I discovered her after listening to her amazing TED talk . Basically this blog is my platform to celebrate and share my many passions with readers, instead of forcing myself to fit into a specific niche mold. This post explores the question about whether capitalism kills creativity, and how I have personally found that it’s difficult to focus on creative expression when trying to sell my work and make it marketable.
To bring this back around to the topic of art consumption, I have always thought of art as the center of all things, because artists can make work about almost any topic under the sun, and in almost any form, and still have it be recognized as art. I won’t get into an art history lecture here but if you’ve ever been to a modern art museum you will know what I am talking about. I think that makes art, in many ways, the original Renaissance Business. Why business? Because artists need to eat, too.
A little more background about me before going further. I have been working professionally as a developer for four years. However, I actually majored in Visual Arts in college and still have a lot of passion for the arts. When I was in school I imagined myself being a graphic designer and selling photography and illustration on the side. In my sophomore year I got my first DSLR, a Canon 60D and I was utterly thrilled. I was also lucky to have a family that loved to travel far and wide.
As you can guess by now, I took a lot of photos. I also knew a fair bit of photo editing with Photoshop, because it was the same tool I used for graphic design. I loved to tweak my photos and create vibrant, luscious imagery of nature. Unfortunately for me, there was already tons of these images on the internet. I didn’t think about that while beaming at some of my best photos. What I was thinking about was how great my photos might look on someone’s wall. Or how with my nice fancy camera I could print them out at large sizes.
You can probably guess where this is going. Like millions of other people on the internet, I decided to open an online store. There were quite a few platforms to choose from: DeviantArt, Shopify, Etsy, Cafepress, Fine Art America, and all of these other options. I did several hours worth of research and settled on Fine Art America, because I liked how I didn’t have to deal with any of the shipping or printing, and basically just had to upload my digital files and set my prices while letting the platform do the rest. Below are some of my photos, for context:
At first I was hopeful. I saw visitors looking at my images, sometimes commenting. I decided to share on Twitter and Facebook. Got some more visitors. A few family members bought some prints in the first couple of weeks. Unfortunately, that was all that ever came of that shop. Even today I still get visitors checking out my photography, because I haven’t bothered to take down the shop.
That was when it hit me. Being a skillful artist, photographer or otherwise, was not enough to see any success selling your work online (not implying that I believe I am exceptionally talented, just that I put in many hours to hone my craft). In fact, being a skillful artist didn’t even mean that you would get noticed. It might have worked years ago when artists relied on selling to local communities that didn’t have access to a tool allowing them to view beautiful art with one simple click or keyword. Back then, seeing a skillfully painted landscape or illustration might have been at least a little bit rare.
Perhaps that is not entirely fair of me to say. I have sold a few small creative items over the years. Once I had some illustrations featured in a magazine, and I’ve drawn some portraits in a park for donations that people seemed happy to hand over. Some might even accuse me of being delusional. What was I expecting, that posting some art on the internet would actually mean something? I admit, I was naive. But I think there is something sad about the state of art consumption. It seems the business acumen of an artist ends up being more of a contribution to success than the years they spent perfecting their craft. Maybe this is nothing new though, after all, we know Van Gogh died penniless and hated by many.
Yet I wonder even if artists who were successful in the era of Impressionists would be able to succeed in today’s online world. There are so many things an artist needs to know in order to be able to sell their art to make a living. First, they must be active on social media. They must be active members in several online groups or communities. They must post updates of their work frequently to their followers lest they lose interest. Finally, they must be in tune with popular culture and understand things like SEO, content management, and web hosting. Then they must continuously keep their finger on the pulse of the creative industry they are in. That was when it hit me. Could this mean that capitalism kills creativity?
Naturally I didn’t know all of these things at the time. My thinking was that I could simply put up my photos and people would come and buy them. I wasn’t ready to devote hours of my day to promoting my new photography store and getting my name out there. I thought my photography could stand on its own, but I realized that was simply not the case. The store has been up for five years now but the only sales were in those first couple weeks.
Fast forward to 2018. I was missing graphic design after working for 3 years as a front end developer. My husband was in law school and after work I was often bored while he studied. Recently I had finished reading The Handmaids Tale. I knew that on Etsy, people liked to buy posters, purses, and mugs with quotes on them. My thinking was that maybe I could sell digital prints with quotes from feminist literature. I bought Photoshop and started to collect quotes from books and authors I liked and download beautiful cursive and italic fonts that would make the quotes look more like a work of art than simply text on a page.
In many ways the Etsy store I created with these feminist literature inspired quotes was exactly the kind of thing that most marketing gurus and even other successful artists encourage creatives to do. Find a niche that fits into popular culture, create a style or brand, and make items that fit into it. Finally, they must create a store only for selling those items, and make it easy for consumers to purchase.
Sure enough, following these guidelines did lead to some moderate success. Certainly a lot more than my photography store. I sold dozens of my download-able designs (I didn’t want to deal with printing and shipping myself), though most of them were all purchases of the same thing. A Wonder Woman quote (see image above) that I made after the Marvel film was released.
If I had to be honest, this was the most discouraging part of all. It meant that unless my quotes were centered around something popular, nobody would buy it. Even if it was a specific niche with a specific brand. I had been more interested in finding quotes from literature, but those quotes sell in much smaller quantities. It felt like if I wanted to make art for money, I wouldn’t ever be able to follow my heart. Instead I would need to follow hours of research based on trends and popular culture. That concept essentially sucked all of the joy out of making art.
Perhaps this is more of a philosophical question, but isn’t true art the kind that comes directly from the heart, and brings the artist joy? I don’t mean to disparage people who make art for a living, because I have tremendous respect for them. Especially Japanese animators who toil away under extreme deadlines and often work themselves to death because of the time consuming nature of the art they make. In this case, capitalism kills creativity by literally killing the person. What I really hold at fault is capitalism, and how it turns art away from joy and into another corporate product for consumption. A product that can be broken down into business components instead of creative spirit.
Even if the artist actually enjoys the art they are making, the value of the art is considered so low that it is considered OK to burn them out and basically, torture them. To me, that is a sign of a culture that does not appreciate art at all. It’s a sign that maybe capitalism kills creativity after all. Although my Etsy shop and my Fine Art America website are still up, I don’t really have any expectations that they will ever turn into actual businesses. In fact, I’m not sure that I want them to, because making art is one of the few joys of adult life and I don’t want that joy to be stolen away from me.
Some people say that if you do what you love at work, you never work a day in your life. I would argue that, at least under a capitalist system, if you do what you love at work, what you love could eventually become what you hate. That is why capitalism kills creativity. That is why I have continued to work as a front end developer and make creative works like games, drawings, and generative art as a hobby and passion. I wish this wasn’t the case, but sadly after my past experiences that is what I have concluded.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the state of art consumption, and what you think could be improved. Do you think capitalism kills creativity? Are you a professional artist? Hope to become one some day? I know this op-ed may be a bit depressing, but by no means do I want to discourage readers from making art. The world needs it, even if it goes under-appreciated.