The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse: Chapters 7 & 8

We’re continuing our discussion of The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse by Michael Gungor. I hope to make this accessible to everyone, whether you’ve read the book or not, but you should definitely read the book.

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Last week we talked about three of the roots that affect how we created art. Today we’ll look at the next two roots discussed in the book. These chapters were two of my favorites because these are aspects of creating where I have a hard time sorting out my feelings.

Chapter 7 – Capitalism: Paying the Pear-Shaped Superman

This chapter starts off with a story of a girl being rescued from certain death and when the mother thanks the hero and asks if there’s anything she can do, he asks for money. Not much, but you, something for his trouble. And while it’s difficult to deny that the act has value, requesting money certainly seems to cheapen it.

Gungor suggests that “When art becomes a mere commodity to be traded like a sack of potatoes or bushel of corn, it is cheapened.” (Kindle Loc 1153)

However, he then goes on to change the story a bit, and when the hero returns the young girl to her mother, she just says, “Let’s go inside now,” without any acknowledgement of the deed that has been done.

This is the conundrum that the artist faces.

How do we share our art in a way that doesn’t cheapen it, but that also recognizes the value that we place on our craft. In a recent newsletter, I shared that I don’t create for an audience of one, no matter how much I’m “supposed to” do that. I want to share it. I want feedback. I want the community that springs up from around it. And I won’t say no to money from it.

But it’s easy to get wrapped up in the “professional” side of things, where making money means you’re an artist.

An artist is not someone who is paid for his art. An artist is someone who makes art. In a capitalistic society, it is especially important to remember this distinction. (Kindle Loc 1202)

Our culture is faced with the temptation to tie our sense of worth to our level of production in the world. This is as true for the artist as for anyone else. In a culture like ours, it is easy to believe that the measuring stick of value of our art is money or popularity. But chances are, some of the best art being made right now is invisible to you and me. (Kindle Loc 1216)

This can be very difficult for me to remember. It’s easy to want to write about the things that bring the good blog stats. Not because they are topics that I care about, but simply because I know they work. This is not where good art stems from.

He then talks about selling out. I think this is what really hit home for me. I think because it is a fear that most artists have, and a concession that many artists make, at least occasionally. Because when I get paid to write or to play music, I have more time to write or to play music and I can get better at those disciplines.

So how do we know if we’re selling out?

The very act of creation ought to connect the artist more deeply with the ground of his humanity. It ought to align with that inner Muse. When it doesn’t, we create in a way that separates us from our true humanity – this is selling out. (Kindle Loc 1247)

We can create when our inner and outer worlds are out of sync for a while, but it can’t be sustained in the long-term, and as a result, we’ll end up with sub-part art. And worse, we’ll lose part of ourselves as well.

Chapter 8 – Celebrity: Sign These Pythons

The first time someone I didn’t know came up to me and said, “I read your blog!” I immediately thought this. It is kind of a weird feeling to be recognized, but it’s also kind of awesome (especially if you’re an extrovert like me, who thrives on that kind of thing). But even more than weird and awesome, it’s kind of silly. Being recognized because you write a blog like literally millions of other people is just odd.

Celebrity is such a strange, fleeting, finicky thing.

Michael writes about the first time he played guitar at a youth group meeting when he was 14. How the kids went from fighting over who had to sit beside him to who got to sit beside him. He wrote about how it felt like the big cheesy movie where everything is fantastic and the nerdy guy gets carried out on everyone’s shoulders.

But the truth is, that fades pretty quickly. We get our moment of celebrity, but then we fade right back into obscurity. We find out pretty quickly that we’re not quite as big a deal as we thought we were.

In a fame-worshiping culture, the stage can be quite a powerful place. It can also be a dehumanizing one.

In our culture, celebrity is not the same thing as a healthy respect for the work or character of a person. Fame elevates men to gods. It turns people into objects, into desirable things to be photographed, prodded, touched, and consumed. (Kindle Loc 1362)

One of the most negative concerns of celebrity is that it can quickly lead to unhealthy comparison. When we see someone who is famous for doing what we do, it can cause us to doubt our own abilities if we don’t have a similar level of fame or popularity. Clearly our art must not be as good if we’re unable to attain some level of celebrity. And in the midst of that, we can wrongly choose not to create or we choose to pursue celebrity rather than honesty.

Celebrity is something that we can’t escape, but we can make wise choices nonetheless. We can choose to stay true to our art and we can remember that fame is fleeting, even if it does feel good for a minute.

Questions for Discussion

  • What are your thoughts about the tie between money and art? Does it free up the artist to create more or does it bind the artist to itself?
  • Where do you find value in your art in a capitalist society?
  • How do you avoid selling out?
  • How do you navigate the trap of celebrity?

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Next week, we’ll look at chapters 9 and 10, which are the last two roots. If you’d like to write about any of this on your own blog, please use the tag #CrowdCriticMuse so we can all follow along.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  • http://rawfaithrealworld.wordpress.com/ RawFaith

    The issue of money and art is something I most creative people struggle with. It’s hard for most of my creative friends to feel like they have to go out and promote themselves. Plus there is something weird about asking for money to do something you love. Its harder too when we are living in a culture (especially in the Christian subculture) who views art as something that’s not really all that necessary, except for worship music, which they approach as utilitarian. Since I’ve made my living my whole life I had to learn to work with that. When I was doing photography and album covers I had to learn to look someone in the eye and give someone a price that made it worth my while when inside I was thinking “but its fun and I would do it for free.” In the case of my comercial stuff I got to the point where I could do it pretty good. Making several thousand in a day doing album covers gave me more time to pursue my fine art photography and media projects that were my real love and passion.

    Now teaching music in the midst of bad economic times, I find it hard to charge even the going rate for lessons in my area… but I know that I need to do that. There are a few photographers around here who have taken a creative “old school” approach to their art. They have patrons who help finance their travels who get an exclusive print out of the deal which makes it possible for them to travel all over the world. They market themselves in a way that people understand they are paying for the art in what they do, not just the prints.

    These days I try to stay focused on my true passion, which is teaching and mentoring people to use their musical and visual arts gifting to make a difference in their worlds. I make sure I always have scholarship spots for gifted kids who can’t afford it. I also encourage my students who are in bands to find a way to support themselves so when they do their music, they don’t have to pander to their audiences based on desperately trying to make enough to get by. Most of them who do that ultimately end up being more successful financially because they are able to stay true to their vision and calling which makes them more unique and interesting. It’s hard to navigate all that.

    Being an introvert I’m not all that concerned with celebrity, although I do know a ton of people. One of my friends had an bumper sticker made saying she knew me because it freaked her out how many people I do know. It was weird for her when people started responding to it. Hummmm maybe I need to start selling those to pay for medical bills. :)

  • http://ear-sword-miracle.blogspot.com/ Miles O’Neal

    “What are your thoughts about the tie between money and art? Does it free
    up the artist to create more or does it bind the artist to itself?”

    I’d have to answer, “yes”. It depends on the artist and the conditions. Most of us could probably name bands who did great work until their big record contract. After that, whether it was the record company’s direction, the pedestals, the drugs, whatever, the music quality took a nose dive. But there are also bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, who kept producing great rock and roll. A lot of that can be attributed to Ronnie van Zant, their leader. He knew where they were going, and he knew what it would take to get there, and he had the personality to back it up– both with the band and with the record companies.

    I think we need to distinguish between “the value of art” and the “monetary value of art”. Art has value in what it does for people, whether money is involved or not. I struggle with the latter piece because until now I’ve mainly written short stories. By the time I had enough confidence to polish and shop some of these around, the market had shrunk drastically with the internet’s growth, and with the sheer number of people trying to sell short stories.

    That also ties in with a related issue– most creative people aren’t that great at business. This may because an educational lack, a motivational lack, a natural lack of sales and marketing skills, or some combination of these, but it’s common. Come on; if I wanted to be a business major I’d have been a business major. I want to create.

    How do you keep from selling out? I can but guess; ask me after I’ve had the opportunity. 8^)

    The celebrity trip, on the other hand, I’ve had minor brushes with, and friends who’ve had i thrust upon then in much bigger ways. I think the biggest keys are to really know who you are, to set boundaries, and to have people who love you around whom you can trust– and do just that. Oops, one more. Don’t take yourself too seriously, even if others do.

  • Nathan Stockstill

    Celebrity seems a lot more complicated. While there’s definitely an element of chance in celebrity, achieving celebrity generally means one has connected pretty strongly with an audience. And if it’s the artist’s intended audience, then the artistic creation probably achieved its purpose.

    Pursuing celebrity for financial reasons is probably not good for one’s art, but pursuing celebrity can be a way of improving and focusing one’s creative efforts.

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