Hello Interwebs! This article goes out to my fellow creators and outlines three principles for art: don’t be too dumb, don’t be too smart, and know who you’re creating for.
Art for art’s sake is a little something I like to call “pretentious”. Yeah– I’m coming out swinging on this one… What do I mean by “Art for art’s sake” anyway? Well, I’m talking about the snobbish equivalent of doodling. Sometimes art is well-crafted and worth all the admiration it receives; and sometimes art is something a child could make, yet has somehow fooled people into thinking it’s clever.
NOTE: I’m talking about “art” in the sense of creation– not necessarily visual artistry. All my examples will be about films and TV because this IS, afterall, a film blog.
Many creators work tirelessly on their passion projects only for them to bomb critically or commercially. There are, of course, more factors to success than I could hope to guess at. However, there are also some clear guidelines which will give you a better shot than most. Starting off with:
HAVE A PURPOSE OR A MESSAGE (AKA DON’T BE TOO DUMB)
The biggest question your audience will have for any work you ever release is, “Why should I care?” Maybe you don’t think that question is relevant. Maybe getting folks to “care” is a bonus. So long as they merely “like” your thing, that’s good enough, right? From where I stand, “liking” and “caring” are the same thing. People don’t like things which they don’t care at least a little about.
And how do you get people to care? By emotionally investing them. That can mean anything from giving your audience a good cry, to making them laugh a few times, or simply not boring them while they have your attention. To accomplish any of these goals requires you as an artist to know what reactions you’re trying to stir in people.
Like my aforementioned doodle analogy– art for art’s sake is basically meandering. Art needs a raison D’être (reason to be). You need to build around a central point or message(s) because mere entertainment/ spectacle isn’t good enough for most consumers without a solid context. I repeat: Audiences need an emotional take away from their experience with your artistry.
I know that sounds hard to pull off but, truth be told, you don’t even need to be clever! Plenty of dumber things than you’ll ever write somehow became successful (“The Room” immediately springs to mind). Your creation’s driving force can be cliche, or derivative or ill informed– though preferably NONE of those things. But so long as there’s some kinda focus you’re off to a good start. Ideally, you won’t stop there though.
Here is perhaps the worst story ever told. Don’t do anything like this (except ironically).
You’ve got to ask yourself “Why am I bothering to make this?” ‘Cause if you can’t think of a reason, then you probably aren’t passionate enough about your work. And where there’s lack of passion, there’s lack of effort; and where there’s lack of effort there’s lack of quality; and where there’s lack of quality, audiences ignore your thing. I definitely don’t think you WANT people ignoring your things. And more importantly: you deserve better than busy work.
Your blindly churned out content almost assures you’ve wasted your audience’s time– and, arguably worse, you’ve probably wasted your own as well. Did you really push yourself as an artist, learn something new, or otherwise gain from the experience? Artistry is as much about your personal growth as some arbitrary measure of “success.” Always continue to learn and improve your craft.
DON’T BE TOO SMART EITHER
Putting out works of little substance is bad; but quantity of substance doesn’t equal quality. Far as I can tell, there’s two kinds of “smart” artistry: creation which may be academically dissected as well as enjoyed, and creations which are only worthy of criticism and academia but which most people couldn’t care less about.
In essence: there’s a difference between work which is “smart but accessible” and artistry “so smart only people with university degrees and/ or lots of free time will figure it out”. I’ll bet you and most people you know dislike the later type of arts and entertainment. But why is that?
The primary issue with insufferably “smart” content is that it’s more about an artist’s ego than your enjoyment. Such works are so busy showing off that they forget to be appealing. Or, if they have appeal to anyone but the creator, it’s too niche for most folks to appreciate. It’s good to be smart, but smarts aren’t always used for good.
Here’s a recent example: Who is a film like Tenet made for? Action movie lovers? Well– the action is good but a lot of it can be confusing. Drama enthusiasts? Good drama requires an emotional depth which Tenet refuses to offer. People who want to be entertained? The plot’s too dense for that.
Answer: Tenet is a movie for Christopher Nolan and his most dedicated disciples. It’s a vanity project meant to show off how creatively his mind works. And I’m saying that as a big fan of his work! I’m not saying Tenet has no merit but it almost ONLY works as an art piece instead of a fun action movie, which is what it billed itself to be.
But Tenet isn’t even good art because there’s lots to dissect but little of value. Once again, we circle back to that important question: “Why should I care?” Truthfully, there’s little reason. Unpack the big mysteries and the convoluted plot and you aren’t left with much else.
One big problem with this kind of “smart” entertainment is that it breeds a toxic kind of fan– the type of person who says “You just didn’t get it” to gloss over the fact that art didn’t generally resonate with critics. And if it didn’t resonate with most people, it probably sucked (in a sweepingly objective sense. Enjoy what you want to enjoy). But don’t mistake bad content when you see it. Just because a work of art SEEMS intelligent or is made by intelligent people doesn’t mean it has any merit.
Let’s compare Tenet to another Nolan movie: Inception. This one’s another “smart” movie but appears more basic on the surface. Its subject matter is complicated but not impenetrable. You’re able to follow the plot AND appreciate how smart Nolan is. But if you don’t care to analyze the film, it’s just a good action movie.
NOTE: I neglect to get into detailed plot discussions of either Tenet or Inception because this is not a film analysis article. I’m just making a point about a couple famous movies.
So not only do you lose people’s interest by being dumb, but by being too smart as well. People can be fickle, huh? Hopeless though it may seem at times, there’s only one choice which makes sense for you:
FIND THE BALANCE
What you wanna create may be unappealing to most others; and what general consumers want may seem base for your tastes. So what is an artist to do? Find the balance between you and your audience.
Be clever without ego; be dumb with substance; and make what you enjoy whilst ensuring there’s something in there for others too. Good artists must trust in their craft and in their market. Creation is a symbiotic experience between talent and consumers which requires both sides work in harmony. Everybody ought to gain from partaking in these hypothetical creations or else there’s no point in them.
Of course you can’t please everybody, or even most people, and maybe not even yourself. But the right people will gravitate towards your art with time and patience if you’ve struck the proper “smart/ dumb balance”. Don’t be afraid to add some spectacle to your serious story; and don’t forget to add some story to your grand spectacle.
Four of my film-making heroes are Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Those guys mastered the ability to gain box office success AND critical acclaim. Their movies have all won Oscars, yet are beloved by people of all ages and walks of life who couldn’t care less about the awards. Think Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Godfather, The Departed, Indiana Jones, Apocalypse Now, The Wolf of Wall Street, E.T, Taxi Driver and many more!
Their stories contain heart, drama, comedy, intrigue, action, violence, groundbreaking visual effects, a technical mastery of their medium, original subject matter for which they have passion, and a healthy dose of humility. These guys are great at what they do but rarely if ever go overboard. I aim to emulate their prowess in my own work and I believe you should as well!
Feel free to disagree with any of my above points. Art shouldn’t necessarily have to be limited by any “rules”. But I believe that general consumers of any artistic medium deserve better than valueless content or ego trips, and that YOU as a creator deserve better material than simplistic sketches or artistic grandstanding.
What are other examples of “Pointless” and “egotistical” films you can think of? And what traits make an ideal creator? If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time,