I recently heard a panel discussion by some accomplished professional artists about a variety of topics, ranging from the motivation to paint to the creative process to commercial success. It made me think of parallels between art and business and the role of philosophy and morality in both. What struck me was the almost disdainful attitude of some of the artists toward the outcome of the creative process: finished paintings. One artist said: “Ours is such product-oriented society; we shouldn’t be attached to the products [of art] but just enjoy the process of creation.” While this statement was made in the context of advice to an audience of aspiring painters, it contains a big philosophical error: ignoring the fact that we need values from food and shelter to art in order to live and to enjoy life. Creating values is a process to be enjoyed but not an end itself.
In an earlier post (“Productive work and happiness,” 19 July 2012) I argued that it is important to choose work that you enjoy. But the enjoyment of work is an integration: enjoying the work itself (with the recognition that challenge is part of it), and enjoying the outcome or the product of the work. There is no such thing as working for the sake of work itself without caring about the outcome, in any field, whether you are building houses, designing microchips, publishing books, teaching students—or creating paintings. We work to produce values: houses, microchips, books, education, paintings, either for ourselves or for trading with others. We need values for physical survival, for enjoyment of life, or for both. For most of us, art is a value that enhances our enjoyment of life; for professional artists, it is also a source of livelihood.
Another artist on the panel remarked that he did not much care whether his paintings were selling or not, and that commercial pressures were hampering his enjoyment of creating art. This is another manifestation of the same error, with the addition of a mistaken, second-handed focus on others’ evaluation of one’s work, or “commercial pressures.” Creation of high quality products, including paintings, must start with a primary focus on reality, not on other people. While it is true that buyers of products, including art, have needs or wants waiting to be fulfilled, the most successful producers and artists are prime movers: they create original, innovative products that create their own demand. Steve Jobs, and other innovators like him, did not conduct popularity votes among customers (or imitate his competitors) to decide what to produce but focused on creating best personal computers, digital music and mobile media devices, trusting—correctly— that in time there would be buyers for them.
Creating high-quality art, like creating high-quality material values such as personal computers or mobile phones through a business, requires first-handed focus on reality, doing one’s best, and actually producing paintings (or other forms of art). The rest—commercial success—will follow (in which marketing plays a critical role, of course).