James Franco: When Art Is Your Product, Creativity Is Your Business

1977180_757692484275968_9183412970869913930_nIf you’ve ever tried to make a living from your art, you know the feeling: How do you make something that you’re proud of, that expresses your creativity and artistic vision, but that’s also successful enough to get someone else to spend money on it? No one wants to be a sellout, but what if following your dreams to the letter also ends in financial ruin? Often, we hear advice that artists and creative entrepreneurs should do what they love and follow their bliss, but less often do we actively address the stark fact that not everyone’s dream is necessarily financially viable.

“We rarely hear the advice of the person who did what they loved and stayed poor or was horribly injured for it,” writes Rachel Nabors for Medium, elaborating that, doing what we love is great and healthy, but at a certain point, there’s also a reward for the time and energy spent pursuing your passion.

In an interview with The Wall St. Journal, actor-turned-director James Franco, who arguably has more resources to throw at his own creative instincts than most regular people, argued that this exact issue — the strain between making art and making money — was what pushes creative people into a variety of fields, addressing the challenges of making art that’s also expected to be successful.

“There’s always that old balance of art and business,” Franco explains, “We still call the film business ‘The Film Business’ for a reason. It’s a mass-market form of art or entertainment. So that means that thing on the scale that you’re aiming for or the scale that you make the thing on, you’re thinking about the audience to a larger degree. Because it’s an investment. You’re looking to recoup an investment.”

Franco went on to explain that he, personally, feels this tension in his work.

“One of the hindrances to creativity in my business is trying to please or fit a specific model to where it hinders an artistic voice. But I’m not also one who says ‘screw the audience.’ Even in the movies that I make that are a little more esoteric, or based on William Faulkner, I’m still keeping in mind that this is a product. This is an investment. So I try to be responsible about my budget when I’m doing something like that.”

Part of the tension between financial interests and artistic ones, says CreativeLive instructor Lisa Congdon in her book, Art, Inc., is the idea that great art must necessarily come from material hardship. Which, she says, simply isn’t true — and the idea that the best work is constantly quashed by the need to make a living is also patently false.

“Much of what separates successful artists from those who struggle is simply their mindset. Struggling artists often create obstacles in their minds by making erroneous assumptions about the way the world works. They give weight to the ‘starving artist myth’ — part conventional belief that pursuing a career as an artist leads to financial struggle and part romanticized notion that art is better when created in a state of deprivation,” she explains. “But the starving artist myth is just that: a myth. And believing in any part of it will keep you from becoming a thriving, working artist.”

The financial element, she says, is actually much simpler than many artists make it out to be. Making money from art isn’t about selling out, but rather, succeeding.

“Promoting your work means that people will know what you do. And selling your work will support your livelihood and allow you to make even more art.”

The temptation to do something solely for the money — and thus, not for the creative or emotional reward — is a strong one. But, as cartoonist Bill Waterson once explained of his time making art for advertisements, “it was a rude shock to see just how empty and robotic life can be when you don’t care about what you’re doing, and the only reason you’re there is to pay the bills.”

Hanna Brooks Olsen FOLLOW >

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.