Art vs. Commerce

Jay Z’s Decoded is a truly remarkable book – a unique and compelling blend of autobiography, cultural history, and critical insight. I’d recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in Jay Z’s real-life rags-to-riches story, the history of hip-hop, the politics and personalities behind the crack epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s, linguistic inventiveness, or in an incredibly successful artist and entrepreneur’s thoughts on art, creativity, and business (among a hundred other topics).

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One thing I found particularly insightful and exciting to read was Jay Z’s discussion of the intersection of art and commerce. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think about how these forces intersect in the world of fiction writing. And really, you could replace “hip-hop” and “rap” with any kind of art – fiction-writing, filmmaking, dancing, painting – and Jay Z’s sentiments remain sensible and powerful. Here are a handful of quotes plucked from Jay Z’s book:

“It’s a recurring story in hip-hop, the tension between art and commerce. Hip-hop is too important as a tool of expression to just be reduced to a commercial product. But what some people call ‘commercializing’ really means is that lots of people buy and listen to your records. That was always the point, to me.”

“I want my music to play where . . . people live. While there’s something intensely personal about what I rap about, I also make choices in technique and style to make sure that it can touch as many people as possible without it losing its basic integrity.”

“Even then, the idea some people have of ‘dumbing down’ is based on a misperception of what a great rap song can do. A great song can be ‘dumbed down’ in the sense that it appeals to a pretty low common denominator – a big chorus and a great beat and easy-to-follow lyrics can get you a hit (but even then there’s an art to combining those elements). But that’s not the whole story: A great his can also give listeners a second layer, and then a third, and more.”

“Knowing how to complicate a simple song without losing its basic appeal is one of the keys to good songwriting.”

“The other part of ‘commercialization’ is the idea that artists should only be thinking about their art, not about the business side of what we do. . . . when I committed to a career in rap, I wasn’t taking a vow of poverty. I saw it as another hustle, one that happened to coincide with my natural talents and the culture I loved. I was an eager hustler and a reluctant artist. But the irony of it is that to make the hustle work, really work, over the long term, you have to be a true artist, too.”

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I didn’t start reading and writing as a kid with making money in mind – I didn’t even really know such a thing was possible. And in high school and college, when I grew increasingly serious and excited about honing both my critical and creative skills, I wasn’t thinking about a career as a writer, either. The decision to make a go at that was made gradually and, in a lot of ways, invisibly.

But throughout all that time, one thing that I never spoke to my friends about or heard from my teachers about was how one might try to make a living by making art. (This shouldn’t be read as a criticism of my teachers, most of whom were wonderful and many of whom played integral parts in my becoming a better writer and, also, in my decision to listen to my ambitions to write professionally.)

There’s this terrible stereotype of the starving (i.e., non-commerce minded) artist, of the ascetic, monk-like writer selflessly practicing his craft, existing for his art and his art alone. But listen: starvation sucks, and it doesn’t by definition lead to great art. And while writing takes enormous amounts of discipline and requires one to make certain sacrifices, if you deny yourself everything, if you stay cooped up in your room all day, avoiding the world, where are you going to get your stories, and how are you going to fill them with life?

Yes, writing can be hard work – but teaching preschool, building houses, and performing brain surgery all require plenty of hard work, too. The difference for me being that I don’t like those other kinds of hard work, and I love the hard work that comes with writing. I wake up every morning eager to do it, whether or not the day before was a tough or a breezy one. And the fact of the matter is that if I want to continue doing it every day (and on a professional basis), I need to think – at least a little bit – about how the product I am creating can be made commercially viable.

In certain circles of writers, this kind of language induces red cheeks and cringes. The admission by a writer that he or she has in any way tailored their writing in order to reach an audience is viewed by such people as “selling out.” Thenceforth, the stories they tell will be seen as “impure,” as objects that have fallen short of being “Art.”

Which, if you take a second to think about it, is absurd – isn’t the fundamental impulse behind art a desire to communicate?

Jay-Z on New York subway with elderly artist

Jay Z’s statement about “dumbing down” songs addresses this absurdity, albeit parenthetically: “but even then there’s an art to combining those elements.” Yes, even those producers churning out nearly identical pop songs and those authors manufacturing formulaic novels are being creative, practicing some sort of art. Perhaps, for your taste, they’ve tipped too far over to the “commerce” side of the art-vs.-commerce spectrum, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t making music or writing books.

And I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: that tipping too far over to the other side of the spectrum isn’t a good thing, either. Shying away from, ignoring, or just flat-out denying the existence of the commerce side of things is only going to lead to legions of disappointed and/or poverty-stricken artists and a marketplace more full of the types of products made by exclusively “commerce-minded” individuals.

The other day, I happened upon a very commerce-minded writer’s blog. I found it odd and even upsetting to read the posts full of equations and projections about how fast she could crank out books and how much money she could hope to make from them. She had a five-year plan and a ten-year plan, and even lists of the things she’d buy if her predictions proved accurate.

It was a bit too much for me. But I’m averse to letting anyone see so much as a sentence of my fiction until I’ve labored over it and truly believe it to be in the best shape I can make it (the pros and cons of which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog: here and here). At the end of the day, I think the songs, movies, and novels that fall more toward the middle of the spectrum (that are made with both art and commerce in mind) will be those that reach the broadest audiences and inspire the deepest feelings – the art that has heart behind it, but that was shaped in such a way that it communicates that heart effectively.

Balance is always the hardest thing. It’s easier to veer toward the poles, the extremes. It’s safer, in a lot ways, to either make an art-like product that is shamelessly and blatantly for mass consumption or to create “Art” that can only be appreciated by an elite, sanctified few. Balance requires more skill, and when balancing, there’s always more at stake.

By concentrating as artists on maintaining that balance, and by teaching aspiring artists ways in which to do so, as well, we’ll be ensuring that more art – and better, more effective art – is put out there for all of us to consume.

To bring it back around to Jay Z:

“ . . . the irony of it is that to make the hustle work, really work, over the long term, you have to be a true artist, too.”

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