I think writers are luckier than artists and composers. Most of us don't start out with the ambition of creating great art. Usually, we just want to tell an entertaining story and get people to buy our books. We want them to do that so we can keep writing. The way it usually turns out, people mostly don't buy our books, a fact that causes us both financial and emotional distress. But we keep writing anyway. By the time we figure out we're not going to be able to make a living with writing, we're already addicted to the process, and it's too late. We hold onto our day jobs and hope that some day the urge to write will go away and that we'll find a cheaper hobby. But we do have much in common with artists and composers. We all suffer. And that suffering isn't just due to lack of money and acclaim.
This situation is beautifully illustrated by the movie, Untitled. We see two brothers struggling to be the best they can be. One is an artist who has managed to make money at what he does, yet he can't seem to get critics and gallery owners to notice him or show any respect for his work. The other is a gifted musician who is also a composer – but the music he creates is far from commercial. Audiences walk out on him when he performs this music. He tells his brother, The Artist, that he's going to give it three more years – and if he doesn't “make it” by then, he's going to kill himself.
This is a line that makes you laugh – not because you think it would be funny if this guy killed himself, but because you actually understand how he feels. He's out there, a voice in the wilderness, and he really believes in what he's doing. His brother does too. Both of them have something all creative people share: hubris. It's a trait that flies in the face of American values, an overconfidence mingled with a lack of modesty. Yet we can't work up the nerve to create stuff without it. We draw, and paint, and compose, and write, and we show what we've done to the world. When the world ignores us – or worse, laughs at us – it's really painful.
Besides their suffering, the two brothers in Untitled share something else – or rather, someone. They both get involved with a young woman who's a gallery owner. She is strongly attracted to artists who are as unpleasant, unappealing, and weird as possible, because she believes they are true pioneers. Her great talent is to peddle this idea to wealthy patrons, and she actually makes her case very well. Despite her preference for unappealing art, she reps the artist brother, selling his “pretty” paintings to banks and hotels, making a lot of money for him and for herself. This allows her to mentor the weird artists she truly loves. But when the artist brother wants to have his own show, she puts him off. She thinks he's not good enough, but she can't quite come out and say that to him. We look at his paintings, and we can see her point of view. They're pretty, but seem kind of boring.
The gallery owner also thinks the composer brother isn't good enough. Yet she can't resist his weirdness, or the dissonance of his music, so she promotes him. She lets him perform at her gallery, and the audience loves him. But along with the applause and the appreciation, there's also laughter – they think he's being deliberately funny, and he's not. This really humiliates him – but the performance makes it possible for the gallery owner to get him a commission. For the first time in his life, he's got to come up with a serious composition that someone else is paying for.
For a writer, this is comparable to selling your first novel. You believe you've finally got your foot in the door. Finally getting noticed is heady stuff, you're ready to take the world by storm. But bookselling is a commercial business, and what happens to new books is that they get released as if they were hamburgers. You've got maybe a month or two to sell as many hard copies as you can in a Brick & Mortar store, and then you're pretty much off the radar. These days, with ebooks and internet, you've got some options writers didn't have before – you can petition bloggers to review your book, try to get guest blogs, try to make some happy noise on your social media networks. Basically you become the best carny barker you can be, regardless of what your publisher is willing to do to promote your book (which is generally almost nothing).
But even if your initial sales are enough to win you another book contract, you discover another painful truth. Your publisher has pigeonholed you as a certain type of writer, and they are only willing to consider certain story ideas. In a way, you've got to keep writing the same book, over and over. If you try something that's too different from what they expect of you, they won't buy it.
For the artist brother in Untitled, this is actually not a problem. His paintings are all very much alike – that's just what he wants to paint. But in his own way, he has still been pigeonholed by the gallery owner. She believes a show of his work will flop. And at this point in the movie, you agree with her. When the paintings are seen individually, they look pleasant, but uninspired.
Meanwhile, the composer brother seems to be blossoming. He has to direct other musicians, and for the first time, there are rumors of actual moolah materializing. He gets to work with a singer who hates his guts. She's talented, and very opinionated, and harbors suspicions that he's trying to sabotage her by making her look ridiculous. Yet she stays on board, and he learns more about directing. Every time they perform you still want to laugh, but you begin to realize that part of the reason you're laughing is that the music is not just “weird,” it's witty. There really is an inherent beauty to unstructured sound – you hear it every time you stop to listen to distant thunder, or wind chimes, or the sound of water bubbling over rocks. At this point the film has performed a subtle shift – the characters are seeing and hearing things differently, and so are you. You begin to realize that the gatekeeper in the movie, the gallery owner, is not just helping the artist and the musician. She's hurting them, too.
This is what gatekeepers always do, whether they're gallery owners, critics, recording executives, or publishers. They can turn you into a professional. They can make it possible for you to achieve critical and/or financial success. But in doing so, they become the bosses of your career. They decide what you're going to write, paint, and compose – and what you're not going to write, paint or compose. They decide what ideas and projects are worth pursuing. It's very hard to succeed without them. But once you've teamed up with them, your choices become very limited. And worse, those gatekeepers who let you in will eventually shut you out for good. Up until recently, once they closed the door on you, you were done.
Now things are shifting around pretty drastically in the publishing world. They're shifting in the music world too, though It's still hard to say what's happening with art. I suspect we still have some gatekeepers – like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, YouTube, Google – But so many people are using these services, they don't seem to have the time or the inclination to micro-manage anyone's career (yet). For the time being, we writers and artists and composers have the option of plying our trade online without getting the approval of a gatekeeper. Many of us are finding out how hard, exciting, satisfying, and aggravating that can be. Probably the best thing about it is that we get to decide what we've got that's worthy to show the world. Many people would argue that's also the worst thing about it. The possibility of looking ridiculous is scary – you could lose credibility, rack up hundreds of bad reviews, look like a fool to the world.
But sooner or later, you have to risk that possibility. Because you're creative, and this is how you can succeed, even when the gatekeepers won't let you in – or when they've decided you're done, and shut you out for good, which is what happens to most writers, and artists, and composers. You can take the guff and slink away with your tail between your legs, or you can seize the day.
And that's exactly what the brothers do, in Untitled. Just when you think they're going to keep knuckling under to the gallery owner, they decide they have to do what they have to do. The composer writes a composition all right, but when the time comes to perform it for the wealthy patron who bankrolled it, the composer emulates the gallery owner's favorite artist, a guy who makes “invisible” art. The composer makes soundless music.
And the patron demands his money back. But that's okay, the composer is ready to stride off in his own direction, he really knows what he wants to do now. He doesn't need to follow anyone else's ideas about what music he should make. His brother, the artist, also asserts himself – he demands his own show. He gets it, simply because all of the other avante-garde artists have abandoned the gallery owner by this time (apparently they're a fickle lot). So she fills her gallery with the “pretty” art. And another odd thing happens. Once you see all of those paintings together, they look beautiful and inspiring. You realize that the reason the paintings look pleasant-but-sort-of-boring by themselves, is that they were all really part of a larger work, something that's still in progress.
So the gallery owner was both right about him and wrong about him. She was helping him along and holding him back. Gatekeepers do filter a lot of amateurish stuff out before the wider public can ever see it. Sometimes they also mentor talented amateurs until they turn into professionals. Once you've got a gatekeeper in your corner, you really want to please them, you're inclined to see things their way. It's actually a little sad how badly you want to please them. If you become uber-successful, as a handful of people do, this relationship may shift until you're the one who needs to be pleased. I think we all hope for that outcome. More often, you just get strung along until you're finally dropped.
But in a way, that's the luckiest thing that could happen to you. You don't have to work up the courage to take the plunge, sever your ties with a gatekeeper, and possibly assassinate your career – because you've got no other choice. So what you do instead is make the best of it. You try to figure out what your options are. It's hard work, but not really any harder than becoming an artist, or composer, or writer in the first place. You suffer when people laugh at you, or ignore you, or write lengthy opinions about why you suck. You don't get much money, or much critical acclaim, but you still feel driven to express yourself. Every time you put something out there, you're taking a big risk, and it's scary.
The compulsion to create overcomes all that. And, after all, it's not slings and arrows every second. They say that anyone who can be discouraged from [fill in the artistic endeavor], should be discouraged. And that's the most essential thing all artists/writers/composers have in common. We can't be discouraged. We dream. We dream big.
Those qualities, above all else, may be what really define us.