“You must think of yourself as a businessman as much as an artist.”
I have often heard this statement or variations of it, and here I give my thoughts on why it is misunderstood, and difficult to accept.
There is an image of businessmen (and salesmen) which in many ways is defined as “not an artist at all”, in fact someone who doesn’t appreciate or care about or interact with art or the concept of art in any way. It isn’t part of the definition, and it’s rarely spelled out in so many terms, but if one accepts some exaggeration (like a mental magnifying glass) we can more easily address the issue.
If you take this underlying idea of a businessman without allowing it to be vague, then for any artist to actually think of himself as a businessman he must cease to be an artist, down the most fundamental level. In this way the word “businessman”, defined by common use, has come to mean “a bad thing to be”. The cultural idea of the “starving artist” is another part of this, in that art and business are seen as opposites and incompatible, and this is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Businessman and the Merchant
What should “businessman” mean when used “properly”, so to speak? Basically it should just mean someone who sells and seeks to sell, someone who does business. Words one could use instead of “businessman” (or to describe how you choose to think of yourself as a businessman) would be words like “dealer”, “trader”, or, a quite good one, “merchant”. These are still associated, at least in my mind, with valuing and appreciating the wares one is selling; one can smell the spices, see the dyed patterns, hear the rustle and clink, feel the silks and furs. Whereas the “businessman” or “salesman” seems to be utterly and repellingly unattached to any actual wares at all: they stand alone in a universe of graphs with a suit and clipboard, a symbol of the vanity, superficiality, and lifelessness of finance, without the glamour of “treasure” or even “wealth”. Some of this poisonous oblivion has infected the word “success” too.
The Real World
Really it is the artist who is more connected to reality, measuring success and value in sight and sound, taste and touch, glory, peace, and experience, rather than numbers and checkmarks. Without the reality of which the artist sings, numbers have no savour, and are not fit for dunghill, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. The most basic needs of humanity, food and clothing and protection from harm, are infinitely nearer to the mind of an artist than to “business” devoid of artistic sense.
As art is in a way the foundation of value itself, it is an appalling flaw in the cultural mindset (one of many flaws) to think that an artist is at a fundamental disadvantage when it comes to financial success. There are always advantages and disadvantages no matter what trade is taken up. There are cultures where bards were throned with kings. On the other hand, art being more fundamental than business can in a sense be a disadvantage, because it is easier to get a number or a checkmark without any depth or taste, but if art is the focus you are actually required to some degree to be profound and to have an “attractive” mind you could say.
Here is another thought. Art is increasingly devalued and treated lightly in oppressed societies (which is practically all societies these days). To the oppressed, survival (or “getting by”) is often uppermost on the mind. And their oppressors have little use for artists (except for their own amusement and for showing off). As people are merely tools to them, expertise and labour is all they want (education systems controlled by oppressive regimes reflect this). Thus, art is an attack on the cycle of oppressor and oppressed (enter Robin Hood). Art reminds the oppressed why they want to survive, and reminds the oppressor that people are people, with desires, and anger (and sharp teeth).
I have not been a good merchant. Until quite recently I have fallen at least emotionally for the culture’s error, that business and finance are incompatible with art, the false idea that art cannot truly enter business. Only recently have I acknowledged my duty as a trader. Of course not all artists have a duty to be a merchant of their art – while all have a duty to in some way “work with quietness and eat their own bread”. Every person however, whatever their work, has respect to pay to art as a part of their humanity, the image of God, the Creator, the Author, the Artist.
“Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories”
I’m Done Now
So, hopefully with a better view of the first statement, we’ll finish with this statement:
“Being an artist is foundational to being a businessman.”
(I’m cross-posting this here and on the site for OOM: a fellowship for lovers of the strange things of our Maker.)