In my experience, all adult artists have one thing in common: they want to be able to live off of their art. They want their art to generate income. Some want to get rich and some just want to get to a point where their art can sustain them. I’ve heard so many musicians say the latter. They don’t need fame and fortune, they just don’t want to sit behind a desk or drive to a construction site five days a week. I can dig it.

This yearning for earning can really mess art up though.

When you want your art to generate income in the same manner that your real job generates income, you reduce your art to labor. People who get paid for their labor are just employees. And the only people that buy labor and need employees are owners. And the only purpose of an employee is to help the owner generate money the employee will never have for himself.

Truthfully, once the yearning for earning becomes your motivation as an artist, you’re no better off than if you would have just stayed at that construction job. Artists aren’t meant to be employees and have owners. They aren’t meant to have deadlines and quotas. Artists aren’t meant to get paid for their labor.

So, what do artists get paid for?

Their paintings? No.
Their writings? Nope.
Their songs? Uh, huh.
Their photos? Not even.
Their time? Negative.
Their product? Nah.

All artists get paid for one thing and one thing alone: their vision.

In the early 19th century, there was a French slogan that became really popular: l’art pour l’art. It means art for art’s sake. It was a credo that was birthed out of rebellion to the idea that art had to be educational, productive, useful and have some sort of moral function. Artists were being told that their art had to teach, instruct, and inform. Basically, they were being told that their art had to be about something other than art–and they didn’t like it.

Painter James Whistler was a leading proponent of art for art’s sake. During that time, he said, “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”

So, what is your vision? Is it anything other than your art? Just like artists today, the artists in Whistler’s time were trying to keep their vision and not let it be taken away by other motivators. Their issue was they didn’t want to teach, instruct, and inform. They didn’t want any of the powers that be to interfere with their creativity.

They just wanted to freakin’ art.

Today, we don’t really have Communist regimes telling us that our art needs to serve a didactic, moral, or utilitarian function. Instead, we have publishers and agents. They tell us our art needs to be marketable and it has to have a target audience. For us, the powers that be don’t care about the teaching, instructing or informing anymore. They just care about the money. Their job is to find stuff that will sell. That’s it.

That doesn’t make them bad guys. Most of them are good people. But if your art becomes marketability and becomes appealing to a certain target audience, you don’t have a vision anymore–you have a job. And, more importantly, you’ve lost out on something so much more amazing: art for art’s sake.

Whatever kind of artist you are, remember that your vision is what people want. You vision is what can get you paid. Producers get paid for their vision. Authors get paid for their vision. Architects get paid for their vision. Musicians get paid for their vision. Photographers, filmmakers, graphic designers and painters all get paid for their vision.

Most people get paid for their time and labor. Artists get paid for their imagination.

Just be you. You have a unique vision that no one else has ever had. Don’t let the powers that be mess that up. Don’t let money poison your creativity. Keep your vision and let the chips fall where they may. Do art for art’s sake and keep your sucky day job if it helps you do that.

A record label once told Bill Withers they were going to sign him and give him a huge signing bonus. But there was a catch: Bill had to change his music and add things to his show that he didn’t like. At the time, Bill had a job installing toilets in airplanes. This allowed him to look at those executives who were trying to get him to change his art and say, “I don’t need your money. I got a job.” Bill stayed true to his art. He kept his vision. And it paid off. His sucky day job allowed him to do art for art’s sake.

We need to be like Bill Withers. We need to defend our vision and never stop enjoying our art. We need to be confident in ourselves. The titles of Bill’s first two albums really capture the spirit of this blog: Just As I Am and Still Bill.

He was defiant. I like it.

Be like Bill: allow yourself to experience the fulfillment and satisfaction of creating something just because you think its awesome. Forget about target audiences and marketability.Be you. And stay that way.

Here’s a good mission statement for an artist: I will enjoy my art forever. If you do that, you can never fail. And most likely, your vision will eventually get you paid. But if not, who cares?

Don’t yearn to earn. Just freakin’ art.