Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.
To make a business decision, you don’t need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works.
As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.
The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.
. . .
You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.
Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.
But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.
– Bill Watterson, excerpts from his Kenyon College commencement speech, 1990. (Emphasis mine)
In this age, comics are no longer part of an arts minority that deals closely with business. In there heyday, and still to come extent when this speech was written, comics and animation occupied a unique space closer to advertising. Today almost any artist in any medium, be it musical, visual, or otherwise, is encouraged to sell an image apart from the art itself. In such an interactive age, we have a hard time latching on to anything that isn’t heavily pitched and surrounded by positive reinforcements like ads and personalities. Artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have advanced graffiti as George Herriman and Winsor McCay advanced cartooning, bringing something seemingly overlookable to an inspiring level of creative genius. Graffiti is all the more potent, a form that is in itself a satire and push back against the dizzying advertising seen everywhere today. The documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop” shows just how difficult it can be to keep motivations straight when fame and fortune lies in the route of getting famous by decrying the age of adventising.
For Bill Watterson to proclaim that there is a “good life” available that is strategically lesser in material contents and governed firstly by ethics and second by personality and skill really splits the crowd. I can think of a good number of people I know who I would expect to respond to this type of thinking with a “but can’t we be ethical while climbing ladders and gaining affluence?” Sure, I suppose you can try, but you only get one go at it. Keep your eyes open, and good luck!
J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Death
Bill Watterson On Playing Well
I work with many creatives and this problem of creativity becoming prostituted to the corporate machine is a regular issue. Unfortunately there are many artists who live by the adage of being their own master, but they are all but few the stereotypical poor artist. Reality is that unless there is a market the artist will be unable to make a living, and to do this they must prostitute their talents to the highest bidder.
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I think the only reasonable solution is to become comfortable with your creativity not being your sole source of income. Our culture makes us feel illegitimate pursuing things we can’t monetize, when many things grow into something better when they are “just for fun”. Often an artist’s first monumental work overshadows everything they later create, and I would assume that often that is due to the fact that the pressure of greater success keeps us out of any natural creative growth.
Sure, it generally sucks to have another job, but it works wonders in keeping the artistic motivation clear. Many prolific artists have maintained full-time jobs and done their work on the side. Having totally separate requirements can slow down the speed of advancement for the artist, but it can easily provide additional inspiration and maturation to the work. A resourceful mind can find new creative material in working a drive thru!
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That I think is a good strategy for the creative to follow.
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This is a great post. I love the emphasis on ethics and certainly understand that buying in can mean selling out. I have personally experienced that ‘prostitution’ of skills to earn a living. The times when I have enjoyed creative ‘freedom’ or experienced the synergy of working collaboratively with other creatives have been the most enjoyable parts of my life. I especially identify with the statement, “To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed”. Thanks for sharing this wonderful speech.
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I think he puts it into a unique frame with that phrasing, and I really appreciate it. To be true to whatever artistic projects are maturing in us will automatically require a counter cultural “subversive” mindset that is all but outlawed. Thanks for your thoughts!
Thank you! 🙂