“To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.”
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
A friend and I were recently discussing artistic integrity. I had taken a job that paid well even though it didn’t feed me creatively at all. I wasn’t struggling with the decision — I had come to the conclusion that as long as a well-paying job is relatively easy and doesn’t take too much time away from passion projects, I’ll take on as many as I need to. His response was somewhat in agreement, though it made me think (as this person’s responses are apt to do). He said this:
Artistic integrity is a luxury granted to people who have the option of having it.
I had been thinking of artistic integrity in terms of just integrity, but that’s not true. Not needing to compromise your morality to do your work, I believe, is a right. Artistic integrity is a privilege.
Now, for the sake of expanding the discussion, let’s get away from thinking in terms of art and artists and think more generally in terms of creative freedom. After all, when discussing “artistic integrity,” isn’t that what we’re really talking about?
When can you have creative freedom?
Short answer: When you earn it.
People, especially young artists and entrepreneurs, like to look at superstars and successful multi-hyphenates as role models. I’ve seen plenty of amateurs who wanted legacies and empires before they had any clout or success whatsoever. It’s fantastic to have role models like that; HOWEVER, what gets lost is the fact that those superstars started within the system. Often this meant taking jobs they didn’t want.
“Before he did Born on the 4th of July, Tom Cruise did Top Gun. [Tom] Hanks fucked a fish before he did Forrest Gump…”
— Ari Gold, Entourage
Beyoncé can drop a surprise album and know it will do well… because she’s Beyoncé. Jackie Castro (a new artist for whom I’ve had the pleasure of doing some brand strategy) can’t just drop a full album without any promotion and have it go to the top of the charts. She’s not at Beyoncé level yet. However, the reason Beyoncé is able to do that is because she operated within the system with Destiny’s Child and then as a solo act.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Sure. Sylvester Stallone famously refused to sell Rocky to anyone who wouldn’t let him star in the film — despite being broke with a baby on the way, to say nothing of the fact that he was a no-name. Producers wanted to buy the screenplay for decent money. Instead Stallone went outside the system and took almost no money for a deal that allowed him to play the lead. Seventy-four sequels later, I think the gamble paid off. To my point though… Stallone also appeared in a softcore porn to put food on the table before he did Rocky.
Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness…
…but it buys options. And options help lead to happiness. (Options + therapy and alcohol… but I digress.)
I don’t know if he heard that somewhere or if it was his own quote, but my father told me that a long time ago. When you have money, you have options. Which is to say, you have the option of choosing creative freedom. You can turn down jobs you don’t want and work for pleasure. Oh, what a luxury that would be.
George Clooney has the adage “one for me, one for them.” He’s also said in interviews (I’m paraphrasing): “It’s not a secret that I do international commercials. And if doing coffee ads in Asia allows me to come back here and make the movies I really want to make then I’m fine with that.” (Of course, he said all this before he sold a tequila company for a billion dollars.)
There is nothing wrong with doing a job that pays well in order to fund your creative life. There’s no need to sell your soul. Just think of it as “one for me, one for them.”
Creatives and freelancers
As a freelancer you should always have some form of income, whether you’ve got another day job, a padded savings account, or a sugar momma. That said, once you go full-time on your own, there will be times when you’ll need to take a job for the sake of staying afloat.
That’s ok. However, that doesn’t mean you need to settle. In my post on How to Avoid Sucky Clients, I discuss targeting the clients you want. Brand and position yourself to look like a baller in the niche you’d like to enter. Find your own voice, and your audience (clients) will find you.
How to measure your integrity.
Ultimately this comes down to the individual, but here are a couple considerations:
Can I sleep at night?
Generally, this is pretty black and white. There aren’t too many freelance jobs that compromise moral integrity, but hey, Nazi propaganda was designed by somebody.
As an actor this comes up a lot more frequently (especially for women). I was listening to an acting panel recently where a girl spoke about deciding whether or not to take a role that would cover her rent for a couple months. The role was listed as “slutty girl,” and her only job was to go down on a guy in a public bathroom. (She didn’t take it.)
Even if your back is against a wall, it’s ok to say no to a job.
Will anyone else know about it?
That sounds like a shady qualifier, but it’s very valid. As a graphic designer I’ve taken jobs and not credited myself anywhere on the project. As an actor I’ve taken jobs because I knew they were for some regional market where no one I know will see it. Writers ghost write. Musicians play private corporate events and weddings. If anyone were to find out you’re side hustling your main hustle it’s not the end of your career. However, what you don’t want is for work you take to compromise your “brand.”
If you only take jobs because they pay well, gratification will elude you. However, if you only take jobs for personal gratification, the unemployment line may be waiting.
Back to the quote that began this article: “To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.” Prostitution is an “unworthy use of one’s talents for personal gain.” So, at the risk of sounding hacky, do what you love and love what you do. However, let us not forget that a life in the arts requires labor… and lots of it.