Careerism versus artistic integrity

Is it okay for a theatre artist to be more interested in building their career than making good art?

22 thoughts on “Careerism versus artistic integrity

  1. Careerism without good art is, of course, mere hack-ism. But deliberately eschewing careerism is buying into the myth that naivete is somehow more morally “pure”.

    Don’t tie one arm behind your back. Make good art. And manage your life path well.

  2. It’s a good question. I know it sounds trite, but I think that people should do what ever makes them happy.

    So, if a career over art makes them happy then they should do that. There’s a lot to be said for being able to buy groceries…

    And, the truth is, even if you are perusing a career as opposed to your art, there’s still bound to be some art in there somewhere if you want there to be.

  3. The scary thing about this question is the suggestion that it may be possible for a theatre artist to build a career by making bad art.

    Is that an indicator of the current state of theatre?

  4. Isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber famous for making a career of bad theatre?

    Megan, I guess the worry for me with people doing whatever makes them happy is that we are often happy doing things that aren’t good for the rest of the world: happy to consume factory-farmed animals; happy to burn fossil fuels at an alarming rate; happy to use our existing power to get more power at the expense of people, plants, and animals with less power; happy to bus in from Dunville and pay $75 to see Phantom while the rest of the city’s artists fight over the scraps.

    How can we look honestly at this sad state of affairs and be truly happy? At what point does happiness become just another spoke in the status quo?

    To Anon’s point, you can’t really separate the two: careerism and art. But it strikes me that theatre people might just be disenfranchised enough, angry enough, to ignite a spark of critical mass and lead the revolution that will help us to get us out of this mess.

    OK. So I have high expectations for theatre people generally: If theatre people (with their weak ties to the status quo) can’t extricate themselves from this web of capitalist folly, who can?

  5. Great clip. And Carlin is right. We’re doomed.

    But I happen to believe that the little battles are worth fighting – that if we can rescue one cow from a life of torture at a factory farm, then it’s worth trying. And so on.

    I’m not saying it’s going to stop the ship from sinking, but it just might make the trip to the bottom a little more tolerable for all involved.

  6. We can start by encouraging our American neighbours to obliterate their Republican Party in November.

    There are all sorts of other things we can do, but none as practical and important as that.

  7. ALW sounds like the Wal Mart of theatre, overwhelming all the store front companies.

    Perhaps if the smaller companies could all somehow get together with their marketing while maintaining their individual direction and integrity, that critical mass – as you say Ian – could take back some of the popular limelight.

  8. ALW is not stealing audiences from anyone; those fools go to his stuff and nothing else. But you’re right, Simon: aggressive marketing is one good lesson we can learn from Sir Andrew.

  9. This is what distinguishes the performing arts from, say, visual arts. A painter can paint his whole life and stick to doing just what makes him happy. He may not gain money or fame by painting that thing, but the paintings can exist in a vacuum. Performing arts don’t exist without some sort of audience, so it’s much, much harder to dismiss the status quo.

    Nobody becomes a theatre artist for the money – it always starts for the art, so I think that is the master you have to always remember to serve for your own mental balance. But the thing is, realistically, artists also have to eat. So it doesn’t feel right to me to judge an artist who makes the careerist choice, regardless of what my own choice is. Is it really worse to take a stupid cat food commercial that pays the next three months’ rent than to spend those three months as a receptionist or waiter to do the same? That’s like saying that fantastic high school teacher who went to work for a higher-paying private school in the suburbs is less of a teacher because he didn’t choose to work in inner city public schools forever. Or that a counterculture blogger who started getting well-paid freelance work to write an occasional feature for Elle is no longer a “real” writer. Everybody’s got to know what their own situation requires at any given moment.

  10. My income as a freelance director has recently increased, and I am nervous for the art. I do see them as competing values.

    And yes, anon, please help us get rid of the Republicans. Is there something you can put in the water?

  11. All that really matters is that the art is good. If it is bad careerist art, you are despicable. If it is good art for careerist reasons, its fine. You may be a despicable person, but if your art is good, then who cares? I have, admittedly, found myself liking someone’s art less, however, after discovering they are careerist. So, I wonder how many careerist artist can really create work that is respectable.

    I do also think that being a careerist as well as a good artist is important. If you make great art, but nobody sees it, that is just a crying shame.

    It is why our profession is so eternally heart-breaking.

  12. I’m confused as to why audiences would prefer art that isn’t good – which I guess I’d define as pedestrian art, art that is afraid to explore, to ask the hard questions, to engage the audience in new ways.

    Personally, I hate it when, after someone has a commercial success with something, others run to copy it, thus giving the audience nothing new. (This happens a lot with movies and TV.) Am I supposed to want to reward that artist? That seems to be the expectation, and I just don’t get it.

    And if getting rid of the Republicans will change this, I’m all for it. Hell, even if it won’t have any effect on the arts, I’m for it.

  13. “I’m confused as to why audiences would prefer art that isn’t good”

    I think this is kind of at the crux of some of this – is there good and bad art, or is there art i like and art i don’t like.

    I think it it’s great to challenge audiences, push the boundaries, but if that was all it was, if it was all ‘high art’, honestly, it would be exhausting. Not just for the performers, but also for the audience.

    Sometimes I just want a clear narrative with a pretty set and good lights and clear understandable lines, and maybe laugh a bit. Sometimes I want light and fluffy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

    In fact, I think in some ways it’s the drive to make theatre as challenging as possible that pushes some people away from smaller theatres and into ALW shows. I agree that ALW isn’t taking our audiences, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to take them from him – but we need to appeal to them. We need to demystify theatre. We need to make it so that people don’t assume that it will be too complex for them to understand so they don’t go.

    I’m not for a second saying do away with avant-guard or challenging intense theatre, no no no. Just that we embrace the people who want to do other stuff too.

    Here’s the thing, I would do a Norm Foster show and draw in people who don’t normally do theatre. I would love to find a way to show people that theatre is fun and not intimidating – but here’s the truth, outside of our industry and some existing highly-educated theatre-goers, people are intimidated. You wouldn’t believe the number of people I’ve talked to who, if I hadn’t pulled them, wouldn’t have gone to a show at Factory or Passe Muraille or Buddies because they felt like they wouldn’t understand the theatre there because it was an ‘arty’ theatre. We’re talking established mainstream theatres here. Only, we’re not. In the industry we think of them as mainstream, but in the rest of the world? They’re ‘alternative’ theatres.

    So, how do we build an audience that learns that TPM and Factory and Buddies aren’t scary? I figure, we can ease them into theatre that isn’t a mega-musical.

    I have to repeat (at the risk of being lynched) that I DO NOT feel this is the direction all theatre should go in, not for a second. I just find it frustrating when shows that are seen as ‘boring’ or ‘pedestrian’ because they aren’t pushing boundaries are seen as less worthy. It all has it’s place.

    And, as Laura pointed out, if it’s a matter of doing ‘commercial’ work, be it actual commercials or mainstream television or movies, well, so be it. People must eat. If they can’t eat then they can’t perform, so, the art you want to see them do can’t happen. And, since they can make way more money doing that stuff than bar tending, in theory they have more time to make art when they want.

    Hmmmm. See, I didn’t intend to write a novel on this… sorry about that.

  14. Much food for thought. Thank you!

    Scott Walters has just posted a great piece that’s related to this topic, here.

    “Let’s start with the premise that an artist has a responsibility to the community. While phrased in terms of the artist, I think all people, artist or not, have a responsibility to improve their community (even if that is just one other person), and thus through the ripple effect the world. However, there are many ways to improve a community (not simply through addressing socio-economic issues, for instance, which is how this idea is all-too-often interpreted), and truth be told there aren’t many plays that don’t do this to some degree or other, whether in the avant garde or the mainstream.”

  15. “I think it’s great to challenge audiences, push the boundaries, but if that was all it was, if it was all ‘high art’, honestly, it would be exhausting. Not just for the performers, but also for the audience.”

    I didn’t mean to imply that art has to be “intense” to be good, just that, perhaps, it should have some (not necessarily all) of those elements I listed. I think you can do a musical that’s been done a million times and still give the audience something a little new. (I love musicals, BTW. They were my introduction to theatre, as a child.)

    What I was basically saying is that I see art as an expression of the artist. Beyond that, I’m not sure there is “good art” and “bad art,” just art that is there to be liked or not.

    The notion of an artist producing work while focusing mainly on trying to guess what the audience will want makes no sense to me. That, to me, is pandering, and I’m less likely to be moved by such art.

    It’s like if you give 2 children the same drawing and a pack of crayons, and 1 of them copies a sample that has been colored and the other colors it as she feels it should be colored. They might both be beautiful, but are they both art?

    I guess it depends on the definition each of us gives to art.

  16. I’m going to post this before reading Scott’s article so that I’m not influenced.

    I think it depends on where you are in your career and in your life. There are times when you need to say “as much as I want to devote all my time to working on X, if I do Y it’ll put me in a position that will make X more feasible in the long term”. There are times when developing your career is important – and that can mean simple things like networking or taking that commercial gig – so that you can give yourself some stability and support.

    And then there are times when you say, “Y is good money/working with good people but I’m tired of doing that stuff and my heart is really into X”. That’s fine too – risk-taking is important to develop as an artist.

    The thing this question implies is that careerism is not artistic. I believe that the two can happily co-exist and that we do ourselves a disservice by devaluing the idea of developing your career. The term “career” isn’t just for the folks on Bay St, it exists in every field. And what it truly means is not isolating yourself and participating in what your industry does and working with the other people within it.

    Damn, that’s what Scott’s written about, isn’t it? Maybe I should have read it. :)

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