The indie rock band Bon Iver won two Grammy awards this year. However, the awards show made lead singer Justin Vernon squirm.
“It’s really hard to accept this award,” he began in his slightly awkward acceptance speech. “There’s so much talent out here… and there’s a lot of talent that’s not here tonight. It’s also hard to accept because you know, when I started to make songs I did it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I’m a little bit uncomfortable up here.”
In an interview with the New York Times back in December, Vernon expressed his feelings about the Grammys even more forcefully.
“I kinda felt like going up there and being like: ‘Everyone should go home, this is ridiculous. You should not be doing this. We should not be gathering in a big room and looking at each other and pretending that this is important.’ That’s what I would say.”Of course, if Vernon really felt as he said he did, he would never have shown up at the Grammy Awards to begin with. He would not be the first artist to refuse an award. Sinead O’Conner famously refused a Grammy in 1990, and Marlon Brando turned down an Oscar. Having that been said, Mr. Vernon does put a spotlight on an issue that everyone who is passionately involved in a creative/artistic endeavor must deal with: how we negotiate the commercial with the creative.
What we create has enormous value to us as an expression of who we are and what we most believe. If we are good, or lucky, or in the right place at the right time, what we produce has a commercial value. We would love to leverage the commercial value in order to more fully pursue our creative process while insuring that it remains a true expression of who we are and what we most believe.
Unfortunately, when the creative intersects with the commercial it produces tension. There is a continuum between the creative and the commercial. At one end is the purely creative: art for the sake of art. Writing because one feels compelled to write, whether anyone reads it or not. Painting for the sole purpose of self expression. At the other end there is creativity for purely commercial reasons. This includes professionals such as copy writers, graphic artists, and studio musicians.
And then there are bloggers. There are numerous blogs that are purely self-expression; many others with commercial application; and even more somewhere in between. We all have different motives for blogging, but our intentions generally fall in one of three categories. Our blogs are creative outlets, or commercial tools to achieve advancement and recognition in our desired industry with the reward of financial gain or public achievement. Or they're somewhere in between -- somewhere on the continuum between creative and commercial.
There are tremendous risks involved in being on this continuum. If you move too far towards the commercial you run the risk of losing your voice and becoming a shill. If you make no move towards the commercial you are likely to never benefit financially for your creative output. There are certainly a few exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. Of course, the sweet spot we all want to be in is where our undiluted creative expression finds tremendous commercial appeal. However, this is even more rare. The odds of “being discovered” or connecting with the right person at the right time that will promote you to the perfect audience are beyond astronomical.
It is the prerogative of each creator, artist or blogger to decide when and how far they will make those moves. Some have no problem using their talents and gifts for the greatest commercial appeal possible. That is their right and there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Others, such as Vernon, are tremendously uncomfortable sacrificing any degree of their creative vision or innate talent in the name of financial gain or broader market appeal. That is their right as well.
Each of us have to make the decision of where we are most comfortable on the continuum between creative and commercial. We must make that decision based on what makes the most sense for financially and artistically. How much can my soul take? How much does my wallet need? Most of all we need to make that decision for ourselves and let others do the same.
Oscar Wilde said, “I use my talent for my art; I reserve my genius for my living.” The point being it is okay to use your talent and hard work to make whatever gains you wish, but you should always save a part of your genius for your soul's sake.