The Artist’s Career Progression

There is a progression in a successful artist’s career. First, toiling (for several years, sometimes) in the trenches to reach base camp, then beginning the climb up the mountain of fame, then reaching a point on the gradient where a magic elevator suddenly appears and creates an inverse tipping point that starts to hurtle the artist to the pinnacle with no further effort required on his part. Finally, a period of success-building-upon-success, of walking on clouds, until disability or death intervenes to close that chapter. The last period is the posthumous one, when the artist’s work in enshrined and cleverly marketed to keep his spirit and estate alive.

Take our Joe, a budding writer, who writes some pretty decent stuff but who has to compete with every other Tom, Dick and Harry, along with Ann, Meg and Sally who are also writing pretty decent stuff. Joe meets Mike, an influential person in publishing, at a bar, where they both get drunk and wax lyrical over everything from Homer to Hitler, and realize that they have a lot in common. “I’m going to help you… hic,” says Mike, as they stagger homewards. Mike keeps his promise, and Joe gets a publishing contract from a decent publishing house. Unknown to Joe, he has arrived at base camp. Mike exercises some marketing muscle and introduces Joe to a movie director. Film rights, foreign rights and a literary prize follow. Joe is on his way, leaving his cohorts in the dust of self-publishing where he too once worked his heart out; he is now into cleaner air. He churns out a book per year, easy to do now that he does not have to worry about earning a living elsewhere. His publisher, and his agent (yes, he needs an agent now, and an agent sees value in Joe at this point) realize that to keep Joe’s books moving, he has to be in the news; therefore, more literary prizes, more film deals, foreign translations, and a couple of celebrity romances (and failures) should be part of the continuing life of Joe. When anyone is thinking of holding a literary conference or organizing a literary awards gala, they must invite Joe. Our Joe is on that magic elevator ascending the mountain. Now he does not have to think of ideas for his next book – his publicist (yes, he has one of those now too) and his script development team (fancy!) provide him with what he needs to write. His publisher will even fly him to the locale of his next book so that he can immerse himself in the scenes he is going to write about. Joe is now at the “walking on clouds” stage. Sounds familiar? I think you get it, so we can skip describing the “posthumous stage.” And this story is not quite fiction, for a chosen few in every generation have done it.

But that is not the main point of this article. The main point is that the pinnacle is the most important stage, and it must be defended at all costs and made to last as long as possible. When Joe has reached the top of the mountain, and when anyone thinks of literature, they must think only of Joe. His social calendar must be overflowing and he must decline a number of invitations so that his “decline factor” will create even more mystique and increase Joe’s appearance fee at future events. Meanwhile, Tom, Dick and Harry, and Ann Meg and Sally will be still waiting hungrily for their call to climb the mountain, churning out angst-ridden tomes, that if only someone had the time to read, would probably be far more authentic than Joe’s scripted deliveries. At this point, Joe’s management team will further determine that in order to extend the life of their “product” they need to create barriers to entry; therefore subtle attempts will be made to keep Tom & Team, and Ann and Associates or anyone creating “Joe’s look-alike literature,” or “better than Joe’s literature” out of the running until targeted returns on investment in Joe are met. Upstart attempts to dislodge Joe off his pedestal will be…ah…resisted. Creative destruction is healthy for society, but not for those who have their investment in the incumbent cash-cow.

That “the cream rises to the top” is true in this business as in any other. And once there, it stays at the top until death or disability renders the cream no longer edible, and investors have to either go into the posthumous stage of the artist or go looking for new talent development.

And then, the next Joe (or probably even Tom, Dick or Harry, or Ann, Meg or Sally, if they are not too old and beaten by then) will be waiting in a bar, scanning the crowds for Magnanimous Mike to start their climb up the mountain…

Changing Careers

Having had many careers, all of which eventually ended, I contemplated the evolution of careers and our helpless gravitation towards them.

From the days of Ancient Egypt to the middle of the last century it was fashionable for men to take up careers as soldiers. Some of my ancestors were soldiers. Some career soldiers even did it without loyalty to king and country but with their eyes on money and spoils instead; they were called mercenaries, or in today’s parlance, contract killers. Their not•so•bloodthirsty compatriots joined the clergy and found food, shelter, and power in exchange for commitments of celibacy, 24/7 availability, and piety. Some of my ancestors were clergy too. These were two very solid professions that endured for very long – until recently.

WWII cured our attraction to war and put an end to the mass conscription of soldiers, and, except in a few countries, soldiering in peacetime became just another job. Oh yes, a few strategically placed wars are still being ignited in a handful of non•strategic countries just to keep the arms industry and the armed forces in maintenance mode – but that is all. The clergy paled too, when its ranks (especially the male ranks) got tired of the sacrifice they were being asked to make by working long hours for less than minimum wage without the benefits of family to divert their focus from God’s work; and its power eroded too because a few weaker members decided to obey the demands of their loins instead of their souls and got caught in the act.

The 20th century saw the emergence of the business executive in America, exemplified by that instantly recognizable designation – MBA. In the middle of the last century, the MBA went international, and the pursuit of money and material status became paramount in the post•war boom, overriding those past pop career occupations of killing humans or saving souls. I joined this race too. But by the time the 21st century dawned, the shine had gone out of business. The stock market had imploded periodically on its greed, several times over, and its largest convulsion in the fall of 2008 has made us all debtors for decades to come. Another age was being called for.

I’m calling this present one the Age of the Artist. Technology has helped musicians, writers, DIY TV producers, painters and other creators to churn out truckloads of expression, and they are no longer fettered by gatekeepers who make art the preserve of a few. Now we have better videos on You Tube (short, attention•grabbing and graphic – making their producers celebrities within minutes); books pouring out of everyone living long enough to have a story to tell and a day job to pay the bills (which includes people like me); free digital music from musicians who manage to scrounge the money to produce a handful of songs, put them up on ITunes, and then go off on concert tour – we live in a state of artsy abundance, indeed. This age too will wear out on its excess, I think, when the law of diminishing returns starts to take hold, if it hasn’t already.

I wonder what careers in the next age, the Age of Responsibility, will be like. An age of green living, of cleaning up the excesses of the past, of living on pesticide•free home•grown vegetables, of three meals a day taken at the proper times, of strong family values and spirituality that is not organized and politicized; an age when careers will matter only if they transition us towards wisdom. Sounds boring, eh, to some of us diehards who cling to the dying Ages of Excess? Broccoli for breakfast – ugh! Or would this be the signal that we have finally come full circle since that departure in Ancient Egypt, like the exiles returning home to their Promised Land and to the way of life that their Good Book had always instructed them to live by? Would the word “Career” even exist in this new age?