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Why making money is the only way to make art

Did you start reading this article by throwing up a little in the back of your throat? Perhaps you’re looking forward to an argument with the capitalist swine who would make such a statement.

Either way, you’re in the right place!

Since I’m both a capitalist (of sorts) and 100% convinced I’m right about the statement headlining this article, this should be interesting.

Here’s why making money is literally the only way to make art…

Last week I fired off a post about my plans to undertake a study of the seemingly magical abilities of ultra-successful entrepreneurs to transform the world for the better. Posting this candid outline of my mission got a lot of feedback.

The most unexpected (but common) question I was asked was “but what about the artists?”

How did creative folks fit into the social-change-through-entrepreneurialism model that I was devising? Is art important… and can in change the world for the better?

All fantastic questions, none of which I’m all that qualified to answer.

I’m an appreciator of art. A spectator. From a safe distance. You don’t want to see what happens when I get hold of crayons.

I do know one thing for sure though. Art, like social-entrepreneurialism, is something that only happens when the science of wealth is mastered first.

Yep, it’s actually impossible to make art if you’re not already wealthy. If you want to be an artist and make an impact through your work, your first goal should be money. Entrepreneurialism, it just so happens, is the best way to make that happen by the way.

Art needs wealth to be created. It’s a fact. The evidence has been around us for millennia, in both our psychology and our history as a species.

Take a journey back in time to the world’s first recorded artists – the Cro-Magnon stone age humans hanging out in what is now europe, some thirty five thousand years ago.

For a long time, scientists hypothesized that a sudden development in cave art was a result of profound evolutionary and cognitive development. In english, it was assumed that our brains got bigger and suddenly we started painting!

That theory feels right doesn’t it? It fuels our hopes that art is a form of higher consciousness realized.

However, in reality, there is another reason that a huge amount of cave art sprang into existence at a particular point in our pre-history.

Hunting. We got good at it.

The dating of prehistoric artifacts reveals two radical changes that occurred in our history, simultaneously. The first was an explosion in art – cave painting, beads etc. The second was a revolution in the tools of the hunt.

Prehistoric man figured out how to make lighter, faster and sharper spears. We sussed out arrows and all manner of pointy sticks for taking down woolly mammoths.

With the advent of this new weaponry, our ancestors got seriously good at hunting. Archeological digs reveal mass mammoth graves – these were slaughter houses. The remains of prehistoric man’s excess food.

For the first time in history, people were rich.

An excess of food was exactly what prehistoric folks needed to take a well deserved break. For the first time ever, cave people contemplated the blank canvas of their cave walls… probably while picking their teeth after a fine mammoth steak meal.

Art is a creative endeavor built on a solid foundation of excess, comfortable wealth.

Like our ancestors, we’re only capable of producing art when we are the beneficiaries of this same basic wealth. We’re not talking Porsches and first class flight lounges here – we’re talking about a transcendence of our basic needs.

Give a human the following:

  1. Shelter
  2. A full belly
  3. Spare time
  4. Confidence that the good times will keep on coming

… and chances are, art will happen!

Rob a human of any of those things and the art-making will cease as they spring into action to fulfill these basic needs.

These days artists find the wealth they need to produce their art through financial support from the government, family, friends, patrons, jobs and entrepreneurialism. Every art producer, by definition, has access to the wealth they need to produce their art.

Entrepreneurial represents the evolutionary peak of personal income generation. Creating a successful business is the fastest (perhaps only) road to personal wealth and freedom.

Logic (or perhaps just common sense) thus forces us to ask: What happens when an artist has more wealth?

Is the acceleration of an individual’s skill as an artist directly connected to their wealth?

Would we have more (and better) cave paintings if early man had figured out how to freeze dry mammoth steaks for later?

Would you be making more (or better) art if you had mastered the art of business?

(No seriously, I want answers to these questions. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment.)


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  1. Heck yeah. For so many reasons. I’m taking a month off because I want to turn my website and overall online presence into a work of art (shush you) and then focus on other pursuits that align with the arty part of me. I’d love to take more time off but can’t because of money. If I’d mastered the art of business I’d have more time and cash. Simple. It’d lead to more time to make art.

    1. Perfect example Jade! I’m the last person who can criticize you for turning a website into a work of art… have you seen this website??!

      *struts off, brushing invisible specks from collar* 😛

  2. Peter once again I completely agree. Being an Artist (Magician and Hypnotist) I have invested in Marketing and Money Resources. I also say to myself the reason my clients pay me is because of this work that I put in. My marketing, accounting and entrepreneurial stuff is the work that gets me paid but its not what I love to do. Performing is what I love and that comes with the most “flow”. When I decided I wanted to be a professional entertainer. I knew that the best way to be able to make money performing was to be a better entrepreneur. I am still working on it but I know the results will bring more money and thus making it easier for me to perform.

  3. To answer your question Peter: Ummm YES I would be making more art!

    Although, there IS one other way I know of to make great art: secure a wealthy benefactor, which is exactly how many great artists got (and get) started. Problem is, you have to be GREAT and you have to get noticed *before* you starve…

    1. Hey James, you’re spot on about the benefactor – I thought that “patron” was another word for that. We’re talking about super duper wealthy person who throws money in the direction of the artist right?

      You’re spot on though – in business terms, you’ve gotta have superb marketing to score that sweet sweet benefactor dollar!

  4. Hey Pete

    You can chalk up a plus one for the capitalist side for me! Absolutely awesome post. I’m also using right now as an opportunity to go for it – and make myself more of an artist 😉


    P.S. I’m getting you crayons for your birthday.

  5. Very interesting post and for me a fortunate time to jump on board here. I’d really like to make some changes in 2011 as to how I can continue to produce art and not worry about funds, transforming it from a hobby into a business. Lots to learn!

    1. Hey Chantal, you’re in the right place! Be sure to check out “Seek and Destroy” (over on my side bar) – it’s a detailed (free) guide on finding (and overcoming) the obstacles between you and business success.

  6. For a long time, I fought the label that others gave me: as a writer, I was an artist.

    I refuted that label. I considered my work a trade. Writing poetry or a novel was art, maybe… writing web copy and getting results for my clients? Trade.

    The more I focused on creating work that got results, the less I focused on creating artistic work… but interestingly, the more skilled I became.

    Getting results means refining skills and becoming better at what you do. The better I became, the more money I made, the less I had to work hard and the more time I could spend on further improving my skills.

    Now I have wealth, fame and success (Peter’s hat trick). And it all began with a trade and entrepreneurialism… not with art. 🙂

    1. Right on. This sort of backs up my point that having the wealth that allows you to do lots of *practice* …. ultimately makes you better.

      Side note: When hunting for images to use on this post, I was astounded by the QUALITY of the cave art. I thought it was all stick figures and stuff…. but I totally wouldn’t come close to drawing a buffalo as good as the one featured on this post.

      S’cos I don’t practice enough.

  7. Totally agree with you on this one.

    I can only be creative because I have a home, I have enough money that I don’t have debt and bills breathing down my neck, and I have the luxury of time. As my business grows, so does my scope of creation – the two go hand-in-hand for me.

  8. Great post. Very thought provoking. I’m going to answer these out of sequence:

    “Is the acceleration of an individual’s skill as an artist directly connected to their wealth?” Definitely not. Good art isn’t always profitable, and profitable art isn’t always good.

    “Would we have more (and better) cave paintings if early man had figured out how to freeze dry mammoth steaks for later?” More? Yes. Better? Not all of it.

    “Would you be making more (or better) art if you had mastered the art of business?” More? Yes. Better? Not all of it.

    “What happens when an artist has more wealth?” GREAT question. I think the answer, though, depends on how you answer the question:”What is an artist?” I feel like the term artist diverges significantly from a descriptor which a lot of the folks here might align themselves with more: creative professionals.

    As professionals, does more wealth allow us to be more creative? Take more risks? Be more inspired? Bankroll our own great ideas? Definitely. How creative can you be flipping burgers or toiling for Demand Studios versus launching your own startup?

    It’s very true that art requires subsidy. That’s because art, like business, is not inherently profitable.Some art can be made with very low overhead, but all art takes time, which, as we all know, is far from valueless. So, in a way, the illustration re: more mammoth meat = more cave art is apt. I agree that wealth begets more leisure time, which begets more creativity.

    But I disagree with the title of this post: “Why making money is the *only* way to make art”

    On a societal level, this is perhaps true. There are only so many hours in the day, so you have three choices:

    Hunt all day long and then collapse onto your antelope skin rug (or ikea sectional) at the end of the day and zonk out until the hunt is on again.[i.e. working stiff]

    Devise a way to hunt more efficiently so you can still have plenty of time and energy left in the day to fingerpaint. [innovation/entrepreneurship?]

    Find someone to feed you while you art it up from sunrise to sunset.[sponsorship]

    But sub out any pursuit other than “hunting” for art and that’s true.

    Why making money is the only way to make model trains in your spare time.

    Why making money is the only way to research cancer treatments.

    Why making money is the only way to buy an ergonomic leather office chair with shiatsu massagers built-in.

    We all have to eat. And we either feed ourselves or take out a loan from wealthy society. For business people, you do this at the bank or your rich uncle’s parlor. For artists, you do this at the grant writing center or you rich uncle’s parlor. My point (and perhaps yours) is that art is entrepreneurialism.

    But I think when you ask *us* if we would be artists if we were rich, that’s a different question. Being creative is something that many of us enjoy, but not all of us can make money doing. So, in our conscientious time budgeting, it falls into the “discretionary” category. If we all had less demanding mandates to put food on the table, yes, we might be more creative, just like we might watch more football and play more Xbox 360.

    So, then, I think the hypothesis “More money = more creative” is a bit more pointed than “If money = none, then art = none.”

    I do not think that wealth is the mother of art. I think quite the opposite.
    I think inspiration, or sometimes, desperation is the mother of art.
    It’s the need to communicate something. It’s why we have folk songs, graffiti, people unloading body bags in front of Philip Morris, concentration camp inmates risking their lives to draw portraits ( etc.

    So, sorry, this is long and rambling and all I’m really trying to do is bring up another question:

    What’s the difference between a creative professional and an artist?

    1. Hey Jack, thanks for this great comment. There are a whole bunch of points that both agree and disagree with the nuances of my message here.

      Overall, I think that not “everyone” is an artist… I consider myself a creative professional, but I rarely sit down with the intention to make art for art’s sake.

      Not all art is entrepreneurialism – some is just for the hell of it, never intending to be sold for profit. However, you do need money/mammoth meat…. to make the art in the first place.

      Your right that more money ALSO equals more cancer research AND more Xbox….

      … but the reason I wrote this post is that so many artists deeply believe that money and wealth is an “evil” to be avoided at all costs. Or, at least totally irrelevant to their work.

      And it just t’aint so!

  9. Great post, and one that really resonated with me as it has described the path my business has taken. I started my business after getting laid off from my last job (24 hrs notice, no severance). I had lofty goals of all the things I wanted to accomplish and how I wanted to run my firm… and promptly got sucked into the “anything to pay the bills” mode of operation. Two and a half years in, I’m finally at a point where I’m able to choose my clients more, create in what I consider to be “my” style, and work on the side project (semi-custom outdoor furnishings) that I’ve wanted to do for five years. I jokingly refer to my contracts and invoices as “how I support my design habit” and my clients totally get it.

    1. Hey Dave, thanks for stopping by to comment. You’re a brave guy – kicking off a biz in those circumstances is no small feat!

      Love the “how I support my design habit” comment – I think that’s so true for a bunch of people. I remember thinking something similar when I heard about Mark McGuinness supporting his poetry habit through blogging/online marketing.

  10. Excellent post, Peter. I find myself agreeing with you but also with Jack, above. Wealth can generate “more” something, but do we create the best art with full bellies? If we did, slave music wouldn’t have become black folk music, wouldn’t have become the foundations of jazz and blues music which begat rock and Motown. Perhaps if I was able to slip back before slavery, I would see that the foundation of that art grew from “wealthy” well-fed tribesman who could turn their attention from survival to rhythm and song thereby making your point.

    But for every artist or creative professional I’ve seen that has created wealth, I’ve known 10-100 times as many who never saw a penny for their “work” but were compelled to keep producing it. There seems to be an unquenchable human need to bridge the gap between conscious thought/logic/observation and the wordless/abstract/emotional/mystical/unconscious, whether we are rewarded for it or not, whether it brings us security or not. Often it does the exact opposite…the artist showing us an unspeakable truth about our human condition often ends in jail, in exile, or in the grave.

    I believe what you are saying has great merit…I also think “art” and the need to create is so universal in its appearance and function that it falls just on the other side of oxygen, water, food, and shelter in terms of human needs, probably even ahead of sex. As soon as we knew we could bridge the gap between the manifested and un-manifested world, the game was on.

    Thanks, Peter.. thought provoking, as always.

    1. Hey Cory, thanks for this intelligent comment – you’ve got a real good point with the slave music.

      However, I also think it’s a mistake to think that art has to “make money”. I’m certain a bunch of it does … but a certain level of basic needs have to be met for the art to be created.

      Sounds horrible to say, but I’ll bet “slave music” was created when the lights went out at night and all the work for the day was finished!

      What that example points out is the greatest weakness in my rhetoric: Defining these basic needs (a full belly and a roof) as “wealth”.

      For cavemen, that was wealth… but trying to imply that slaves shared the same “wealth” is pretty damn offensive.

      So thanks – your comment has expanding my thinking … a lot!

  11. Interesting post, with some great comments.

    I am one of those who make art because it defines me; it’s who I am. I can’t relax if I haven’t got several projects on the boil, and when I finish something, I’m buzzing with the next idea.

    But I’ve never made a penny from it because if I spend time marketing, it’s cutting into my ‘making’ time, and as I work full-time to pay the bills, my ‘making’ time keeps me sane.

    To answer your question, if I had no financial pressure and lots of time, I’d spend all my time making art. No doubt about it. However, I can’t see a way to that point because my bills always need paying, and I always need to make art in all my free time to keep me sane.

    1. Hey Julie, thanks for this comment. I’m glad someone spoke up who has gone down the “full time job” angle.

      So I have a hypothetical question for you: If you could take 6 months off to build a small (solopreneur) biz…. knowing you’ve have to work so hard there would be no TIME for art…. but also knowing that you’d eventually get to a point where you could make your fulltime salary equivalent in *half the time*….

      …. would you do it?

      Would you put the art on hold for 6 months to create a business vehicle that frees you up to create MORE art in the long term?

      1. Absolutely! Now, all I need to do is work out how to pay the bills whilst I take six months off, then come up with a business idea and some extra capital to make it happen.
        I would, I really would do it!

        1. So here’s what you do: Come up with an idea (any will do :P) and then start working on it during your “art time”… while still working 9to5. Then, once it’s cranking along, go part time on the job… then cut it out all together! THEN start the art back up again.

          Might take 3-6months longer than you expect – but ultimately worth it!

          1. Ah, I misunderstood your question. When you said take six months off, I thought you meant from work as well.
            I’m already close to burn-out from working full time doing night shifts as a social worker, so the art keeps me from going under.
            Doing two full time jobs (social worker and business magnate) would probably top me off!
            The art keeps me sane to do the one full time job.
            I think that to realise my dream, I have to sell up, and go live in a shed for six months so that I only have to work part-time in the night job.
            I have to work out what my priorities are, and try to come to terms with giving up everything in order to live the life I want at a later date. Not beyond possibility, but a big step and one I need to meditate on for a while.
            Thanks for thinking about it for me!

  12. All art, science, and human progress is dependent on a certain level of abundance and security. It is just like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s tough to exercise your creative energy if you are struggling for survival.

    “Would you be making more (or better) art if you had mastered the art of business?”

    I think I would be better at making marketable art, but judging art is such a subjective thing. Some of the art I like involves artists who don’t have any financial success directly linked to their art. So I would say no, the amount of money you make is not necessarily correlated to how good your art is. I could also name many artists who I think are terrible but are tremendously successful financially.

    1. Reading the other comments, I may have misunderstood the question a bit. Certainly if I had mastered the art of business (as a separate activity), I would have the free time to make MORE art. Whether or not is better I’m not sure. Theoretically, the more time I devote, the more skilled I will become, so I suppose you’re right.

    1. I think it’s great when business and art can collide in a win-win way… but it’s not always possible and shouldn’t necessarily be the number one priority of art.

      In my opinion 🙂

  13. Hi Peter,

    Too many folks have bought into the notion that art is not valuable.

    Think of a beautiful painting that will last for hundreds of years. Most folks would not buy it – too frivolous.

    Yet, a TV that will be obsolete in a few years can fetch a small fortune. Both can be watched, yet only the TV is perceived as a necessity – one a person would willingly put in a credit card.

    Then we all buy into the notion that art is frivolous, even the artists that make it.

    If you look at, say, the pharmaceutical industry, which sells the bulk of its wares primarily to the worried well market, then you can begin to see that what we think we need is probably more what other folks think we need. Maybe if we looked at more beautiful paintings and less tv, more folks would be the unworried well.

    It all seems backwards most of the time.

    Good thought piece. Giulietta

    1. Hey Giulietta,

      You’re touching on a number of issues here!

      As probably the least artistic person in this discussion, who is actually contemplating the purchase of a new plasma screen…. let me say this:

      I never watch TV (as in broadcast TV) – just dvds of my favourite series. No commercials – pure enjoyment. My favourite series of all time is “The Sopranos” – I watched the whole thing back to back in what was probably the most unproductive period of my entire life.

      … And I’m gonna call it art. Shows like that evoke serious emotions, tell a story and hook me in.

      So my tv is an investment in art appreciation 😛

      There, I said it!

      1. Actually, comparing a TV to a painting isn’t logically sound, at least in these terms. It’s like saying “Apples and bananas can be eaten, therefore they are the same fruit.”

        Art is also really subjective. So a techy minded whiz might say the latest TV that was just released is art (the 3D ones are pretty funky), and the gallery painter might say his new frame is art. It’s really too vague to say, you know?

        As for need… No one needs a TV or a painting. WANT is a whole different thing, and I think no one can say to anyone else what they should or shouldn’t want.

        (I want a Maserati, btw. Just in case someone’s offering.)

        1. I challenge anyone to take a Maserati V8 Gransport for a spin and be able to honestly say “this isn’t art” … while looking me in the eyes.

          A motorcar like that is a work of art. And yes, I speak from real world experience here…

      2. Peter, you’ve got a hot topic here!

        Interestingly enough, I used to watch tons of TV — it had me hooked for sure — then turned it off to take up other more participatory pursuits like oil painting, singing, etc. I went from feeling semi-dead to absolutely alive. G.

  14. I mostly agree with Jack on this one, but have some other comments to add. I think you’re on the right track, Peter, but haven’t gotten to what art history students (Not that I’m an expert… just had to take a class at Columbia U to fulfill fine art concentration requirements…) have learned on the subject.

    Wealth (tends to) = art, yes, but is not the cause of it per se.

    You are right in that art happens when there is the opportunity for it to happen. When there is enough wealth that survival isn’t an all-consuming task, then creativity for its own sake begins to break out. A really good example of this is art and jewelry created in the viking and northern germanic tribes during the first thousand years A.D. These guys were raiding and looting tribes to the South, the British Isles and Roman empire, so they had lots of time to develop newer steel work and art.

    By contrast, now we have a situation where civilization is wealthy enough that this type of art happens all the time. In some countries the basics of survival are handed to anyone who is born. Anyone with the desire can create a little ‘art’ in their spare time, and anyone can indulge their ‘inner artist’ when they aren’t working one or two jobs. None of these people (in large Western countries, anyway) have to worry about being eaten by animals or killed by a neighboring tribe.

    The more critical questions that your piece begs, however, is what would happen if artists were given the wealth that they could create whatever they dreamed? And, where could that much wealth come from? Who would be defined as an artist?

    Everyone is creative in some way. Creativity can and does generate wealth. Wealth can and does (but isn’t required) to generate art.

    Can a new type of cycle be built in some way where creativity generates wealth that generates art that generates wealth?

    -That- might be a new, and good thing.

    1. Hey Marc, great comments – thanks for adding your knowledge to this discussion.

      I disagree with one of your last points – I think that wealth (or at least fulfillment of those basic needs – as you say, many are born with it these days) IS “required” to generate art.

      It was never my intention to imply that “wealth = art” ….. that is most certainly NOT the case. Wealth is simply a necessary ingredient in the environmental cocktail that allows art to happen.

      And to answer your last question… I think there are a bunch of businesses where creativity is making money… which is being used to make art! The examples are too numerous to list here 🙂

      1. Hm. You’re right, I misstated my point… by equals I meant ‘results in’.

        That is, an environment with enough wealth creates a situation where art can happen, but wealth itself isn’t the root cause of art.

        I will concede that the existence of surplus has to exist for art to flourish, but I think that ever since our mammoth hunting days, we’ve found that to be the case. For example, I am in what I would consider “survival mode”, working full time, freelancing at night, and 4 months into starting a new print shop where I work 2 days a week. I also have a wife, toddler and preschooler at home to take care of. Despite all this, I’m compelled to create, writing, drawing and publishing comic books in my spare time.

        There’s no wealth here, aside from the absence of abject poverty, and I am admittedly creating much more slowly, in theory, than I would if I had a patron or something, but it’s still happening.

        1. Hey Marc, all good points… although I’m quite certain that the statement “there’s no wealth here” is hugely relative. Perspective (and the resulting gratitude) are wonderful things 😛

  15. Hi Peter,

    I really love this post. When I first started my own business 5 years ago I wanted to create and to make a difference but I had to focus on making money first. By listening and researching and studying I was able to offer services the market was demanding. It didn’t feel terribly sexy to me and it certainly did not feel like I was aligned with my core purpose but at the same time I was thrilled (and utterly shocked) at my ability to create more money when I needed it by just doing what I was good at. However, once I was in a position where the money was coming in more predictably and I no longer stressed about it, the truth about what I really wanted to do was able to come through. Initially I thought that the creativity and passion would bring money but what I eventually learned was that the money I created by doing what came completely natural to me and by doing what people were demanding anyway allowed me to be more relaxed and therefore more creative. It has also given me the space and perspective to decide the best way to indulge my passions going forward and hopefully make some money doing that too.

    Thanks for your perspective.


    1. Hey Melani! Thanks for joining in here. There are some great insights in your story that we can all learn from – especially that the mix of creativity and business often pans out in unexpected ways.

      Sounds like you’ve got a good thing going on 🙂

  16. It’s basically Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: you must have your basic needs covered off before you can worry about such delightful matters as self-actualization. What you see happening today–especially online though–is creative / helping entrepreneurs innovate ways to earn while they actualize.

    And it’s working. Not for everyone, but it IS working.

    The entrepreneurial market is entirely different than the old B2B paradigm. And that’s a good thing.

    I haven’t read his new book about the topic, but Dan Pink argues that right-brained thinking will rule in the years ahead.

    My thoughts are that we need to strive for balance between creative thinking and analytical thinking. I’m a left-brainer by nature but I have the ability to access my right brain for creative tasks like writing, among other things. Those are my best and most “successful” moments in life … when I can integrate both. And this is what brings people (esp. clients) the highest level of value too.

    Talk about a strategy for upping your fees eh? (Damn, I had better blog about that before you do…)

    As information continues to overwhelm us we NEED the ability to think with our “whole brain.” Not just one or the other. It’s the only way we’ll be able to make sense of–and thrive in–the new world.

    Just some random reactions on a Monday 😉

    Keep goggling,

    1. “Talk about a strategy for upping your fees eh? (Damn, I had better blog about that before you do…)”

      … watch out, cos that might just be next week’s post.

      Thanks for this comment. I don’t subscribe to left-right brain theory.. but I do think you’ve got a point: The meaningful work in life and business tends to happen where creative fu-fu meets analytical value-based business thinking. That’s what I try to bring to my consulting work too!

  17. Wow, too many answers out here to read. So I am just going to answer your question: yes I would make more art if I had mastered the art of business, because I would hire pesonnel to do all the dreary stuff. However.. artists as a kind do generally strive to earn enough money to be able to spend as much time as they like making art – the making of art is a way of being and the money is a necessary means. Welcome of course. There is an excellent study about this by the Dutchman Hans Abbing: Why are artists poor? The exceptional economy of the arts – explaining that the economy of the arts is different form the normal economy. If you pay artists more for a regular job they will work fewer hours, contrary to what economists think.

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