Golden Handcuffs: The Misaligned Incentives Diluting Art
Published on December 11, 2023 by Noah Bradley
The best artists are not making their best art and that makes me sad.
The best artists have access to the best jobs from the best companies. Those companies are the ones who control most of the attention and make most of the money, so they can afford to pay for the best artists and grant them the biggest, shiniest gold stars of recognition and success.
These artists are rewarded for this work by receiving even more jobs and opportunities to keep making more work for larger and bigger brands. Soon, this artist’s profound skill and creative spirit is dedicated to serving to build a corporate brand.
Most artists become artists because they enjoy making art. Western society these days tells us that if we become very good at something—particularly if that something is hard to do and in demand—we should make money from it. So we do and sometimes that goes well. It’s nice to paint all day and it’s wonderful to receive money.
But then art becomes a job and when art becomes a job, all sorts of bad things can start to happen. First and foremost, we can lose the love of what we’re doing. Few of us got into art because we enjoy being told exactly what to do and how to do it. Imagine a child, crayons in hand, asking their parent for a brief and 50% of their fee upfront before they begin to color. We wouldn’t raise our kids that way but we would gladly train our adult selves this way.
This is nothing new
This has been happening for centuries. Maybe longer. Look back at the religious paintings of the Renaissance or the portraits of the 19th century. Sometimes you will see an artist’s joy in those subjects, but more often you will see them fulfilling a brief, no matter how spectacularly masterful may be their effort.
Social media isn’t helping
It’s not only companies, it’s also all of us. I’ve talked about it elsewhere, but the commodification of easily-consumable art is also dumbing down artists. The cream doesn’t rise to the top; the prepackaged, bite-sized, quick-fix art is what we all see. Our attention is pushing more artists to go down this road.
You can take off the golden handcuffs
I was a proud bearer of golden handcuffs for many years until the internet helped me out and took them off for me. I had wanted to take off my golden handcuffs for a long time, but it sure wasn’t easy. It was easy to say, “next month,” or “after this project is done.” But inevitably a new/better/more-profitable job/event/project would land in my inbox and I would be trapped anew.
When I was no longer bound, though, I saw just how unappealing it had all been. Not all of it—don’t get me wrong. The money was great and money can provide a lot of security and even happiness, to a degree. But I did not love the work I was making nor did I love the way my artistic life was headed. I was little more than a gun for hire and I was getting real tired of shooting.
As it turns out, more success/money/fame is not necessarily a good thing. All of those things come with a lot of downsides and there will be times when you should turn down offers for more.
Because in accepting the success, money, and fame, you are paying with your freedom.
You can make your own golden handcuffs
If you’re tired of serving corporate masters so that you can make money to eat, you can try serving yourself instead. Make your own projects. Create your own worlds, your own books, your own courses, whatever it happens to be for you. Introduce some independence into your life so that you’re not quite so dependent on the grind of continual work.
You can do these projects with others. Then you’ll have a personal stake in how well the project goes. No more flat fee, but instead there is creative freedom combined with the potential to make something that will make you a lot of money. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll probably have a good time making it. So get together with your friends and make a game, a movie, whatever.
Kickstarter and Patreon can both help to enable these pursuits. Create something great—for the love of God make something different—and let the people support you in your quest.
Save & invest money
A bit of “Fuck You” Money can make all the difference. Grinding out a soulless job for an uncaring client will feel a lot less enticing if you’re already financially comfortable. If you have the savings and investments to ride out times of little or no income, you’re going to feel better about turning down miserable jobs.
It’s easier said than done but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
Take a sabbatical
If you have been endlessly grinding for years, as I’m sure many of you have, maybe it’s time to take a break. Get away from the millstone and set aside time to make your own work. Plan it out. Save up the money to pay all the bills, schedule a certain time away—let any clients know exactly when you’ll be back. Not a day sooner.
You can plan out what you’ll do or you can let it happen, either could be good. This isn’t time for relaxation—you’re not just taking a vacation here. You’re still going to be working; you might be working even more than you were before. It’s just that now you’re going to make your work because you want to.
During a sabbatical or any other time you can: consider and write down why you’re making art. Really think about it. If you don’t have a good answer, that’s all the more reason to ask yourself the question. Because this stuff matters and it’s somewhat likely that you will find yourself on a path in life that you have no interest in going down.
Shed your golden handcuffs and make great art. The world is waiting for something fresh, something interesting, something great.