The Emergence of the Artistic Producer: Navigating the Transformative Landscape of Work and Creativity
Life & Philosophy
February 19, 2023
“Don’t write any story to people, write it to the great sky” - Unknown Zen Master.
A while ago, I was having a conversation with a friend in which he gave me the following feedback: “you’ve been working on this one product for a long time now, and I think you should start publishing things ASAP. That way you can gauge whether there’s actually a need for what you’re building, and save yourself a lot of time and energy in case there isn’t.”
A week later I had published the first version of my product and earned my first few hundred euro’s in profit. His feedback was solid and I’m grateful that he gave it. Truth be told, I would’ve given someone in my shoes the exact same advice.
But the feedback also made me ponder: what if there would be no need for what I’m building? Would I stop building it then? Or would I continue building it simply for the sake of building it?
Who am I creating for?
This situation highlights an idea I’ve been thinking about a lot: to what extent do I want to create things for other people, and to what extent do I want to create them for myself?
As someone who’s born and raised in the Netherlands, I have the Dutch culture ingrained into my bones. The Dutch culture is one of hard work. Of trade. Of optimising processes, building businesses, and creating financial stability.
But it’s also a culture of free expression. Of artists. Of rich architecture, world renowned painters, and an infamous party scene. You could say we like to “work hard, play hard.”
I’ve experienced and lived out both of these cultural scripts during various points in my life, from long sleepless rave parties fuelled by drugs, to fund-raising for my own start-up.
I truly am, in large part, a product of the Dutch culture.
Production or art?
This explains why part of my identity and self-worth is tied into being a producer, a valuable contributor to ‘the economy’. If I don’t produce tangible value, and earn money in the process, I feel like I’m not worthy.
Another part of my identity says ‘to hell with that’. Why bother entering into a ratrace of production and consumption, only to find misery and emptiness as its price? Why not create something meaningful in the brief time I have on this earth?
A question I like to ask myself to think about this, is what I would do if I wouldn’t have to earn a living. This prompts me to start with the end in mind. If I’ve finished the societal game of production, then what would I work on?
The problem is that I haven’t finished this game and that I do have to earn a living. So then the question becomes: if I have to earn a living, what is the best way for me to do so?
The old economy vs the new economy.
Over the past weeks I’ve been reading a book by Seth Godin called “The Icarus Deception”. One of the main points of this book is that our economy is going through a major paradigm shift.
The old economy wanted people to fit into a standardised and industrial system, with the main goal being to produce as much stuff as possible, with the minimal necessary input.
The new economy wants people to do the exact opposite; to be creative, blaze new trails, and seek interesting ways of giving meaning to the sheer volume of products that we are able to produce.
The problem is that most us have been trained to function properly in the old system. We’ve been taught to be producers, beating out many of the natural traits and talents that each of us naturally have. And now we find ourselves in a world in which exactly those traits and talents are most desired.
A world that begs us to be authentic. To be vulnerable. To share our art.
But we need production…
An argument against this idea is that there is still plenty of production to be done, especially in developing nations. There are still billions of people living on the brink of poverty and it would only be fair to allow them the same amount of material wealth that we enjoy. Sharing your art is fun and all, but the world needs practical products.
I partially agree with this point. There is a level of production that needs to happen, and I think it would be valuable if all of us contributed a few hours of work to that every week.
On the other hand, I don’t think this critique is fair. Because it’s not the people on the factory floor, producing materials and goods, that are to blame. Rather, it’s the massive eco-systems that we’ve build around them.
It’s the five layers of middle management, it’s the twenty person sized marketing department, it’s the product producer that creates the 50th line of toothpaste. It’s people repetitively doing the same thing, over and over, because it’s what supposedly generates the ‘most value’.
And that’s the problem.
What is valuable changes
Our current way of doing things no longer generates the most value. Value is subjective and dynamic, varying through time and space. A thousand years ago I valued having enough food, today I value losing 10 kilo’s of body fat. In the sahara desert I’d give my life savings for some water, in the swimming pool I wouldn’t pay a dime.
Over the past years, our western society has slowly started to value different things. There’s only so much happiness material goods can bring us. We might not realise it yet, but we’ve already defeated the final boss in the game of production.
Simultaneously, we’ve connected billions of people around the globe through the internet. Where scholars of the past would die to pay a visit to the library of Alexandria, we all have that library times a thousand in our pockets.
We have everything.
The new craving
But what do we do if we have everything? We start craving the thing we don’t have, or rather the thing we continuously need.
We start longing for the experience of connection. The experience of authenticity. The experience of the journey.
Where production was a means to an end, art is the end in and of itself. And when we stop striving for some far-off result in the future, we can finally arrive in the present; fully expressing who we truly are.
The artist & the producer
And that’s what the artist does. The artist expresses themselves honestly in the work they do. They create first and foremost for themselves, because it’s easier to let it out than to keep it bottled up inside.
Then they share their work, their art, with the world. They invite other people to experience what they experience, and in doing so, create a connection.
Compare this to what the producer does. The producer expresses what someone else wants, or think they want. They create first and foremost for other people, because it increases their likelihood for getting money and status.
The producer tries to understand the other person and get in his skull. They create customer journeys, extensively test their products with the user, and optimise their marketing strategy to ensure a maximal click-through rate. In doing so, they create a consumption.
When the producer becomes an artist
I want to re-emphasise that there’s a need for production, and the role of the producer. But this need is tremendously overestimated. There’s a much bigger need, and ever increasing one, for the role of the artist; a need that is tremendously underestimated.
But, as with everything in life, there is a middle path. The path of the artistic producer. The person that creates something from a place of honesty, sincerity, and vulnerability, whilst also trying to optimise it for the need of other people.
My path as an artistic producer
This is the path I currently find myself on. I’m continually swaying back and forth between creating things primarily for myself, and creating them primarily for other people.
I often struggle with finding the right balance between the two: in moments of insecurity I lean towards the producer, because that’s a cultural script that reinforces my self-worth. Whereas in moments of confidence I lean towards the artist, because that’s who I truly am, and who I truly want to be.
My current strategy
My current strategy is to cut down costs and produce the bare minimum necessary to sustain myself. This way I free up a lot of time and energy for my art, which will pay off eventually. And even if it doesn’t pay off: I would rather pursue my art without a financial pay-off, than pursue a pay-off for it’s own sake.
The old economy is dying and a new one is taking its place. We’ve become experts at producing things, and in doing so created a world of material abundance. Now we need people that can help us appreciate that abundance and assign meaning to it. We need people that help us connect, both with ourselves, and with each other.
My invitation to you is to express a little more of yourself today, in whatever it is you do. Expressing yourself fully might not be an option, as you might find ourselves constrained in all sorts of things (paradigm shifts take time). But you can let a little bit of your art seep through. You can slowly start developing your artistic producer, and share with the world what it so desperately needs.