Competitive Creativity: What Is It Doing To Art? And To Artists?

 "Please...please pick me..."
“Please…please pick me…”

It was the second round, the one where two singers, chosen from the group of finalists, face-off against just each other; winner takes all, loser goes home. I watched my friend take his place on the stage. A handsome, supremely talented singer/songwriter, he’s written and recorded songs that could make your heart soar or break into a thousand pieces and yet there he was, singing his touching ballad with heart and soul…only to be pitted against a Broadway-style belter going full-tilt Mariah Carey on some barn-burner, and, well, you guessed it… my pal went home.

Apples and oranges. Coffee and tea. What’s the point? Both valid types of performers, both excellent at their particular craft and style, but we’re going to throw them in the pit together to decide which is better than the other.

Why do we do that to our artists?

Why do we set them against each other in situations where arbitrary standards are applied, subjective opinions rule, random preferences (“he’s so much cuter!”) play a role, and the whimsy of fickle and often superficial criteria set the bar for what’s “hot,” who’s a “star,” what’s a “bestseller,” and who wins the prize?

Why do we make them compete against other qualified artists to win “best” when “best” is, more honestly, impossible to determine and strictly subjective? Why do we make them give their work away so greedy consumers can enjoy it without exchange, in hopes those consumers start viral and positive word-of-mouth? Why do we make them “audition” every day of their lives for acting, singing, writing, photography jobs, often ones beneath their talent, all while treating them as if their years of work and artistic contribution are irrelevant to their perceived value?

The moment before one of our best becomes that arbitrary "best."
– That vulnerable moment before one of our best becomes an arbitrary “best.”

Why do we make artists battle each other like gladiators in a pit, while giving audience members, opinion makers, and gatekeepers the power to thumb up or down depending on cultural mood and sway? Why do we make them beg for readers, go into debt for song plays, humiliate themselves in hopes of an acting gig, or accept “exposure” and “internet real estate” in lieu of money because, hey, “my kid takes pictures as good as any professional, why should I pay you?”

Why do we make them jump through such hoops, tap-dance with such desperation, become “monkeys” to our grinding, mercurial cultural tastes?

Well – you could also ask –  “Why do artists put themselves in those situations?” And you would be asking another valid question.

Why do they? Why do they allow themselves to be judged on anything other than their work, their evolution as an artist, the depth of their talent and skill, or the merit of their individual and unique creative contribution?

Because they want to “make it” – a living, a fair wage, a career – and “making it” in the creative businesses is a BITCH.

Unless an artist wants zero exposure or connection to the outside world, they want some kind of commercial success. They wouldn’t cut CDs, post photographs, publish books, or produce plays if they didn’t.


They want to make a living — some kind of living. They want a bigger audience, a more influential pulpit; an upward trajectory. They want to advance beyond the basement rehearsal room, the badly lit garage, the crappy office where they wrote their last three books. They want their work to get out there, to touch more people, have more impact; be heard, read, and looked at by more than their enthusiastic, but limited, circle of family and friends. They want fame and fortune because fame and fortune allows for steadier progress, more and better opportunities, the attraction of more effective business connections, and a higher level of collaborators. Because art is communication and communication requires a Point B. They want more Point Bs.

But we live in a world of too many people, and with so many of those people pursuing artistic careers, and so, so many outlets available for those many people to put their work, the supply has colossally exceeded the demand. Which makes creative competition a sort of necessary Hunger Games designed to thin the herd.

Frankly, supply has always exceeded demand in the arts; success has always been a rarefied, selective thing, but now – with the internet, all things DIY, and enough televised talent shows (you’d think!) to run out of talent – the gates of perceived opportunity have burst open, and everyone with a modicum of talent is rushing forth to be counted. And the bean counters are counting and artists are competing and it’s all getting so crazy that shenanigans and misguided notions of every kind have been injected into the madness.


Singers, producers, and record execs now regularly rely on digital technology to manipulate marginal performances into artificially perfect ones. Independent (and other) authors pack Amazon pages with paid-for, swapped, and often undeserved “5-star” reviews to hopefully pull them out of the pack. Photographers Photoshop their work to death in an effort to stand out in a field where billboards, newspapers, and media sites are putting out calls to amateurs with iPhones. Copywriters, journalists, and essayists are forced to balance free gigs offering bona fide Ior not!) exposure against “getting paid or walking away” in arenas where “everyone’s a writer!” and no one wants to, or, apparently, needs to pay for quality writing.

All of this has reduced art, and artists, to… yes, I’ll use the analogy again: The Hunger Games: artists out there with defenses high, attempting to survive in a world where those in charge frame them as generic and dispensable… and too many fellow artists believe “cheating the system” is necessary in a competitive environment where talent, quality, and sustaining creativity are far less valued than viral appeal.

But is that giving us the best art, advancing the best artists? You tell me. I’m not convinced, particularly when I read, listen to, or see extraordinary art that is ignored or dismissed for lesser, but more viral work.

Which means this to me:

Personal best

I’ve stepped off the playing field. I won’t compete anymore… at least not in the ways described above. I won’t pit myself against other talented artists to win some arbitrary prize; I won’t chase after an audience; I won’t involve myself in situations that kill my soul, even a little. The only person I’ll compete against is me, to beat my personal best, and continue to grow and evolve as an artist. I’ll put my work where it can be found, I’ll happily share good news, I’ll continue to promote and talk about other artists I admire, and I’ll do everything within my power and resources to advance my goals. But I’ve put down my bow and arrow. If this means I’m truly out of the running, so be it. I’ve discovered that sometimes running just kicks up a lot of dust…

Fingers crossed image by Mjt16 @ WikimediaCommons.
“Best Lead Actor Emmy” shot: video screen grab
Trumpet Player by Padurariu Alexandru @ Unsplash
LDW shot by James Johnson

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4 thoughts on “Competitive Creativity: What Is It Doing To Art? And To Artists?

  1. I was out recently with one of the most competitive artists I know. She took my praise for someone’s book as an insult to hers. It ended badly. I haven’t the energy for that kind of rubbish.


    1. Ain’t that SO the damn truth?! And rubbish it is. When artists see too many things as a statement against their own choices, when they pit themselves against the markers of other people or the cultural “think,” they kind of lose the point of creativity. I’m weary of it myself, the whole PUSH to move work forward, which has wreaked havoc on the sale and attention to my work, but been very nice for my state-of-mind! 🙂

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