Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Best New Measure of Artistic Success

$100,000,000 isn't worth very much anymore.

What doesn't make one hundred million dollars, in the 21st century?

Besides MacGruber the movie, I mean -- if that makes it to $100,000,000, we're all doomed as a society. Or societies, because it seems pretty clear that not enough Americans will go see MacGruber to drive that movie up to $100,000,000, so if it hits that mark, ever, it will be because people in other countries spent money on it, and will mean, too, that those people are doing it in some sort of passive-aggressive attack on the United States, as opposed to actually wanting to see it. In fact, if we could get a look at the master plan of all the other countries, it would probably read something like this:

1. Lag behind United States culturally, economically, and technologically, for about 225 years or so.

2. Wait until the US screws up and makes a stupid SNL skit into a movie. (Note to ourselves, the evil countries that want to take down America: Don't act too soon on step two. Lull them into a false sense of security by letting Superstar and That One Movie About Those Guys Who Dance By Shaking Their Heads get made, and also don't jump all over all those "Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby In Weird Situations Movies.")

3. Once the time is right, spend all our money on the lamest movie ever made from an already-lame SNL skit, thereby encouraging the US to continue making those movies, which will work as essentially a nationwide, theater-induced lobotomy on moviegoers who have to sit through the movie, the trailers for the movie, or the inevitable Youtube parodies of the movie, parodies which are made by people who are already blissfully unaware that the movie is a parody.

4. Also, we, the countries that hate the US, realize that the Will Ferrell movies in many cases were not SNL skits, but they're really no different, are they? Can you swear that Land Of The Lost didn't originate as an SNL Skit? Neither can we.

"MacGruber" seems destined to make well less than $100,000,000, which is really saying something these days, since these days, everything sells for One Hundred Million Dollars. It's as if we're in some sort of worldwide auction and the only bidder is Dr. Evil.

I began thinking about this the other day when I heard that a Picasso painting had sold for a record $106.5 million. When I heard that, I thought a couple things at once:

First, I thought, I wonder what painting that is?

Second, I thought I bet a second-grader could paint a picture that I could credibly pass off as a Picasso.

And third, I thought that makes Picasso less artistically successful than Shrek.

In case you were, like me, wondering what on earth could be worth $106.5 million, but unlike me you didn't finally look it up today, here's the painting.

And it's not that I'm against Picasso. I don't particularly like his paintings, and I don't particularly not like them. I don't find them revolutionary or all that pleasing, but that's probably mostly because I don't fall into that category of people who think that you can say something is symbolic of this or that or who find stuff to be representative of such-and-such or who think that there is something remarkable about changing perspective in paintings when in fact almost everyone who ever draws or paints or sketches will change perspective, and the only difference between my 3-year-olds' drawings of an airplane and Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves And Bust is that Picasso altered the perspective deliberately.

Or so he would have you believe. Maybe he didn't do it deliberately. If you think that sometimes artists don't just decide to hand you, the art-consuming, $106.5 million-spending, entirely-too-credible public, a giant load of hogwash, then you're not familiar with de Kooning's toilet seat bet, among other artistic claptrap; and and people who think that artists always deliberately do things and have valid artistic reasons for doing the things they do are probably also unfamiliar with the fact that many of de Kooning's works were done in black and white because he couldn't afford color.

So it's no guarantee that Picasso's paintings altered perspective in a revolutionary way; he may have been a bad artist with good PR skills.

Regardless of what I think Picasso's painting sold for $106.5 million, which means that someone somewhere thought it was worth that much. And after having that in the back of my head for a couple days, I thought to myself: yeah, but that was only one person.

That thought kind of sprung out of the thought that Shrek is a more stunning artistic success than Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust, and kind of sprung out of my long-held belief about how to tell if something is truly great. And as I mulled those two thoughts, turned them around in my head over and over, tumbling them as if they were so many Boston Baked Beans waiting to be turned into delicious candy with a terrible name, I realized something:

All the measures we have for artistic success are obsolete -- and the lady who bought the Picasso is the straw that broke the camel's back.

I need to be clear that when I say "artistic success" I don't mean true greatness. True Greatness is measurable by one way and one way only -- you know how, if you've read this blog for a long time, and if you don't know or have forgotten you can go click that last link up there and re-read the post it links to (or read it for the first time, if you haven't read it before.)

I'm not talking about truly great here, I'm talking about artistic success, and by that I mean "Making a lot of money with an artistic endeavor."

All the art-snobs out there just scoffed, spit out their espressos, and waggled their deliberately-uneven eyebrows and said something like "Art isn't about making money! It's about..." and then they finished that saying with whatever too-literary, meaningless catchphrase or code word they currently believe art is "about." (E.g., paradigm shifting, or essence of libertinism or freeing of the human spirit or getting Miley out of that contract with Disney).

But they're wrong. Art is about making money. If it wasn't, artists wouldn't charge for their art. There is nothing about the uplifting of the human spirit or libertinism or whatever other words you vaguely remember from that one college class you had to take to graduate, nothing about that which requires that artists charge for their art. Moviemakers, actors, painters, sculptors, mimes... they can all do their art free if they want, and uplift the human spirit or shift paradigms all they want.

But they don't.

And they don't because they want to make money, and they want to make money doing their art as opposed to making money doing something else and doing art for free.

Because anyone can also be, say, an accountant -- an accountant who sculpts in his free time. Or a lawyer who blogs in his spare time. Or a surgeon who paints in her spare time. Anyone can work at one job to make money and give away their uplifting/Miley-freeing art for free.

But they don't.

They don't because they want to make money, so the whole point of art is to make money, and you can un-arch your deliberately-uneven eyebrows and drink the rest of your espresso and vow to write a stern critique of my critique, and you can use words of no less than 10 syllables each, but you know I'm right: Everyone who creates anything artistic or creative is hoping to get money out of it. Which makes money the measure of artistic success: how much money people are willing to pay for your art is the measure of how successful you are as an artist, and that's where the problem comes in, the problem being that we need to redefine success in artistic (monetary) terms, because the old measure is no longer valid.

The old measure is 100,000,000. It used to be that 100,000,000-- usually dollars -- was a real mark of artistic success, and it used to be that way because in the olden days (2002) 100,000,000 really meant something.

In the olden days (2002), if something made $100,000,000, or sold 100,000,000, or was 100,000,000, that meant that a lot of people had seen or read or listened to or shuffled by the thing that had made/been/sold 100,000,000 of itself. It meant that the artistic thing that was in the theaters, the bookstores, or the Louvre, was really successful, because not everything could make/sell 100,000,000.

In dollar terms, the mark of success was $100,000,000, and it was reserved, mostly, for super-blockbuster movies. It was the high point, a goal achieved by only a select few artistic endeavors, and a goal usually only achieved with the help of either lasers or Kate Winslet's chest.

But more and more movies began making $100,000,000, especially in recent years. They did so not because more and more movies were really good, but simply because there were more people, more theaters, and higher prices for tickets, all of which added up to $100,000,000 for more movies, movies which hit that mark pretty quickly, too.

Consider that there have been 456 movies which topped the $100 million mark in movie history.

Of those, more than 380 have been made in the past 20 years.

And of the top 5, three were made in the last 6 years.

And one of those is Shrek II, which made more than $436 million worldwide (making Shrek four times as artistically successful as Picasso.)

If we go by the old measure of success -- $100,000,000 -- it would seem that more recent movies are better and more artistically successful. But can it really be seriously argued that in a medium which has existed for a century, it's only in the last 20 years that greatly successful works are really being made? And only in the past six years that really great works are being made?

No, it can't, so don't try. Instead, consider other evidence of the inflation of artistic success. It's not just movies, after all.

Books are going crazy -- and not just Stephanie Meyers' books, either. Writing, as an art form, has been around for as long as humans have existed. Reading, as a hobby, has been around since Gutenberg made his Bible. But a host of authors have made more than $100,000,000 selling their stories -- and most of them have done so just in the past few years. JK Rowling, Dan Brown, and the like have benefited from inflation and earned more than $100,000,000, joining what used to be rarefied air and what is now crowded stratosphere.

It's not just one hundred million dollars that doesn't mean anything anymore; the number 100,000,000, period, is becoming irrelevant. Even books nobody's ever actually read, like A Purpose Driven Life, have 100,000,000 copies in print: that's one copy for about every 3 Americans... and yet, even though I know more than 3 Americans, I've never seen that book.

Not "I've never seen it on someone's shelf," but I've just never seen it. I suspect that the publisher printed 100,000,000 copies so that it could say 100,000,000 copies in print and get the boost that number provides, even if those copies were never actually sold.

Does 100,000,000 count for anything any more? I don't think so; I think its ubiquity has devalued it as a measure of success, the way ABC wrecked Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? by running it 23 hours a day (and then by putting Meredith Viera on there.)

If nobody wants to be a millionaire anymore, that may be because millions mean nothing when everything is worth $100,000,000; who wants to be a one-hundredth-of-something-aire? If everything earns $100,000,000, then that's the starting point, not the ending point, and a million bucks isn't even close to that starting point.

It seems as though everything does earn $100,000,000 nowadays. Not just movies starring Channing Tatum, or books starring characters that someday will be played in the movies by Channing Tatum. It's also paintings -- not just Picasso's Nudes & Such but also paintings of Elvis by Andy Warhol, one of which sold for $100,000,000 a while back.

Even domain names have sold for $100,000,000. What domain name, you might ask?

None of those: it was "" If you can believe the report. And why not believe it? It's not like 100,000,000 means anything, not when "Need For Speed" videogames sell 100,000,000 copies.

Need For Speed
, A Purpose Driven Life, Picasso paintings -- all have hit the 100,000,000 mark one way or another. Clearly, there's a problem here, and that problem is that it's no longer possible to tell which art is really successful and which art is not.

We as a society have to have a way to measure artistic success, to say "This person is successful" and "That person [who blogs on The Best of Everything] is not."

Don't ask why we need such a system. We just do. This is America, okay? We have systems for things and we compulsively rank everything -- probably because we gave up royalty but realized that we still have to have some way to say these things are better than those things.

So we need a measure, a measure that will tell us who's doing good and who's not. We can't just leave it up to people to work on the honor system -- it's that system that got us MacGruber in the first place, as box office totals got watered down so much that studio executives obviously said to themselves "any sort of junk we film will make $100,000,000, so don't bother putting any thought into this or anything."

If 100,000,000 remains the standard for "doing well," when it is a number that apparently anyone can reach, we're going to suffer through a lot more Shreks and MacGrubers and off-center poorly drawn Picasso paintings and crummy racing video games, because everyone everywhere knows that all you've got to do is have a character who appeals to 14-year-olds, or teen boys, or middle-aged women, and you'll hit $100,000,000.

In other words, the fact that there is someone out there who will spend $100,000,000 -- $106.5 million, to be precise, and why not be precise about it? -- on a Picasso, of all painters, the fact that such a person exists means that anything, at any time, can generate $100,000,000 and be deemed an artistic success. What's to keep that poor deluded soul from spending her next $106.5 million on something with even less merit than Picasso's stumbling efforts? What's to keep her from spending $100,000,000 on, say, a collection of Dilbert comic strips? Or Wii sports? Or going to see MacGruber 11,764,705.88 times at $8.50 per ticket?

Nothing -- the only thing that stands between us and total artistic oblivion is the fact that this woman (or man, I suppose, but I doubt it's a man because no man is going to spend $106.5 million on a painting of a nude when for that money he could just buy a nude, and one that's not off-perspectived, at that)-- the only thing that stands between us and artistic-success-oblivion -- Artistageddon-- is that this woman hasn't gotten around to spending $100,000,000 on something else that's crappy.


I'm going to head it off, though, that ultimate watering down of artistic success, by proposing a new measure of artistic success -- The Best New Measure of Artistic Success, as you'd guess from the title of this post. By proposing this measure I'm certain that it'll be adopted (as all my ideas are, often without credit to me, right Newsweek and James Cameron?) and we'll be safe, for a little while at least.

The measure I propose takes money out of the equation, almost completely. Money's useless as an artistic-success-measuring tool, as we've seen. Money will keep on being inflated, as evidenced by the fact that James Cameron and filmmakers like him have already realized that they can charge more for crummy 3-d movies because we have to essentially rent the glasses-- paying an extra charge for them but not being allowed to keep them, and if 3D isn't a scam to get us to pay more money each time, then why not standardize 3D technology and let us buy our glasses and use our own glasses at the theater instead of paying a rental charge each time and having to use glasses some sweaty nerd wore 10 minutes before we got them?

So money's out. What's in, as a measure of artistic success, is this:

How many product tie-ins does your artistic endeavor have?

That cuts right to the chase, doesn't it? It measures artistic success still by money, sort of -- by measuring how much you're able to sell your artistic work for -- but interposes an objective criteria, that of others who are willing to pay you to repurpose your work.

Does your painting hang in the Louvre? Yawn. Did your book sell 100,000,000 copies? Big shmeal. Did your song get played on an album and get used as a trailer song and get featured in ads for Robin & Company on CNNHLNUSFDL? Really? That's AWESOME, man!

Tie-ins and crossovers and related works and knock-offs, when used to measure success, will still reward artists financially -- that being the reason they're artists -- but will also provide a clear way for the public to measure how much success an artist has without going by the unreliable, easily manipulated measure of money or total copies in print. Instead of asking how many books JK Rowling sold, we'll ask how many tote bags have a picture of Hermione on them. We'll stop looking at weekend box office grosses and instead see how many figurines of Samantha or Carrie are available at Burger King. We'll look for Hallmark ornaments of major sculptures and decide who's really a greater sculptor that way.

You may be a little concerned, at first, that measuring artistic success via product tie-ins could lead to selling out -- but selling out, as I've said often before, is what art is all about. If you're not in art to sell out, then give it away free, or be quiet about selling out. So my method shuts people up by making it mandatory to sell out.

You may also fret that this new system for measuring success will lead to artists pandering to the commercial tastes of others, as Modest Mouse tries desperately to come up with a song that'll get featured on a commercial, or at least sold as a tie-in to a Happy Meal, or inspire some fan fiction. But artists are already pandering to the commercial tastes of others, all the time. Some of them (me) do so openly, trying to produce something that will make them rich and allow them to live happily in Hawaii doing nothing more strenuous than making fun of comic strips all day. Others (most snooty artists) pretend to shun the greater commercial market and instead focus on the pretentious art community that is willing to pay $106.5 million for a crummy painting -- but they're still focusing on the commercial aspect; they're just marketing to a more limited subset, the way Starbucks ignores coffee drinkers like me and markets itself to people who think it's (for some reason) cool to pay $6 for a cup of bitter, oily coffee.

My system, too, avoids the "one person problem," the problem created by the buyer of that Picasso, which looks worse and worse the more I look at it. In today's world, where there are 793 billionaires, one person can make anything a success just by buying it for $100,000,000. If your kid produces a fingerpainting that you can sell to Theo Albrecht for $100,000,000, your kid will be Picasso. If Amancio Ortega decided that he really really liked a book, he could buy $100,000,000 worth of them to make sure that author is deemed a success.

Do we really want our artistic-success-stories to be driven solely by the whims of billionaires, the way our politics, health care, and sex lives are now?

(Note to the billionaires: If you want to pay me $100,000,000 for anything I do, please email me. I'll sell out in a second, and you will have the opportunity to own, say, the World's Most Expensive Blog. [The Best Of Everything: Our Opinions Are More Expensive Than Yours.])

Judging artistic success by the number of product tie-ins, crossovers, and the like takes the decision of what is art that's worth paying for and what's not that type of art out of the hands of the public (and the individuals); we will only indirectly be able to influence the art world anymore and our judgment of success will be dependent on the judgment of those who hope to sell knockoffs of the work of art to us. We won't look at record sales, but at sales of that record to those who hope to sell us something based on the record, to see whether the record is a success.

As a final argument, my new proposed system of using product-tie-ins and crossovers and knockoffs can't be any worse at determining success than the system we've got now, right? Our current system got us Picasso paintings that I really can't stand to look at anymore at all selling for $106.5 million, and put Shrek II in the top 5 movies of all time, and otherwise turned the world of artistic success on its head.

In fact, the only thing our present system got right is that MacGruber movie thing...

For now.

UPDATE: Within 48 hours, this idea was adopted by the world. Or at least by Stephanie Meyers, who clearly understands how things are going to work in the future.

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