Make Art Make Money: Lessons From Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career

BOOK: Make Art Make Money: Lessons From Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career
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Make Art Make Money

Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career

Make Art Make Money

Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career


Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

Text copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, New York

e-ISBN: 9781477867389

Cover Designed by Inkd

For my mother, Joanne, and for Jim Henson

Table of Contents



In 1968, Jim Henson performed a skit on
The Ed Sullivan Show
called “Business, Business,” which he cowrote with Jerry Juhl. In it, there are two kinds of creatures, and they are locked in conflict.

On one side, the creatures make sounds like a cash register and a slot machine. They recite a poem written in business-ese: “Corporate profits, exculpates, mutual fund, interest rates.”

On the other side, the creatures have naïve voices and lightbulb heads. They ask, “Love? Beauty? Joy?”

The battle is on.

“Brotherhood, hope, peace!” says one side.

“Option, market, possibility, eight-point-one over counter utility,” says the other.

It’s a war of ideologies.





Business opens fire. The idealists fire back. Business explodes! Then disappears. Silence.

Cautiously, the idealists look around. They have won. “Peace?” says one. “Success!” says the other. Their lightbulbs go off.

“Victory? Opportunity! Comfort … security …” The lightbulbs flash faster. “Benefits, growth, wealth, diversity, dividends, profit, capital, economy, business, business, BUSINESS, BUSINESS!”

Ed Sullivan’s adult audience laughs at Henson’s goofy puppets. One man in a suit turns to his wife and raises an eyebrow.

“Business, Business” implies that business and idealism are diametrically opposed. The idealist is attacked not just by the establishment, but also from within, where greed starts to change one’s motives.

For the most part, money
the enemy of art. Artists know this from experience; you are rarely compensated well for following your muse. You could make a lot more if you left art behind to work in sales, management, or finance. This is no accident. Put simply, great art wants quality, whereas good business wants
. Quality requires many man-hours to produce, which any accountant will tell you cuts significantly into your profit. Great artists fight
such expenditures, whereas successful businessmen fight
them. The exceptions, those entrepreneurial visionaries who do fight for quality—a Walt Disney or a Steve Jobs—fight an uphill battle. To the CFOs, the man-hours that quality
are simply gratuitous overhead to be cut in the name of cheaper, faster profits.

This problem was perhaps most eloquently stated in a 1979 book by former Harvard professor Lewis Hyde.
The Gift
is elucidating yet mysterious. Above the bar code, it labels itself “Literary Criticism” and “Sociology.” Yet, to quote Margaret Atwood’s endorsement on the back cover, it is “the best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators.” For artists, Hyde’s book approaches a form of self-help.

shows us
artists don’t make money: because art is, anthropologically speaking, a gift. Trouble arises in societies when a person tries to convert a gift into a commodity. “When gifts are sold,” Hyde writes, “they change their nature as much as water changes when it freezes, and no rationalist telling … can replace the feeling that is lost.”
This would be the case if, say,
Sesame Street
were taken over by a for-profit company, with advertisements, opportunistic spin-offs, and direct-to-video releases. No longer a gift to the children of the world,
Sesame Street
would become a commodity produced by a corporation that views children as consumers. Gifts, on the other hand, are given in sacrifice with no hope of return, except for perhaps a karmic faith in shared humanity. When the
of the gift is lost—the gratitude, awe, and communality of it, the gift is reduced to a shell of what it was. It doesn’t work like it should—on our emotions. It is just a trinket with no intrinsic power.

Using tribal peoples as examples, Hyde explains that art has a special set of rules by which it circulates, whereas commodities of the market have another, very different set of rules. For art to truly affect us, it needs to be, in a sense, “given.” For a commodity to be successful, it needs to be bought and sold. The market economy is zero-sum, where selling an item is to lose it, and paying money is to become poorer. The gift economy, on the other hand, grows with each transaction, with gratitude and societal bonds being an “increase” for both the giver and recipient. It is a cumulative wealth, because in a sense, we feel “richer” the more we give others, and they too feel “rich” in spirit. Using Hyde’s elegant theory, we can easily define what is and isn’t art. Art is a gift, and anything that is not a gift
in some sense
is not art.

Let us leave Hyde for a moment to see if this jibes with the world we know. If we examine the hardest-working, most talented, most enduring, and most genius artists, they tend to be in the stage of their career where they are just about to make it big. “His early albums are still the best,” we say, or put another way, “She hasn’t done anything interesting since she got that three-book deal.” Before artists become successful, they give it their all as an act of social faith with no set schedule for repayment. They are “making a name for themselves” or “hoping to strike it big” and trust that society will give them a career in return. This is the gift. But once an artist enters the market economy, profits start to demand giving less and charging more.

It is not the artist’s fault, but rather the result of an unhappy union: an artisan working in a gift economy but trying to survive in a market economy. For example, the woman who gave me the best massage of my life was doing it to practice for a job interview. It was free. But in order to make a profit—to actually
as an artist—one can’t afford to be generous all the time. A year into working professionally, that masseuse needed hand surgery and stopped offering deep-tissue techniques. You can give a masterpiece massage once a week, but to actually make enough to live, she wound up overworking her muscles and joints to the point that it damaged her. Giving it her all wasn’t financially feasible. It wasn’t that she
to sacrifice the quality of her art, but in order to pay her rent, to survive as an artist, she had to give less. Profit demands this. It’s Economics 101.

In essence, capitalism does not reward art that is a gift. In spite of this economic reality, as a society we value the art of the genius, and we naturally reject the sham-art of the entrepreneur, that is, commodity-art. It is true that all too often the larger society does become duped by saccharine holiday jingles, corporate art sculptures, clip-art GIFs on sales flyers, and Hyde’s example, the formulaic romance novel written by focus-group surveys. Yet, on these objects, our cultural critics usually reach a unanimous judgment. They are designed to
, not to give. These objects are not art because they lack generosity, and given enough time, history inevitably proves it.

We intuitively reject art when the cost to make it is less than the cost to buy it. How many times have you scoffed at the ridiculous price some art collector paid for a Warhol, a Pollock, a Rothko? That’s not art, you say. I could make one of those in my sleep. It’s just a status-seeker’s luxury, pure market speculation, you say. It’s no longer art, and if it is, it isn’t
art—it’s not something you have to take your grandchildren to see so that they may one day show their grandchildren.

But as much as we know and value art—as a society—we expect our best artists to starve. Herman Melville died penniless and depressed, as did van Gogh. The National Endowment for the Arts works on this principle—that there is art out there that is
to make any money. The endowment model does seem to fit nicely with Hyde’s art-as-gift philosophy, but it also bespeaks a sad fatalism—that artists
make money.

Yet art and money
occasionally dance. Hyde acknowledges this with caution. “There are three primary ways,” he tells us, “in which modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood: they have taken second jobs, they have found patrons to support them, or they have managed to place the work itself on the market and pay the rent with fees and royalties.”
At various points in Jim Henson’s career—as we will see—the artist used each of these methods, but more than any, he used the market. The art of the Muppets is inarguably “commercial,” though it is also much more.

Of the three routes, Hyde says, the first two (quite often teaching and grants) are the easier ways for an artist to
his art from money—to “mark the boundary between his art and the market.” When we exchange our art for money directly, without a clear boundary, the art can easily become contaminated by market demands. Hyde writes:

It is not hard to distinguish between writing poems and working the night shift in a hospital, and easier still for the poet to know he is no Guggenheim. But the artist who sells his own creations must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies [gift and market] and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together. He must, on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity. He must be able to reckon its value in terms of current fashions, know what the market will bear, demand fair value, and part with the work when someone pays the price. And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to sell his art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell, or only a commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market, not in response to the demands of the gift.

Hyde’s book is an amazing exploration of the problem, but as he writes in the afterword, it is not “a very practical book.”
The afterword touches briefly on auspicious avenues for artists—universities and foundations. However, these institutions are currently glutted, saturated with artists. And their power over artists is so high that they themselves contaminate art as much as the market—demanding arcane fashions appreciated by a handful of academics. I have seen rooms full of poets lamenting the politics of tenure and grant-writing, and the effects it has on their work, and I thought, where has all our
gone? Jim Henson’s work was poetry, and yet his eyes always danced with hope and laughter, because he knew how to work the market for the purposes of art. In this book, I propose the path less traveled, the dimly lit third avenue, Jim Henson’s Muppety “shoot-the-moon” route. In a word—entrepreneurship, a very

If you are turned off by the greed and avarice of the business world, know that part of the problem is that you—
—aren’t there yet in great enough numbers. There is a New Testament story in which Jesus expels the money-chargers from the temple. It has lingered in my mind as a strong literary image because it resonates with my own hope for a better world. It is powerfully dramatized in the 1971 musical
Jesus Christ Superstar
, where Jesus sings, “My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!”

While in the Bible Jesus emerges victorious, in Lloyd Webber’s musical he just slinks off—a dejected martyr. This version is more true to our American mythos; we accept the victory of money over art and welcome the artist’s destruction in righteous, sulky pessimism. This is the struggle in which artists of our era are stuck knee-deep. Artists are the members of society who trust that gifts are worth giving for their own sake and not for what you can get back. But avoiding money merely assures that the only ones in the temple will be the thieves. One does not rid the temple of the money-chargers by singing alone; one expels them by occupying the space they currently hold and keeping it. It is time for the faithful to reenter the market.

BOOK: Make Art Make Money: Lessons From Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career
5.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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