A few years ago, I followed a link to a commencement speech by Neil Gaiman, author of “Sandman”, “Good Omens”, “The Graveyard Book”, “Coraline” and many others, which has become known as “Make Good Art”. In case you’ve never seen it, put the kettle on, and spend the next 20 minutes getting stuck in:
There’s so much to take away from this speech, but the main thing I get from it is the message of doing what you do, no matter what happens. Not just doing your thing because you’re being paid to, or because you’re seeking accolades or acclaim. Making Good Art should be the default mode we operate in – not something we feel is only appropriate in some circumstances.
Let me explain further, via the medium of this graph, because I love a good graph:
100 bonus points to anyone who recognises what this graph shows? Anyone?
OK, I’d be stunned if anyone knows, as that would make them a bigger geek than me, but what this data shows is the box office takings of every film Steven Spielberg has directed since Jaws. Not ones he’s produced, executive produced, or played any other part in, just ones he’s directed. They’re chronological, so if you know your films, you’ll be able to recognise the big spike of “ET” and “Jurassic Park”, although I challenge you to name every one, without heading to Wikipedia or the IMDB!
Now, I’m not interested in the actual amounts of money here – for one thing I’m not 100% certain that the figures I’ve got from the IMDB have been adjusted for inflation, which may mean that the earlier ones netted more money than the later ones. Nor do I much care about the total amounts – with one film that grossed over $1bn, and 5 others which grossed over $500m, it’s safe to say Steven won’t be shopping in charity shops any day soon.
No, what this graph shows, I think, is how important it is to make good art, and what a powerful, essential, primordial motivation that can be. Obviously, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue is quite a motivation, and I’m sure that the many awards and accolades he’s garnered over the years are quite encouraging too, but those are clearly not the sole driving forces. Look at the huge variation in income from film to film, and imagine what it must feel like to create something that “flops” in market terms, particularly so soon after having a huge success. Self doubt would creep in, not to mention external voices who would suddenly be reluctant to work with you, or cough up cash. The motiviation to make more Good Art would fade if it was only kept alive by financial rewards.
Current success is no guarantee of future success, financially or critically. Like any creative person, Spielberg has had mixed results over the years – in both these areas. The point is, neither essentially matter. A good story, interesting characters, and a desire to transport audiences to a world of his making are far more powerful factors than simply how much money a film brings in or whether it earns him an oscar. Essentially, he’s driven to make good art, and if that makes a fortune and earns accolades too, well that’s a bonus, but I guarantee you that’s not why he gets up in the morning! I’d be willing to bet that if things had turned out differently, Steven Spielberg would still be making films, in some form or other, even without the staggering amounts of cash.
You may think “Well, it’s OK for someone like Spielberg to not worry about money or awards, he’s a billionaire with Oscars under his belt, I’m struggling to pay the rent”. I hear you, and it’s very understandable to compare yourself to others who are more successful, and I’ve certainly done it myself many times. But, really, it’s just an excuse – if money or awards were all that mattered, someone like Spielberg would have stopped working years ago – he would have made enough money from Jaws alone to live comfortably for the rest of his life. What drives him is the desire to make Good Art, and in that sense, he’s no different to you or me.