art is for

How To Work Out What Your Art Is For

This idea will make you smarter and more solvent.

Did I ever tell you about the time I played Desdemona?

If you ever find yourself on stage playing the falsely-accused and soon-to-be-strangled wife in Shakepeare’s meditation on jealousy, there are three things you need to know:

1. The whole thing hangs on the whereabouts of a certain strawberry-spotted handkerchief. Probably don’t leave it in your dressing room.

2. During a schools’ performance, try very hard not to die in a position which causes some oik in the front row to shout “Look! You can see her knickers!”

3. Be prepared for some dark nights of the soul.

That show made me crazy.

Maybe it’s because Desdemona dies with so much unexpressed emotion in her chest but I felt more or less unhinged for the entire run.

I spent my days curled up under a blanket, eating butter beans and blankly watching Murder She Wrote. My mind raced so much at night that it took me hours to fall asleep.

I found myself thinking about things from all sorts of weird angles. The question that occupied me most was this:

What the hell were we doing up there on the stage?

And why did all those people in the audience put on their pearls or a nice pair of chinos and drop £100 at the box office so that they could sit in the dark and watch us for three hours?

By performing this play, we weren’t feeding the poor or caring for the sick. No unhoused person was going to have a roof over their head because we did a really good job on Act III. So what good was it? Why were we all carrying on like it mattered so much?

Do you ever feel like this about the lovely thing you make?

Do you ever wonder what your art is for?

Do you ever look at it and go “Yeah, I put my heart and soul into creating this and I’m proud of it, but it’s not exactly solving third world debt, is it? And now I’m going to sell it so the only person who really benefits is me. Huh.”

You’re not the only one. Some of my whip-smart students have been talking about exactly this issue.

How can you sell your work if you don’t know how it helps people?

Because, on the face of it, asking for money in return for something you made doesn’t seem like a particularly altruistic thing to do. The only one who’s getting much out of it is you, right?

SO WRONG. Here’s why.

When people buy your stuff they’re not really buying your stuff.

They’re buying how it makes them feel.

Let’s say you make lockets. You might reasonably suppose that your customers are people who want a locket, so you write something like “We have a wide range of handmade locket necklaces” on your website. But while your customer does want a locket, what she actually wants is to feel connected to someone she loves.

When she’s in a soul-crushingly boring meeting at work she wants to touch the chain and think “I’m here, but I’m really with you.”

When she’s stuck in traffic she wants to open up the locket and discover the face inside all over again; so lovely that she can’t help smiling back.

When she’s waiting in the wings, fervently wishing that TED hadn’t asked her to give a talk about how she discovered perpetual motion, she wants to feel the pendant jumping with her heart beat and hear a familiar voice saying “You can do this.”

Yeah, she wants a locket. But what she really wants is something much bigger.

That’s what your art is for.

And that’s why people go to the theatre. We want to feel.

Your work makes people feel something. It improves their lives. It solves a problem for them. That problem may not be on the scale of curing cancer or saving the polar bears, but it’s still a problem.

There are a lot of those in the world. If you’re able to help someone cross even one off the list, we’re all better off.

So if you’re wrestling with what your art is for, think about how it makes your customers feel. Think about how it helps them become the person they long to be. Then in a way that feels honest, simple and true.

And prepare to be very, very busy.

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