Skip to main content

I may have learned the wrong lesson from "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness" (2013)

One of the conflicts that I think any artist must grapple with, regardless of format, talent, or fame, is where to draw the line between art for art's sake and art for commercialism.  It's not an easy border to suss out.

On the one hand, there's the angsty, punk teenager part of me that wants to scream, "I'm not a sellout, man!  I write from the heart!  My art is pure!"  And on some level that has to be true - I'm sure as hell not making any money off my books right now, yet I'm still putting them out there, and I'm even keeping up this dumb blog just to remind myself to keep writing.

But on the other hand, I'd really, really like to make some money.  It would be a dream come true to write for a living - to kick back at my desk eight hours a day and go through the whirlwind of the creative process and make sales calls with an agent and figure out finances and all that shit knowing that my annual salary is secure and I can live comfortably.  It's kinda hard to get to that point without producing salable content.  Who knew.

And even if you aren't looking at it from those angles, the fact remains that there's a fuzzy line no matter what.  Sure, some things are pretty clearly raw, gross commercialism, like having Moana advertise Snickers or whatever the hell Disney has her hocking these days.  But what about the situations in the middle?  If you draw an adorable little rat character for your web comic, then isn't the T-shirt with that rat on it that you're selling just an extension of your work?  Isn't that still your creation going out into the world as a living, breathing piece of art that's impacting people's lives enough that they want to wear it?

So, it's with this inner conflict in mind that I found The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness to be most interesting.

TKoDaM is a documentary featuring behind-the-scenes footage of Studio Ghibli, and more specifically, Hayao Miyazaki, as they go through the production of The Wind Rises.  Miyazaki is one of those directors that I generally like, but I find hard to hear people talk about because so many folks hold him in reverence that borders on worship.

He's a terrific director who's made consistently great work, and for that reason many see him as a Pure Artist.  (Some of the talking heads in the documentary are happy to affirm that viewpoint.) And yet my favorite scene is when Miyazaki attends a routine staff meeting where they talk about their merchandise and how to boost lagging sales.

I wish I could take that scene and just keep it in my pocket.  And then the next time some nerd goes off about art and beauty and truth and all that, I can just take the scene out and go, "Just remember that Miyazaki would like you to buy some of his shit."

It's not a bad thing.  It's just honest.  And I appreciate that.

Miyazaki has moments later where he mentions that he's kind of alarmed that he has as much success and fame as he does.   "It's a bit silly," he says (or something similar), and I agree - as much as I wish I were in his shoes, I've never once thought it would be anything less than ridiculous.  What, I get to be rich and famous just for telling stories?  Nah.  You get to be rich and famous for selling stories.

The more I write and the more I think about it as a business, the more I realize that truly successful artists have to kill off whatever grandiose fantasies they have about "purity" or the truth of art.  The real world is more complex than that.  Even if you forgo monetary reward, an honest quest for artistic expression is purely self-satisfying.  Whatever happens after that is up to chance and your marketing team.