How do you measure success in art?

Why do we equate success with money, fame, celebrity? Why do we think a band that’s on tour with a big bus is successful, when we think a band that plays on Saturday nights for beer money is not? Even if the touring band plays songs that are devoid of any human emotion and the local band plays heartfelt songs that relate directly to their audience’s lives?

I’m beginning to think that our concept of success is a gatekeeper, used by big media conglomerates to stay in control. If they create the celebrities, then they can dictate whose voices are heard and whose are not. Shows like American Idol and The Voice show me that vividly. “Don’t sing what’s in your heart,” these shows say, “sing what we tell you to sing, and we’ll make you rich and famous!” Isn’t this what the cover band phenomenon is all about — audiences being conditioned to want a band to play exact replicas of famous songs rather than their own music?

In the film world, why are movie theaters going out of business all over the place, when thanks to digital technology there are more films being made than ever. Granted, a lot of them are crap, but isn’t this the same phenomenon? Theaters would rather go dark than show movies by filmmakers who aren’t famous, who don’t have big names or big stars in their films, even though the work of these fledgling directors deserves a chance to be seen.

This is all half-thought-out at the moment, but I’m really wondering, how do we measure success in art, and where do those measuring sticks (amateur/professional, local/national, original/cover) come from? What purpose do they serve, other than to reinforce the power of a tiny group of powerful media companies to dictate public tastes? My next documentary, Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, will be an exploration of these questions.

What inspired me to write this was a post on Mary Gauthier’s blog. Her last album, The Founding, is a career-defining work, a deeply personal statement that isn’t self-indulgent in any way. It didn’t sell a lot of records, but it connected with a lot of people — I witnessed that when I saw Mary play it live, and wrote about it. Here’s what Mary had to say:

The Foundling, my last CD, was not commercially successful. It left me reeling, wondering what success means when it comes to creativity. Art and commerce are almost always at odds, and I am being taught, again, that in spite of the trappings of Nashville, the music BUSINESS town where I live (sales charts, radio charts, soundscan, the fame game, the industry sales magazines that focus on money, money. more money and then theres…money) success is all a matter of interpretation. Did the work connect? Did the work help to heal the person who created it? Did the work bring truth and beauty into the world? Was the work useful to other people in their life journey? Will the work endure the test of time? These are the true measures of success in art. Any other measuring stick is a false one.

You can read Mary’s blog here. Your thoughts?