I have been reading Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design by Michael Bierut, and there are a few points in it where he notes how high-minded reformism in the world of design rarely has the desired (read: world-changing) effect. "What makes dog biscuit packaging an unworthy object of our attention," he writes, "as opposed to, say, a museum catalog or some other cultural project? Don’t dachshund owners deserve the same measure of beauty, wit, or intelligence in their lives?"
Bierut is also unconvinced that withholding one's talents as a designer from commercial work will lead to any kind of moral reformation. "What will happen when the best designers withdraw from that space, as First Things First [a manifesto for moral reformation of the graphic design industry] demands? If they decline to fill it with passion, intelligence, and talent, who will fill the vacuum? Who benefits? And what exactly are we supposed to do instead?"
I think about variations of this sort of thing as they apply to a great many other disciplines, and how hard it is to not end up muddling one's message. For instance, I self-publish not because I think people of real artistic ambition should withhold their talents from rapacious corporate monoliths, but because it's just the easier, more convenient, and less aggravating way for me to get my work out in front of people. It beats sitting around waiting for someone else to say yes, even if that someone has deep pockets — and even if they do say yes, the overwhelming odds are that you won't sell significantly more books than Crad Kilodney did standing on a streetcorner in downtown Toronto. But I don't believe there's any moral superiority in my approach, and I'm not about to claim any. Sure, I like that I have total control over the presentation of my work, but not because I want to use that as a stick to beat everyone who has the effrontery to sign a publishing contract.
The "starve the bastards" approach has been tried before in countless creative fields, and I cannot recall it ever moving any needles. All you do is create a vacuum that can be filled by the shiftless and the pliant. Harlan Ellison wrote about a similar idea batted around back in 1969, and voted it down "[b]ecause there will always be mediocre writers and directors and actors who will fill the empty hours that must be filled with product. Just as 'W. Hermanos' wrote all those pseudonymous scripts during the writers’ strike in 1960. We can’t starve them by running away. We can only beat them by staying and writing like such bloody beautiful motherfuckers that they can’t not put our scripts on as we write them."
Another case to consider: movie tie-ins. Should writers disdain them unilaterally, because they are hopelessly commercial? Some young people (I should know, I was one) are inspired to read, and write, by way of those books. If we must have tie-ins, and it seems we shall, then I say we should bring to them the same pride in craft one would associate with a wholly original work. Starving the market would only leave them to be written by indifferent hacks who care nothing about what is possible with them.
Pride in craft is a wonderful thing, but must not be confused with hubris. It's hubris to suggest the work of communicating to an audience cannot help but be anything other than a corrupt affair because capitalism, or some construction to that effect. It reduces the messiness and difficulty of the real moral work of living in this world to a cynical formula. The real world demands we not turn our back on it if we can help it. (As Bierut says: "Manifestos are simple; life is complicated.")