Bill Watterson, Picasso, and HN on self promotion

One of the most interesting pieces I’ve come across lately was Hugh Eakin’s piece on the backstory of one of Picasso’s most prominent works, Guernica. During the creative process for Guernica, Picasso created 45 different sketches before settling on the final direction of the painting:

  • Guernica debuted in 1937 at the Paris Expo, which over 30 million people visited, to little interest.
  • The “only mass-circulation publication that wrote in any detail about the painting was the official German guidebook to the fair, produced by the Nazi government.”
  • In autumn, 1938, Roland Penrose “helped arrange a tour for Guernica in Great Britain to raise funds for victims of the war. Once again, however, it largely failed to connect with the public.”
  • It also travelled to four American cities for the Spanish Refugee Relief Campaign, but the tour fell flat as before (“In L.A.,  just 735 people came to see it. West Coast papers called it “revolting” and “cuckoo”; in Chicago, it was dismissed as “Bolshevist art controlled by the hand of Moscow”—words that sounded eerily close to the Nazis’ own attacks on modern art.”)

Guernica would get one more chance—a classic case of Zach Holman’s “double shipping,” though this is more like quadruple shipping—thanks to Alfred H. Barr Jr., the first director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Barr Jr. and his show, “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art”:

Its centerpiece was the immense, terrifying anti-war painting. It was the show’s culminating work, presented as the sum total of Picasso’s prodigious journey through modern art. Barr had decided to give it a long, gray gallery of its own, carefully illuminated by ceiling fixtures hidden from the viewer, where it could be taken in from a proper distance, in all its apocalyptic splendor.

Barr’s display of Guernica enabled it to speak to the people, and it resonated because of the war that started a couple of months prior:

Yet now, under the cloud of a new world war, Barr’s lucid celebration of the art that Hitler was trying to erase somehow electrified the city. Several thousand people came to the opening night; in the weeks that followed, viewers lined up to get in the museum in numbers that smashed all previous records for a living artist. “COLOSSAL SUCCESS 60,000 VISITORS SURPASSING VAN GOGH” Barr cabled Picasso after the first few weeks.

The perceived wrongness of self-promotion

I came across Eakin’s piece at Hacker News, where I’d submitted a blog post on Bill Watterson a mere day or two after. That post also resonated; while the post covered Watterson’s stance against licensing his work, the topic of self-promotion came up in the comments. d1l writes:

There are plenty of people out there who share Bill Watterson’s beliefs about art or their creations. You just don’t hear about it because obviously they aren’t interested in shilling. I do, however, wish that blatant self-promotion was more frowned-upon by our culture. It’s hard to tell when the creator is motivated by sincerity or a cynical desire for personal gain. I personally believe, though, that we don’t live by money (or prestige) alone. I take comfort from the fact that for thousands of years others have shared this belief.

Many people—including a part of myself!—share a similar sentiment that d1l faces with self-promotion; it’s an act of shilling, and is associated with business rackets or sketchy schemes. Overall, promotion is positioned as much lower work than the actual art itself; it just doesn’t feel right to do. 

That’s largely because self-promotion is probably perceived not unlike cooking; it’s simple, menial, seemingly easy work, but when you do it, you actually wonder, “How the hell is this so difficult?!” 

Moreover, when self-promotion is done right, it never looks like self-promotion. The most obvious examples of self-promotion we see are also the often the ugliest ones; a link pasted here, spam there, and Twitter threads of people saying, “Most people suck at [insert topic related to product they’re promoting].”

Put another way: if a creator were to think, “I shouldn’t have to do that,” it’s never about the creative work—it’s always about the promotion. It’s also something that many creators probably wish they had more of; a promoter to co-sign them, to lend them credibility, and to shout their names from the rooftops and convince more people to accept their work. 

Standing out amidst the oceans of content

Cableshaft writes in response:

If you don’t promote then your work is much less likely to be noticed by the people who would like or appreciate it, though. There’s SOOO much crap being released now, you’re really knee-capping your chances at success if you don’t promote as much as possible (speaking as someone who has thrown away opportunities because I’ve been pretty terrible at self-promotion).

Cableshaft’s point is crucial here; one drastic difference between Picasso’s and Watterson’s time and ours is, obviously, the internet. It used to be that distribution and curatorial acceptance were bundled together; if a gallery owner (in Picasso’s case) or a comic book syndicate (in Watterson’s case) didn’t like you or your work, then they just wouldn’t publish you. 

There are huge implications for people not of dominant class or race here. Eddie Huang says to the New York Times, “The reason I sold sandwiches (at his restaurant Baohaus), the reason I went to books and hosted shows is because the door to film was not open to me. I had to basically create a cult of personality and create leverage within Hollywood so that people believed in me to make this film.”

Literal distribution is actually no longer the problem, because if a creator publishes their work on the internet, it can reach billions of screens across the world in theory. There’s a huge amount of content now though, which means getting attention for the work is actually the main constraint; how do you make your work matter, and why should it matter more than everyone else’s?

See also: How to distribute your writing, What to do when your work won’t sell itself.

The necessity to monetize creative work

Phailhaus adds:

Yes, this approval is called “money to survive.” If you don’t self-promote, you are not going to get enough income to support your side hobby, which means it has to remain a side-hobby powered by whatever extra time you have left after your real job. That might not be much, if any.

Looking down on people for “shameless self promotion” means that you only want art from people privileged enough to have a job that can support it, or that are passionate enough to make significant sacrifices to their quality of life. We can deal with a little self-promotion so that they are compensated for their time and effort.

There’s evidence suggesting that people in households with an income of over $1 million are 10x as likely to become artists as those of $100,000. I write about my own wrestling with this journey (my family came from the latter for my early life).

Choosing not to monetize creative work is a luxury that many people can’t afford. I make the case, of course, that creativity is often best pursued as a hobby in addition to a full-time job for money, but I can understand the opposite case; if you’re going to make time for it, you need it to make you some money so you can keep doing it. “Lucking” your way into an opportunity brings little benefit; a person might be just one layoff away from needing to drop this hobby because it doesn’t make them any money. 

It’s not going to be easy! But if you’re going to do creative work, you can’t count on someone else to do all the promoting for you; it’s best to rely on yourself to promote your work. Even when somebody supports you—and they will!—you’ll be well-served contributing to or amplifying their efforts.

The constraint of obscurity

And thaumaturgy’s very honest comment stands out as well:

I love coding. Wrote my first code when I was 8, so I’ve been doing it off and on for 35 years. It’s my art. There’s a chance I’ve managed to write code in more languages and on more platforms than any other HN’er.

I also loathe self-promotion. Not because I’m some kind of purist, I just… suck at it. Hate it.

So guess what? I’m miserable. Money has always been okay sometimes, hard a lot of others. I’m stuck on an endless treadmill right now with my resume hoping that if I just keep polishing this turd, somebody will see some value in it and that will help me feel like less of a failure in my 40s.

This argument paints a too starkly black-and-white idea of success. We should not romanticize the starvation of the artist, and we should accept some of the facts on the ground, like, “success should include happiness” and “our society doesn’t reward unrecognized artists”.

Much as I appreciate Watterson for never making Calvin and Hobbes into a product — and I truly do — I’m not so quick to judge anyone else as a sellout.

Upon reading this comment, there’s a case to be made for a course about self-promotion, specifically for experts who particularly loathe the process. It would involve making the case for a stronger, more courageous, positioning, so that a person feels better about their work (when they get the market signals they need to build more confidence in themselves (an idea lifted from David C. Baker’s The Business of Expertise)). This starts a self-fulfilling prophecy in which confidence begets more success, which begets greater confidence.

There’s also the separation of self-promotion and what’s really happening; which is promoting your work, or promoting your skills, or promoting something you love. (See also, Hard Work, Plus.)

This hypothetical course should also show experts how to have fun when they promote; how to demonstrate their expertise in ways that make their soul come alive, not like “polishing the turd.” Self-promotion needs to be something you’re proud of, and also to be fun, in order for it to work. (Zig Ziglar’s saying goes, selling is a transference of feeling.)

I know the rare few people who naturally love self-promotion (it seems like they make products in order to do the promotion); but most people don’t enjoy it so much, including myself. I launched my book Creative Doing a couple of months back with a publisher, and it’s selling okay (hundreds of copies), but largely because I’m promoting it. Thanks to my line of work—in marketing!—I was under no illusions that I’d need to promote it, and still I struggle with making it happen.

Promotion—self or otherwise—is the norm today (“par for the course,” “table stakes,” etc.). Tyler, the Creator, said it best; he’s a popular artist, and still a year after his album, he’s still promoting it—one Instagram story, one HN share, one thread, just isn’t going to cut it. Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for your work.

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