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Why artists sell out Mammon, not the muse, calls the shots

Would Marlon have compromised? (Credit: IMDB)

Would Marlon have compromised? (Credit: IMDB)


September 22, 2022   4 mins

“I’m not green-lighting anything I don’t understand,” says Barry Lapidus, a studio executive at Paramount Pictures. “We’re going to stop developing these rarefied flights of fancy and start applying some good business sense to what we do here.”

This dialogue is from a scene in The Offer, the recent TV dramatisation of the making of The Godfather. Lapidus is on the verge of canning Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. This would have been quite the blunder: Chinatown went on to be a commercial and critical triumph. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and is now considered one of the greatest American films of all time.

The Godfather also came close to artistic ruin. Based on the experiences of Godfather producer Albert S. Ruddy, The Offer reveals that executives at every level were determined to intervene in the project. One producer attempted to block Al Pacino for the role of Michael Corleone, and the studio conspired (unsuccessfully) to replace Francis Ford Coppola as director. Ruddy and Coppola found themselves continually at war with the big cheeses at Paramount, who were determined to make the film into a garden-variety gangster flick.

When it comes to the creative arts it has always been Mammon, rather than the Muse, who calls the shots. The artist’s vision is almost always contingent on the whims of the man with the pocketbook. Sometimes the producers and commissioning editors are visionaries, as integral to the project as the writers themselves. At other times, they make demands which would drive any self-respecting artist to despair.

One thinks of David Shayne, the ambitious young playwright played by John Cusack in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, whose funding for his latest drama is granted on the condition that he casts his benefactor’s talentless girlfriend in a leading role. Waking up one night in a sweaty panic, aware that he has bastardised his masterpiece in order to see it brought to life, he rushes over to the window and screams desperately into the night: “I’m a whore!”

Perhaps we’re all whores to an extent. And some of our most notable artists are those who have understood that, however noble it is to remain faithful to one’s vision, the ability to compromise is often the key to success. Shakespeare’s two narrative poems — Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece — are preceded by sycophantic dedications to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Even Shakespeare understood that his career would depend on the support of wealthy men.

In his later life, Shakespeare’s acting company was dependent on the patronage of James I. We can see this acknowledged in Macbeth, in which liberties are taken with the historical sources specifically to please the King. James was obsessed with witchcraft, which almost certainly accounts for the prominence of the “weird sisters”. Shakespeare’s transformation of Banquo — from the co-conspirator of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles into the innocent victim whose ghost reproachfully shakes his “gory locks” at Macbeth — is also significant. James believed himself to be a descendant of Banquo through eight generations, accounting for the spectral “show of eight kings” summoned by the witches in Act Four.

This tightrope between creative freedom and the follies of the moneyed elites is one that most artists will have walked at some point or another. In her memoir Resistance, Tori Amos recounts how her breakthrough album, Little Earthquakes, was almost wrecked by bosses at her label who insisted she should “replace all the pianos with guitars”. She faced a choice of walking away and retaining her artistic integrity, or sullying the album with a sound that was not authentically hers. Instead, she found a third way. She submitted new songs which retained her original style but showed a willingness to adapt. To satisfy her muse, she first had to play the game.

It’s the same in the comedy industry. There’s an excruciating scene in the sitcom W1A in which aspiring writer Dan Shepherd (played by Tom Basden) meets with the BBC’s “Head of Generic Comedy Drama”. The feedback is beyond vague. Shepherd is told that his script “feels a bit long” and might need more “narrative heft”, possibly by “starting in the middle instead of the beginning”. Most comedy writers I know have had similar meetings with television executives who don’t quite seem to know what it is they are suggesting. Sometimes it feels as though their input is simply a means to justify their own inflated salaries.

Ricky Gervais lampooned this common experience in Extras, in which his character Andy Millman is forced to re-engineer his sitcom, When the Whistle Blows, into a catchphrase-laden car-crash that makes Mrs Brown’s Boys look like Ibsen. The show is a failure because Millman lacks the strength of character to stand his ground. One wonders how many television executives have ruined potentially classic comedies through their intervention over the years.

I recall an interview with Dennis Potter in which he described the making of Pennies from Heaven, and how he had to defend his decision to have the characters lip-synch to popular songs. This conceit was essential to the effectiveness of the drama, but the executives tried to dissuade him. Potter had already suffered the indignity of having his play Brimstone and Treacle withdrawn in the days before the scheduled broadcast because the then director of programmes, Alasdair Milne, found it “nauseating”. Perhaps it was this experience that taught him to stand his ground.

For all that, there are few things more likely to stimulate a creative mind than collaboration. Dramaturgs who are in harmony with the writer’s vision can often be essential to its realisation. This is a far cry from the “sensitivity readers” now so common in the publishing industry who, rather than offer constructive criticism during the writing process, merely vandalise the work according to their priggish sensibilities.

A novelist friend of mine recently told me that his editors have urged him to change his work in accordance with the new religion of group identity, to the extent of “calling out” some of the problematic opinions expressed by villainous characters. Kate Clanchy has written about her experience with sensitivity readers who failed to understand the poeticism of a “disfigured” landscape; hampered by their literal-mindedness, they could only see an ableist slur.

For a culture to thrive it needs its artists, and for artists to survive they need their patrons. The delight of watching The Offer is that we enjoy the benefit of hindsight. The executives thought they were preventing The Godfather from turning into another flop, but we have seen the vision that Ruddy and Coppola were fighting for, and can thereby share in their frustration. The lesson to the moneymen is clear. Deciding which artists to patronise is a matter of taste, but also trust. Once your choice is made, let them get on with it.


Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath

andrewdoyle_com

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

There has never been a greater need in modern times for true benefactors of the arts. I don’t mean oligarchs who’ll pay artists to create woke art; I mean people who’ll subsidize artists to create without boundaries or limitations. More than ever we need artists of all types to speak honestly about our times and create a vision for the future.
I’m not aware of foundations, or just rich individuals, who provide funding for the arts not tied to a particular ideology. I wonder, for example, how Indie movie makers obtain funding?

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“and create a vision for the future.”

Why do you think that’s something artists can do?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

This issue is probably as old as art itself. Where records of such things exist, there were continual struggles between Renaissance artists and their patrons in how (for instance) biblical scenes were depicted. Indeed, the evolution of painting can in many ways be traced to the means that painters deployed to evade the disapproval of their patrons through manipulation of their medium in ways which their patrons were unable to fathom.

The tension between patronage and artistic vision can therefore be seen as a creative force in itself. The very act of seeking to escape the bounds of acceptability in pursuit of something more profound continues to this day. Whatever the current social mores seek to dictate, human nature will seek to evade. But whilst this might superficially sound like a reactionary process, instead it offers the means by which societal stasis and dull conformity are overcome.

There are lessons here for those whose woke censorship seeks to close down debate. Andrew’s field of comedy has largely become stultifyingly unfunny, but this article and his work in general shows there can be a way out of this impasse, by following the age-old route of finding the right boundaries to push and, as with great comedy, so much depends on timing.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“The tension between patronage and artistic vision can therefore be seen as a creative force in itself. “
I don’t know if those tensions could be seen as a creative force. The Renaissance artists might be considered more technicians than artists. The idea of “the artist” is a relatively new concept. The Renaissance artists were employed by their so called patrons, not to create but to make visible their conceits. Out of that came the work we so value. The real conflict came with “the artist” who’s ego would not bend. This act in itself was enough to reinforce the idea of “the artist”. Like all successful people artists have very big egos. So do people who have lots of money. That’s where the clash lies, not with the money.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

**whose** ego…
As an exhibiting artist, i’d dispute your claim that “artists have very big egos”. In my experience, the range of egos amongst artists falls across a wide spectrum. In fact, many artists have fragile egos which aids their artistic process, over-sensitive in many respects to the outside world. Their work can be seen (without oversimplifying it) as a mechanism to bolster their ego. Again in my experience, there’s no direct correlation between success and the nature of their ego. Nor does being successful define who might be seen as an artist, certainly during their own lifetimes.
I agree with your point about “the artist” being a concept which developed during the Renaissance. But closer study of the way in which Renaissance artists pushed certain boundaries reveals that the creative tension brought about by their relationship with patronage certainly changed their work. The main area which i’d say this involved was the depiction of human figures to reflect a more human-centric rather than God-centric view of our existence. Their patrons weren’t necessarily aware this was happening, hence my point about artists knowing when to push the right boundaries.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I don’t want to get into the subject of the artist to much, because you’ll know as well as I do the quicksands that lie ahead.
Re. the egos. Sure, not all artists have big egos. But in my experience, and here I’m talking about the success of those who reach the top, artists are very egotistical. It takes more that just talent to get there, just as it is in any business. These people want something, whether it’s in painting, dance or film. They’re all very similar in that regard. When there’s collaboration there’s the conflict of egos. Some manage it, some don’t. Sometimes it works, sometimes it destroys what was intended. Whether these tensions could be regarded as a creative force I’m still unsure.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

By their very nature, the tensions between artist and patron (or if no direct patron, then the mores of their society) result in creativity. Without that interplay, artists would in effect be working in a void. Where a direct patron is involved (as in most of the examples cited in Andrew’s article) the tensions may be more explicit, but that simply results in artists having to “up their game” to overcome them. The best manage to do so whilst retaining their integrity.
I’m not afraid of “quicksands”. Indeed, the very act of creation can often result from a feeling that the ground is shifting under one’s feet. In fact, i welcome it. Learning to ‘swim’ in metaphorical quicksand is part and parcel of a worthwhile career in the arts.

Michelle Gaugy
MG
Michelle Gaugy
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Precisely as you say, Steve, the best negotiate the tensions between their integrity and the demands of audience/patronage. And ’twas ever thus. Rembrandt used to bid up his own work at auction. The Sistine Chapel, I like to remind people, was a commissioned work, taken on reluctantly by Michelangelo, in order to get another commission (the Pope’s tomb) that he really wanted. Does it not occur to anyone that there is no art without an audience – that art must always exist in relationship? Otherwise it’s just narcissistic blathering. And btw, I’ve been in the art world myself for almost 5 decades.

Last edited 1 year ago by Michelle Gaugy
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Michelle Gaugy

“Does it not occur to anyone that there is no art without an audience – that art must always exist in relationship?”
Emily Dickinson.

Michelle Gaugy
Michelle Gaugy
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Please tell me where Ms. Dickinson said this…. I’ve been saying it for decades, without attribution! Thanks, MG

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Michelle Gaugy

Emily Dickinson, considered one of the great American poets never shared her poetry. So, no audience, but a great deal of respected and valued work.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Brett H
BH
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Michelle Gaugy

.
?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Brett H
BH
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Michelle Gaugy

?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Brett H
BH
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

That is not what I meant by “quicksand”. What I was referring to was the problem, that always arises, of what is art and what is an artist?

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“I agree with your point about “the artist” being a concept which developed during the Renaissance.”
Thats not what I said. What I said was that the idea of the artist is a relatively new concept, probably from the 19th century. The egotism of the artist, the painter, was that he would now paint what what he saw, what he felt, what he wanted to say and damn everyone else. Consequently he was now out on his own.

Paul Reynolds
Paul Reynolds
1 year ago

The super rich money behind today’s mega-art has no soul or sense at all. That’s why the likes of Drake and Kanye can be megastars. I (it’s called Paulcito) sing and write a better song than Drake can, and I don’t even work in the industry.

Vince B
Vince B
1 year ago

Thanks for this. Thank you, Unherd, for not being entirely about politics. One of the healthieset things we can do is find a place for discussion outside of politics.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Vince B

Yes, I agree. Interesting how few comments there are here.

David Ginsberg
DG
David Ginsberg
1 year ago

I agree with this to a degree but for every “Godfather” there are at least a dozen “Boat That Rocked” inflicted on the public

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

Chinatown – one of the greatest American films of all time? I don’t think so.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

Well a near perfect film, anyway.