Art and Commerce – fish or fisherman?

The earliest conversation I remember about art and commerce was with my neighbor, Mr. Jerry. For as long as I have been alive he has been both a fisherman and a retailer. He is the father of three daughters who were my playmates growing up, so he and I saw each other often.

Fishing lures are designed to catch fisherman, not just fish.”

my grandpa's lures

my grandpa's gear

That’s what Mr. Jerry told me one day. I do not remember how old I was at the time of this specific conversation, but I was old enough to fish and young enough to be a little puzzled by his comment. I cannot remember the context of our talk that day, but our houses backed up to a bayou in northwest Louisiana and just about every day was an opportunity for at least a little talk about fishing. I remember reflecting on that thought for several days, the feeling of that thought sinking in and how its truth eventually resonated in my mind. I remember how it eventually made sense back then and it has stayed with me. At the time I didn’t begin to understand the full impact of his comment, but it still rings true for me today.

On one hand, if a lure doesn’t catch the shopping fisherman and find its way off of the shelf, into a shopping cart and out the door of a retail establishment, it doesn’t stand a chance of catching a fish. On the other hand if the lure is picked up and purchased, does it really have to catch a fish to be effective, or has it already done its job? The lure manufacturer certainly would lose repeat business if it did not eventually catch fish. So if you want to create popular lures, sooner or later one of them has to catch fish. If you really want to be successful in the lure industry, offer something that maintains some balance by appealing to both fisherman and fish.

Whenever I play the role of consumer I try to remember that comment. If I find myself on the artificial bait aisle of a store (and that does happen on occasion), I try to remain fish-focused as I shop. In a bigger context, I try to remain fish-focused when I am making any kind of purchase. Caveat emptor reminds me that it is really my responsibility to shop with a fish-focus mentality. I have to separate what looks like it is fishing for me from what might actually serve the purpose it claims to serve.

The artists, craftswomen and craftsmen among us would say that a good lure has to be designed primarily, maybe even exclusively, to catch fish. The focus of the merchant would be almost exclusively on catching the fisherman.

These days, my wife (singing is her artform) and I spend our days at the point of intersection of art (fish) and commerce (fisherman). For the last eleven years we’ve made our income creating and being paid to produce art/media — music and books (both performance art and recorded media). There has to be focus on the craft or the art and some days we get to focus on the art and forget about commerce for a while — (I’ll call that fish focus.) On some romantic level it would be wonderful to be focused solely on the art, but the artist without some sort of commerce is at best a talented hobbyist and art can be expensive to create.  If you live where we live, sooner or later you have to make friends or at least make peace with commerce. If you want to call yourself a working artist you have to reconcile this tension, because art and commerce have very little in common. Ultimately, you have to provide for both.

Further, it is my observation that in an environment of scarcity (whether that’s an economy, industry or organizational) the temptation is to pursue the quick fix with an effort to please the fisherman, even at the expense of the fish. I have worked in a couple of organizations where there was an environment of scarcity due to transition in the organization. Short term survival dictates a fisherman focus, but you cannot ignore the fish and thrive in the long run. You might look great for a while, but sooner or later you will be surpassed by someone who caters to the fish. The adage that the cream rises to the top would suggest that the person or organization who is good at feeding the fish will ultimately prevail.

I want to encourage you and me to continue creating the thing you create and to pay attention to the fisherman. But in these days when we have so many ways to spend time getting the word out, focus on the fish!

Here’s a few questions for reflection: What is your work or vocation?  Where is scarcity in your mix? Who is your audience? Who is the fisherman for you? Who is the fish for you? Are you doing an adequate job trying to catch the fisherman? How can you leverage your life or your organization to be more fish-focused? How could you better maintain the balance in your life and work between fish and fisherman?

P.S. My second son has inherited the fishing gene. He often asks me if we can go fishing today. I think he’d prefer doing that to most anything he could choose to do on any given day. He looks slowly through his great-grandfather’s tackle box and finds a quintessential lure and proclaims, “this one will catch a big one!” I’m looking forward to watching he and his brother grow into their vocations.

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