Earlier this year, I wrote that I believe art plays a critical role in content marketing.
But what does that actually mean? When you think about it, what does that word “art” really mean?
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
– Random critic
For the purposes of this conversation, I’ll define art as an expression that can’t be made by an algorithm. It’s the creative spark, the unusual choice, the flare of personality, the moment of real human empathy and connection.
I believe it’s a serious mistake to think that marketing and art are somehow separate.
As Brian Clark has said for years:
“People who think art is sacred and marketing is dirty tend to be terrible marketers and marginal artists.
People who think art is irrelevant and marketing is about tricking people into buying shit they don’t need tend to be terrible marketers and worse human beings.”
– Brian Clark, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and the Art of Phony Marketing
While I’m defining art, let me go ahead and define marketing: It’s what we communicate that allows us to work with others. Advertising, social strategy, SEO, funnels, automation — they all need to serve that function.
Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that marketing was another word for lies. Don’t buy it.
Smart marketers don’t accept the excuse of “It’s just marketing” to hide the truth or produce crummy work that benefits no one.
Wise marketers embrace art as integral to what they do, as much as strategy and execution are.
Here are some observations I’ve made over the years about how artists work and how anyone can adopt a more artistic mindset.
1. Artists geek out over craft
“Creativity occurs in action: It is not a trait; it is something you do.”
– Bert Dodson
Get a group of writers together and you’ll hear a whole lot of geeky talk about structure, language, word choice, metaphor, and the serial comma.
Art is about your unique and personal expression of the world you see around you. But you can’t express what you see and feel until you master your chosen craft.
As a content marketer, you make a living with words. Dive into the disciplines that will teach you how to stitch words together in ways you haven’t tried before.
Study poetry. Study screenwriting. Study short stories. If you’re a podcaster, take an acting class or voice lessons.
The reason an artist’s life is so interesting and rewarding is that you never stop learning. When you master your craft at one level, new levels reveal themselves. The game gets ever more complex and interesting.
Any study of creative writing will benefit you as a content marketer. You’ll learn how to show, not tell. You’ll think more carefully about word choice. And you’ll learn the nuances that make for superb storytelling.
A writing workshop can be a great start, but there are also lots of wonderful books on writing well. Here are just a couple of suggestions — this is far from a complete list.
- Stephen King’s On Writing
- Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing
- Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey
- James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel
- Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones
2. Artists protect their productive time
If you pick up a book about the work habits of creative people (I’m a bit obsessed with this topic), you’ll notice something striking.
Nearly all great writers, musicians, painters, and other artists tend to work in well-defined work cycles.
They nearly always have specific times of day set aside for creative work. They protect this time with a ferocity that can border on cruelty.
Often, this time is strictly reserved for what writers call “draft” — the messy, sometimes ugly part of the creative process where we take new ideas and work through them with as much craft as we can manage.
You need to be a bit brutal about protecting this time. That’s more important than it ever was, thanks to the seductive call of so many distractions.
Because, to be honest, a lot of days, this isn’t the fun part. This is the moment when all of those lovely dreams and ideas get turned into unsatisfying reality — on the page, the canvas, or the screen.
It’s where you face the dreaded, “The words on the screen don’t sound like they did in my head.”
The only way most of us ever manage to get anything done is simply to be rather robotic about getting to work. Uninterrupted creative time needs to get blocked into your calendar. You need to defend it — against your own resistance as much as anything else.
There are lots of excellent apps that help you defend your productive time. I like the Freedom app to protect me from my own worst habits.
Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work is a fascinating look at how different artists have used their time.
3. Artists embrace bad art
If we’re spending time every day creating something that doesn’t match our creative vision, how do we push ourselves to keep showing up?
Artists know that the way to create good art — maybe some day even great art — is to make a whole lot of bad art.
We’re looking for what painters call “brush mileage.” You’ll never be able to paint well until you pull a paintbrush through a certain amount of paint and onto a certain volume of canvas or paper.
We make good sentences by starting with awful sentences.
Writers, in my opinion, have it lucky. We can keep working on a piece until it doesn’t suck. Try that with a watercolor; you won’t be happy.
If we keep working on material that’s appropriately challenging, we’ll keep getting better. At first, your pieces may need a lot of editing time. As you mature creatively, your rewrites might get faster, but you’ll still find that genuinely good work needs the discipline of multiple rewrites.
In my experience, there’s no substitute for a thoughtful critique of your writing. Critique groups can be helpful, if (big if) the right people are in them. A well-qualified writing teacher or freelance editor is probably the gold standard.
If that’s not in the budget for now, find a friend or fellow content creator whose writing you admire and barter in-depth critiques for a task you’re terrific at.
4. Artists seek flow
Most of us have heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, even if we need to refer to Google any time we have to spell his name.
It’s all about that “creative state” — the mental point where time stops and we feel pure creative focus.
For us to find flow, whether it’s in rock climbing, flower arranging, or writing, we have to keep ourselves balanced on the edge between “too hard” and “too easy.”
When it’s too hard, we’re frustrated all the time and our thoughts get cramped. It’s hard to create anything new when you’re just angry with yourself.
When it’s too easy, we either become hacks, cranking out the same tired crap, or we get bored and start to become self-destructive.
The life of an artist is about constantly looking for that edge, and climbing back onto it again and again.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
(By the way, my best sources for how to pronounce his name say “Me-high Cheek-SENT-me-high.”)
5. Artists ask a lot of questions
Craft is about how skillfully you can express an idea. Art adds interesting questions to that expression.
Craft makes the work pretty. Art makes it meaningful.
Is that the best way? Are there other options we could explore?
It truly doesn’t matter what your topic is. If you ask questions — lots of them — you’ll start to come up with interesting answers.
Questions lead us to new places. They build cathedrals and pyramids and space stations.
Some of the most powerful questions you’ll ever answer will come from your audience. You’ll never outgrow the need to listen closely to your audience’s questions.
But in addition to those, consider these:
- Why does the world look the way it does today?
- What haven’t we thought of yet?
- What’s standing so fully in our way that we can’t even see it?
6. Artists value pragmatism
“Creativity is a lot like happiness. It shows up when you’re thinking of something else.”
– Bert Dodson
In my experience, the stereotype of the “flaky artist” who’s out of touch with reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
If your vacuum cleaner breaks? Don’t throw it into the landfill; call your artist friend. She’ll know how to rewire it, she can resolder the piece that broke off, and she’ll tweak the switch so it’s easier to use.
Of course, she may also paint it deep red with a filigree pattern of pale yellow and silver polka dots, and add a sound system.
Art presents endless opportunities for recycling, rethinking, and pragmatic problem solving.
Lots of us quit the formal practice of problem solving when we stopped doing word problems in math class. Artists solve new problems every time they sit down to work.
Artists understand that it’s not enough to have some grand idea. We have to figure out how to translate that into something other people can see or hear or touch.
Our monthly content challenges are designed to give you pragmatic exercises to improve your craft and your creative output. You still have time to complete our creative challenge for January here:
And look for February’s challenges on the blog next week.
7. Artists actively seek an audience
Art begins in self-expression. But at a certain point, we have a deep desire to find an audience for our creative work.
There’s nothing wrong with making art to please yourself. It’s a satisfying way to spend your time.
But when we “go pro” — when we seek an audience — we begin to walk the tightrope between what we intend and what we actually communicate. Between our expression and how the audience sees that expression.
It’s a bit of a zen paradox.
Art is not about you. Also, art is about you.
Some art works well for a small number of people. Some art works well for millions. It’s your job as a creative professional to find the ones who get your message, then find some more people like that.
That’s why it doesn’t make you a “hack” to want to build the audience for your work. When you tell great stories, your stories become your audience’s stories. If a story is powerful enough, it picks up and walks on without you.
Helping you find a bigger audience is one of the reasons we’re here. You can snag a juicy library of free content marketing training here, including lots of resources to help you grow your audience and community:
And for the rest of this month, we’ll be talking a lot about how art (and craft) will serve your work. February will be a rich month of tutorials, techniques, and inspiration to elevate your content. We’re all looking forward to seeing you in the coming weeks!