Creatives define success in many different ways, but I doubt very many would say that it's making art that nobody ever sees.
As filmmakers, we're ambitious and have dreams of walking in the footsteps of our great cinematic heroes. We work and toil to become better at our craft, sacrificing everything to get just a little bit better—a little bit closer to our goal of having our films noticed by those we respect.
However, for most of us, these dreams are rarely realized and fail to match the grandiose visions that we have in our heads. We end up making films—in the dark—until eventually, we give up.
But in this video essay, Adam Westbrook explains, through the arduous career of world-renowned painter Vincent Van Gogh, why you should never stop making art, even if you're the only one who knows you're making it.
What usually happens at each stage of production? Let's think about it. You come up with a story idea. You tell your buddy about it and ask, "Is it good? Do you like it? Would you watch it if it were in a theater?" To which your buddy replies, "Yes, I'd totally watch that, man!" So, you get to work writing the screenplay—maybe you even send it off to some trusted people for review. They say, "Yes! Damn, that's good!"
You then get a cast and crew together to shoot the film, and in all of your production meetings, you're talking about how to more or less ensure its success. "Do we know any noteworthy actors/DPs/producers?" Now, you've finished shooting and editing your film, and you're trying to find ways to maximize attention. So, you set up a Twitter and Facebook account for the project—tweet ad nauseam, trying to get a few big-hitters to retweet you. "Can we partner with some celebrities/companies/film organizations to help generate buzz?"
Now, what if your buddy said, "No, I wouldn't watch that," or "No, it's awful." What if you didn't know anybody with a following to help get people talking about your film? What if your Twitter and Facebook accounts failed to gain any followers? What if your film existed only in the dark? What if no one ever ended up watching your film—ever?
Would you still make it?
That is the question at the heart of Westbrook's video. In a time when everything is put online and pushed out on social media, your little project is fighting (many times) a losing battle for attention. Even if it's good, even if it's visionary, even if it's brilliant and unique and original—your film may only play to an audience of one: you.
That thought is depressing, yes, but maybe the problem doesn't lie in how you do it, but why you do it. The video explains an idea from Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience called "autotelic experiences", which describe activities that are done not for the sake of any future benefit (like attention or notoriety), but for the sheer sake of doing them.
Autotelic: A self-contained activity that is not done with the expectation of future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.
Maybe being talented or having the most Twitter followers is not the key to success, maybe it's being passionate and prolific in your craft. In other words, if you make films solely because you love making films, you'll never want for anything. Clinging to the desire to see your film play to a big audience (or a small one, or whatever) will more often than not result in disappointment, since the probability of that actually happening is so slim.
That's why Van Gogh is such a great icon when it comes to successful artistic losers because the painter spent over 10 years in obscurity before he actually made anything anyone wanted to see. PetaPixel did the math: during his short career, he "created roughly 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches—that’s an average of 200 pieces per year, or 1 every 1.825 days." Now that's an artist who loved his craft!