Brain Pickings

Make Art, Make Money, and Believe the Beard: What Jim Henson Teaches Us about Bridging Creative Integrity and Commercial Success

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“What is a human being? Complex to the point of absurdity, a whole person is both greedy and generous.”

“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod proclaimed in Ignore Everybody, echoing a prevalent cultural sentiment. And yet there’s something terribly disheartening and defeatist in the assumption that we’ve created a society in which it’s impossible to both make good art and not worry about money — an assumption that tells us art is necessarily bad if commercially successful, and commercial success necessarily unattainable if the art is any good. But in Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career, writer Elizabeth Hyde Stevens sets out to debunk this toxic myth through the life and legacy of the beloved Muppeteer.

The story begins with a skit titled “Business, Business,” which Henson performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968. It tells the story of two conflicting sets of creatures — the slot-machine-eyed, cash-register-voiced corporate heads who talk in business-ese, and the naïve, lightbulb-headed softies who talk of love, joy, and beauty:

Stevens writes:

“Business, Business” implies that business and idealism are diametrically opposed. The idealist is attacked not just by the establishment, but also from within, where greed starts to change one’s motives.

For the most part, money is the enemy of art. … Put simply, great art wants quality, whereas good business wants profit. Quality requires many man-hours to produce, which any accountant will tell you cuts significantly into your profit. Great artists fight for such expenditures, whereas successful businessmen fight against them.

And yet, like most dogmatic dichotomies — take, for instance, science and spirituality — this, too, is invariably reductionistic. Henson’s life and legacy, Stevens argues, is proof that art and business can be — and inherently are — complementary rather than contradictory. Produced only six months after the Summer of Love, “Business, Business” straddled a profound cultural shift as a new generation of “lightbulb idealists” — baby boomers, flower children, and hippies who lived in youth collectives, listened to rock, and championed free love — rejected the material ideals of their parents and embraced the philosophy of Alan Watts. And yet Henson himself was an odd hybrid of these two worlds. When he made “Business, Business,” he was thirty-one, which placed him squarely between the boomers and their parents, and lived in New York City with his wife, living comfortably after having made hundreds of television commercials for everything from lunch meats to computers. In his heart, however, Henson, a self-described Mississippi Tom Sawyer who often went barefoot, was an artist — and he was ready to defend this conviction with the choices he made.

Stevens writes:

Henson was already a capitalist when he made “Business, Business.” And we could even conclude that the skit describes his own conversion from idealism to capitalism. In 1968, he had an agent who got him TV appearances on Ed Sullivan and freelance commercial gigs hawking products as unhippielike as IBM computers and Getty oil.

Yet Jim Henson’s business wasn’t oil — it was art. While today, most artists are too timid to admit it, Henson freely referred to himself as an “artist,” and his agent went even further, calling him “artsy-craftsy.” Henson may have worked in show business, but he’d also traveled in Europe as a young man, sketching pictures of its architecture. He owned a business, but his business rested on the ideas the idealists were shouting—brotherhood, joy, and love. He wore a beard. Biographers would say it was to cover acne scars, but in the context of the late sixties, it aligns Henson with a category of people that is unmistakable. Though a capitalist, he was also a staunch artist.

“It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diaries. And yet what Henson’s case tells us, Stevens suggests in returning to “Business, Business,” is that the very notion of “selling out” is one big non-truth that pits two parallel possibilities against each other:

If art and money are at odds, which side was Jim Henson really on? If you watch the skit, the clue is in the characters’ voices. Of the Slinky-necked business-heads and idealist-heads, Henson was really both and neither, because in “Business, Business,” he parodies both. Locked in conflict, they sound like blowhards and twerps, respectively, but they were both facets of his life. As an employer to two other men, Henson was the boss man — the suit, cash register, and slot machine — who wrote the checks. But he also got together with his friends to sing, laugh, and play with puppets in the kind of collectivism that hippies celebrated.

Jim's sketches of Rowlf from 'Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal.' Click image for more.

This cultural ambivalence — which dates at least as far back as Tchaikovsky’s concerns over creative integrity vs. commissioned work and which was famously, beautifully articulated by Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson in his 1990 Kenyon College commencement address — is arguably exacerbated today. Stevens laments:

Today — especially with Generation X and Millennials — serious artists often refuse contact with business. Large numbers of liberal arts graduates bristle when presented with the corporate world, rejecting its values to protect their ideals. Devoted artists move home to a parent’s basement to complete their masterpieces, while the more pragmatic artists live in cloistered “Neverland” artist collectives, grant-funded arts colonies, and university faculty lounges.

But beneath this modern ambivalence lies the very same bipolar attitude on which Henson commented with “Business, Business”:

The clothing choices of suits and hipsters still mean what they did in 1968. In 99 percent of cases, you can tell if a man on the street works in finance or acrylic — not because these are mutually exclusive professions, but because we wear our battle colors to show we have chosen a side. It is as if the 1960s opened up a rift in American culture that was never healed.

Stevens, however, sees in Henson’s story hope for healing this “split personality” by learning to embrace our inner contradictions, which are core to what it means to be human. Stevens writes:

What is a human being? Complex to the point of absurdity, a whole person is both greedy and generous. It is foolish to think we can’t be both artists and entrepreneurs, especially when Henson was so wildly successful in both categories.

Since he was in college, Jim Henson was a natural capitalist. He owned a printmaking business and made commercials for lunchmeats. In the 1970s, he became a merchandizing millionaire and made Hollywood movies. By 1987, he had shows on all three major networks plus HBO and PBS. … Of course, Henson was not just another Trump. Believe the beard.

[…]

When Henson joined on to the experimental PBS show Sesame Street in 1968, he was underpaid for his services creating Big Bird and Oscar. Yet he spent his free nights in his basement, shooting stop-motion films that taught kids to count. If you watch these counting films, the spirit of Henson’s gift shines through. I think any struggling artist today could count Henson among their ilk. He had all the makings of a tragic starving artist. The only difference between him and us is that he made peace with money. He found a way to make art and money dance.

Jim's sketches of Kermit and Miss Piggy on bicycles at Battersea Park from 'Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal.' Click image for more.

The key, of course, is to master this dance with equal parts determination and grace. Riffing off Lewis Hyde’s famous meditation on gift economies in The Gift, where he argues that the artist must first cultivate a protected gift-sphere for making pure art and then make contact with the market, Stevens offers a blueprint:

The dance involves art and money, but not at the same time. In the first stage, it is paramount that the artist “reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the art is created.” He keeps money out of it. But in the next two phases, they can dance. The way I see it, Hyde’s dance steps go a little something like this:

  1. Make art.
  2. Make art make money.
  3. Make money make art.

It is the last step that turns this dance into a waltz — something cyclical so that the money is not the real end. Truly, for Jim Henson, money was a fuel that fed art.

Summer 1983 cover of Muppets Magazine, spoofing Star Wars shortly after the release of 'Return of the Jedi.' Click image for more.

Noting that the second step is most challenging for artists to negotiate, as it necessitates that one make money without tainting one’s art, Stevens cites Fraggle Rock producer Larry Mirkin, who worked with Henson:

He viewed money as energy, the energy that makes concrete things happen out of worthy ideas. Money was not an end in itself. It could provide physical infrastructure or it could help him hire other artists and technicians to realize a nascent idea. I don’t ever recall him being the least bit concerned or afraid of money or obsessed by it, which many people are. It just wasn’t what drove him — at all.

This — making peace with the market, as Hyde memorably put it — is what Stevens insists is the first and most important step in making money from your art. She goes on to explore how, exactly, Henson did that and what choices he made after he decided to stop making commercials in 1969 in order to keep his art not only sustainable but profitable, balancing creative freedom with commercial success. Stevens captures his legacy — “clearly one of benevolence, art, and giving” — beautifully, suggesting it’s a model for creative entrepreneurship in just about any medium or domain of art:

The romantic image of the artist we have been given coyly ignores the fact that all artists are affected by the market — even Emily Dickinson, writing in her family’s attic, might have used fewer long dashes had she been renting a basement apartment. The Muppet Show was an art that made clear compromises to conform to the market… Yet, with all its compromises, The Muppet Show also raised the bar for what was possible on TV, by bringing more art to it than the medium.

Though certainly full of practical insights, Make Art Make Money is above all a reminder — a manifesto, were the word not so tragically worn by now — that you don’t need to survive on lettuce soup in order for your art to be authentic, that the concept of “selling out” is just as oppressive as the very commercial ideology which it purports to defy, and that pitting doing good work against doing well robs culture of its dimension, flattening both art and financial stability into mere caricatures of real life.

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