What do you do when you have a great customer whose values you can’t stand? There’s no easy answer, of course, but the question is what really matters here. If that customer does things you find reprehensible you can always choose to walk away. Many of us tell ourselves that’s what we’ll do when confronted by a situation with ethical compromises too egregious to stomach. That said, it’s a big challenge. It’s hard to walk away from a hefty payday, even if you’d have to do something you really don’t want to do, or do work for someone you really don’t like.
The thought experiment goes like this: “A million dollars for one cigarette ad aimed at kids overseas could enable a whole lot more valuable things down the road.”
You see the problem.
Creative work will always present dilemmas. To create things, even if they’re fully a product of your own inner inspirations, is to make something that didn’t exist until you made it. That means some aspect of the universe must be destabilized, at least for a time, and that usually has implications. The moment a person takes creative work for hire, no matter what kind of work it may be, that process of destabilization accelerates.
For decades the Israeli Philharmonic would not play Richard Wagner because the great composer was also a famously vicious anti-Semite. The thinking was that of all of the other wonderful music available for that august symphony orchestra, there was no reason to venerate one who, had he lived in the 20th century, would have been pleased to eliminate all aspects of a Jewish state in the first place.
This is tricky stuff, to be sure. It calls into question aspects of relativism and absolutism, and to be clear, I do not necessarily think those philosophies live at opposite ends of a smooth spectrum. The poet Ezra Pound embodied the dilemma of contradictory passions, absolutism and relativism. Fascist, angry, insightful, passionate, humane, (and also a brooding anti-Semite), Pound stirred the literary establishment into a vortex. Is he great? Oh, yes. Is that a problem? Oh, yes.
But to extend the thought experiment, would you (hypothetically) say “yes” to a commission from Wagner or Pound for some personal service? Would you promote the people who’s values you disdain? Does a member of the Sierra Club shoot beautiful outdoor photographs of the Gulf coast for BP’s annual stockholders report by rationalizing the oil company’s paycheck will finance more environmentally minded projects?
I was once in a meeting where a well-heeled client dropped a shockingly disparaging ethnic comment about a mutually known third party. For about ten seconds I found my internal wheels grinding, spinning, struggling to figure out what to do next. I suppose in some bizarre way my client made it easy for me to recover: he continued with his rant long enough to fuel my reaction while I came to my senses. Here’s what I did. I told him that we could continue to discuss the project before us but not if this line of commentary continued. I said I would not continue to provide creative consultation with this sentiment with his in the room. Then I told him that it “was not okay”, even if I was out of the room. “This simply isn’t okay.”
There were stunned faces at the table, and profoundly uncomfortable minutes to follow. I risked that contract, and future ones, too, and I knew it at the time. But here was a moment where my willingness to forego a payday seemed like the right thing to do. My creative life, especially for hire, could help re-make the world by what it was willing not to do, at least in this case. The ultimate result was that I kept the contract and we nailed the final product. To this day, I continue to have cordial relations with that particular client, but I’m not especially enthusiastic about taking his call. My sense is that he has not evolved. He’s more guarded with me, but he also likes what we deliver for him. Beyond that, however, I believe this client also regards me and my team as a group grounded in principles. He continues to seek us out, and come what may, I continue to take the call. (Of course, one has to wonder if he’ll call anymore if he figures out I'm talking about him in this blog…)
My point is this: sometimes it’s hard to act responsibly, to compartmentalize some times and walk away entirely other times. My sense is that respectful openness and clarity is always the first, best action to take. Only then, in dialogue, is there any potential for growth.
The Israeli Philharmonic choose to play Wagner because his extraordinary music made artistic sense for a top notch musical organization. That the composer’s repellant social beliefs were impossible to address (Wagner died in 1883) did not change his artistic voice. Some people were outraged by the symphony’s choice, just on principle, and I believe they’re not wrong. But dialogue with those with whom we disagree, or even abhor, is more than just letting each side speak. When we respectfully engage those who philosophically challenge us or even provoke anger, we open the potential for new understanding and a wider middle ground. Perhaps that’s the most profound value of a creative life in the first place.