What Tony Bennett Taught Me About Making Art

Kyle Smith

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Every artist wants to make excellent art. No one ever sets out on the creative journey and says, “I only want to be known for making mediocre art.” We all want to create art that makes a difference.

But in the stress and hectic pace of life, sometimes it’s tempting to cut corners just to get something “out there.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer, musician, designer, speaker, or some other type of artist. We all feel the pull of the quick win and sometimes just want to quickly get the job done.

I’ve recently been reading Life is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett by Tony Bennett. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a few years, and it’s seemed to miraculously come into my life at just the right time (as great books often do). Even though I’m only partway through it, it has renewed my commitment to creating excellent art.

I don’t know Tony Bennett personally, but he has been teaching me through his writing. (Here are a few great quotes from Life is a Gift. I’ll start with my favorite:

From a young age, I was taught never to compromise. My parents and teachers showed me that you should make every move with care, and put the accent on quality. If you apply this philosophy, you will never go wrong. And I have found that, in particular for a performer, the public will pick up on that attitude and will reward you by giving back what you give to them. I never sing a cheap song. I never look down at the audience and think that they are ignorant, or think that I’m more intelligent than they are. To think otherwise is totally incorrect, and runs contrary to everything I was raised to believe. (Pg. XVI)

Tony talks about creating art that endures:

There should be a law against planned obsolescence, and everyone should follow this lead. In other words, an artist or company, or an individual, should not put out a work of art, or a song, or any product that he knows won’t endure. (Pg. 2)

Here Tony reflects on his conflicts with two of his bosses at Columbia Records. They pushed him to make music that was more commercial.

By bucking the advice of Mitch Miller and Clive Davis, and sticking with the good songs, I’ve been able to have top-selling records with every generation from the fifties until now. I have been privileged not only to contribute many hit songs to the American Songbook but to have a catalog that I can be proud of. There isn’t one record from 1950 until now that is dated. They’re all done with the best composers, great musicians, and top engineers, and there isn’t one I’m embarrassed by. (Pg. 7)

These insights are just from the first few pages. Life is a Gift is absolutely brimming with gems and inspiration from this legendary singer.

A Few Takeaways

There is a lot to chew on in just these few quotes. But here are a few takeaways for every artist:

1. Your audience will reward you for quality. It may not happen overnight, but over time, and with a body of work, you will be known for creating quality work.

2. It’s not about one work of art; it’s about your entire body of work.It’s easy to feel stressed over the poor performance of one blog post, song, or other smaller work. But if you commit to doing your best every time, you will build a legacy of excellence.

3. Respect your audience. So many artists are condescending to their fans, as if they owe the artist something. But it’s the other way around—we owe our audiences something. We should be grateful for any attention we get. We are there to serve, whether that’s by education, entertaining, or inspiring.

4. Does your art pass the “grandchildren” test? Tony’s longevity as an artist made me think of my future grandchildren. What will they think of my writing and art? Will they be embarrassed by my body of work, or proud of it? This puts a new perspective on everything I do.

As I mentioned, this is one of my favorite books from the last few years. I’m certain it will help you renew your own commitment to excellence and quality, just as it has mine.

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