In the run up to the new Muppet movie coming to theaters in March, several new publications focus on the beloved characters and their creator, Jim Henson.
I was drawn to Elizabeth Hyde Stevens “Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career” after discovering an article she’d written about “Fraggle Rock” on The Awl website, which in turn led me to an article she’d published on the site ahead of the 2011’s “The Muppets.”
In the latter article, she asks us to consider whether Kermit should have been retired when Jim Henson died in 1990. It’s a provocative question in an article with some strange claims (does she really think “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is the best of the post-Henson films?) and some glaring omissions (no mention of Clifford, star of “Muppets Tonight,” as a potential post-Kermit leader for the gang). In all, it was intriguing enough to convince me to grab her e-book.
Initially, I assumed there was a comma missing from the title. But it turns out the author means “Make Art Make Money” in the same way you might instruct someone to “make Pete make pie.” Stevens suggests this is a key step in a process that concludes when an artist is able to take the money his or her art has made and reinvest it into making more and ever-better art.
Stevens looks to Henson’s work — making many an interpretive leap from the sorts of things Muppets say and do — and from published interviews with Henson and his collaborators. The result, like the article I first read, is uneven. While some insights ring true, Stevens is often tripped up by her clear desire to reach specific conclusions.
For example, she is hampered greatly by her vividly expressed disdain for advertising. She is forced to reckon with Henson’s early career, in which he was deeply engaged in advertising, and she ties herself in rhetorical knots attempting to arrive at an “end justifies the means” argument.
In the end, it is probably the “how-to” nature of the book that causes the most problems. Stevens clearly has a deep appreciation for Henson’s work. Her efforts to turn that appreciation into a road map for other artists might be an attempt to follow her own advice — to make her writing make money — but it detracts from what she seems to do best, which is reflect directly on Henson’s art.
Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.