An art student named Stephen raised the question, “What is selling out?” He said the word has come up in a lot of his discussions, and he’s heard it bandied about in creative fields.
1. Is it someone who very overtly markets themselves? Because many of us have blogs that we direct others to.
2. Is it someone who sacrifices their artistic instincts to make someone else happy? Because most people with clients do that.
3. Or is it just a term we toss at people who have the success that we'd like but don't have? Because that's not honest criticism, that's just jealousy.
Thanks, Stephen! Here are some of my own questions and an attempt at an answer:
Another way to think about your question is, what kinds of artist is the most removed from being a sell-out? An independently wealthy amateur? An artist drawing in a sketchbook that no one else will see? A child who is drawing for the pure love of it? A modestly successful artist who is misunderstood and undiscovered? A university art professor?
Is personal vision incompatible with commercial success? Is there another way to arrange a system of patronage to keep artists from having to compromise expression?
In the past there has been state support for the arts. And there have been art-oriented popes, or enlightened patrons, but that’s more of a rarity now. Let’s face it: artists who have to please politicians, popes, or patrons have to make compromises, too. So like it or not, apart from people who do art for the pure love of it, the commercial marketplace is where most American art has to live or die.
I think it’s reasonable for any artist to want to reach a wide audience, because communication is an important part of art. And it’s reasonable to want to be compensated by the people who enjoy the work. It is wrong to assume that something is automatically bad because it’s popular. But if marketing considerations begin to drive the process, something is worthwhile is lost.
I believe that one kind of art isn’t any purer than another. There’s original, daring work in every category: gallery landscapes, portraits, still lifes, figure work, illustration, concept art, animation, comics, game art, packaging design, and logo design. Some of the most creative filmmaking is in the 30-second TV ad spot. And in every one of those categories there’s hack work manufactured with the sole purpose to please a supposed market.
Any kind of work can meet the demands of a crass client and still be deeply inspired: look at Mozart’s Requiem, for example. (He was paid by an anonymous patron who wanted to pass it off as his own work). Mozart died in the process, but delivered some of the greatest music of all time.
Ironically, you have to be gifted with a personal vision to be commercially successful. Just trying to make a calculated product to make money only leads to hack work that doesn’t sell. Stuff that’s original and daring is often is very successful and remunerative.
So, Stephen, I’d say you should ignore people who talk about selling out. Do the kind of art you love. If you make money doing it, more power to you. If not, that’s OK too, just do your best stuff, even for what may seem the lowliest commission, and never do something just because you think someone else is going to like it.
Regarding comments: For this topic, I’d suggest that we don’t mention names of any living artists (You can talk about your own experience, of course). Corporations and deceased artists are fair game.