Monday, January 11, 2010

Selling Out

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.

Stephen asks:
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:

More questions:
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?

Some thoughts:
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.


Oscar Baechler said...

So here's a philosophical question about that...the famous example of "selling out" is when Dali advertised for chocolate bars, et al. But if he painted pictures of chocolate bars, would it be less selling out?

Jon Laing said...

I used to work at a theme park drawing caricatures. Believe it or not, "sell out" was a term often thrown around amongst the artists there. Caricature, in its purest form, is an exaggeration of that which makes someone unique, usually for humor's sake--I'm sure we're all aware of this. Often times though, there were artist who would idealize their subject; make them look "pretty" or "like a super model."

Now for some facets of commercial art, that is perfectly fine. However, in caricature it is a bastardization of the art form to make a few extra bucks. That is what I consider a sell out. One who bastardizes their vision or art form for augmented commercial gain.

Fortunately, it was usually the people who stayed true to the art form and their vision who ended making the most money, and getting the most respect at the end of the day.

Anonymous said...

WOW! This is the most relevant topic I've
read. I really enjoy practicing stuff from
the Imaginative Realism book.

Scale said...

I think artists have a high chance of being called sellouts when the public doesn't consider their success proportional to their efforts. (Of course a single troll calling somebody "sellout" doesn't count much.)

A typical case are modernist artists who manage to get into the elite circles and get paid huge amounts of money which are obviously not proportional to their efforts or the beauty of their works.

But it also happens a lot in fandom and amateur art environments, especially when a yung artists who have been popular for a while in his niche becomes more professionally oriented. He is guaranteed to be considered sellouts by former fans at some point. Often all he did was switching to the kind of work which the public actually pays for, instead of following their own ideas which everybody likes but nobody seems to pay for. :-) And what the public pays for may actually be less original, so many get the impression that it also requires less effort - even though he may be putting much more technical effort in it.

Some people then seem to call "sellout" anybody who focuses on technical skill without a specific choice of subject matter.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post! I've been asking myself these questions so many times in the past few years! I might even copy and paste my comment into my blog, as I regularly come back to this subject too.

"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?"

I for one refuse to sell my "fan art" drawings. When I draw a famous musician that I like. I do it for fun and I give them to charity. Somehow I feel bad about asking money for using someone's image, I don't find it correct. Unless of course it is a commission.
But that's just my personal feeling. I suppose I would call that selling out, but another person would not?

About the second question I quoted... I wish there was? What replaced patronage is copyrights (see below) I've asked myself almost daily if I want to make a living with my art and loose some of my creative freedom, or if I want to create for my own fulfillment?
I also completely agree that aiming for commercial subjects and forgetting about your strong points is never going to work out. So I suppose that the whole difficulty is to find a balance. Do what you are good at and at some point it will pay off?

Then there is the whole debate about copyrights. The laws are getting old and the whole system must be renovated. But in this age of internet, I don't know what will be left of the concept of copyright. I have a feeling it will dissapear? I would like to know what artists are supposed to do for a living then? More questions, sorry about that.

PS: I finally bought "Imaginative Realism", very precious book! I for one would love to see more of this blog turned into books, I certainly will buy them!

Alida Saxon said...

It really is an argument that is subjective as the appreciation of art.

I used to feel it's "selling out" if the artist is doing something with their artistic talents that they would do only if they were paid for it.

However, having done projects to pay the bills and continuing to do so, it's a rather narrow view of things.

Not many would mock someone for paying their bills. Pity maybe, but never mock. But it's when they cross the line from getting by to amassing wealth, that approval plummets. I'm sure it's something that could be charted on a graph.

It reminds me of that quip: What's the difference between "crazy" and "eccentric"? Money.

Steve said...

I'll just add two things without comment:

1. There's a quotation I've seen attributed to Winslow Homer in many sources: "I will paint for money at any time. Any subject, any size."

2. On Leif Peng's blog, Today's Inspiration, there have been several recent posts about Albert Dorne's philosophy in regard to creating paintings tailored to the wishes of a client.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There was something I talked about in art school forty years ago that I called selling out, and I was never going to do it.
I think I would do it today, for just long enough to pay off my mortgage, get my kids through college and buy a Wooten desk, but I can't remember what it was.

Erin McGuire said...

Maybe selling out is when you disregard your own morals for a project. Working on a smoking ad when you're against smoking, something that invades not just your artistic values but your human morals as well.

Because making yourself artistically more marketable isn't shameful, and to me it's logical to make a living, but you shouldn't have to loosen up on what you believe in to make some money.

Shane said...

'Selling art, is not selling out'

Lausanne said...

About the only thing I consider to be selling out is when an artist finds something that sells and then just does the same thing over, and over, and over again. Every commission I do is another opportunity to stretch. If it wasn't my chosen subject or approach or whatever it's probably going to force me to learn something new - possibly something I would have otherwise avoided. And that is hard work - not selling out.

Unknown said...

Great post! How do you stay so consistently relevant to what we're thinking and worrying about?

Recently I started selling original art in order to finance my commercial work, comics, because it's easier to make a living selling sketches then spending a year and a half doing a graphic novel and waiting another year for royalties.It seems increasingly relative these days.

Random York said...

Well said, Jim!

armandcabrera said...

The only things that make a person a sellout are jealousy and envy followed by rationalization. People want to believe you share their idea of (fill in the blank) when you deviate from their beliefs and follow your own path for your own reasons most people will label you a sellout.

sfox said...

Calling another artist a "sell out" could imply that there is some "pure" way of being an artist that is somehow morally superior.

My impression has always been that the term is thrown around by artists who are not financially successful, but wish they were. So maybe its use says more about them than the target.

On the other hand, selling out could mean chasing the market at all costs, even to the point of ripping off someone else's style because that's what's currently popular. Therefore, no one viewing the work can detect the authentic presence of the creator or their unique point of view.

As they told us in art school, be a first class you, not a second class someone else.

Johnny Perez said...

I have often worried about that, and always thought its such a dirty thing to say in the art world! Which is comical in a way. I agree that artists should do what they love, and making a buck for your work is what being a working artist is about! I guess I view "selling out" as a marketing extreme. Like music for instance, if I hear a song that is incredible and moving, I can respect that it gets so popular i hear it everywhere, but when I start hearing it on tv commercials, and in movies, and the lyrics being used in ads, and brands and products being derived from it, then I stop liking it because its lost all of its meaning, and all I hear is money. I think art has a certain integrity, and its up to the creator to uphold it. Once they give that integrity away for money, the work has basically been prostituted. But I would never just toss around that term, because I do believe its also overused to express jealousy and ignorance.

Tyler J said...

I agree with Erin McG's comments about personal values and that the "selling out" is a relative term.

It might be tough to not begrudge an artist for financial success when it seems that they are just repeating a formula over and over, but on the other hand, it is always tough to argue with success (although, it can be done: see McDonald's et al).

I think sfox also hit some great points, especially the ripping off another artist thought. There is something nice about thinking of art as "pure" but I don't remember the last time I did a piece just because. It always has some motivation behind it, even if its just to practice drawing or whatever.

Is a poet a sell out if they write a sitcom? They are writing, and they are making a living for writing, but it might not be their masterpiece.

Leonardo's two most famous paintings were commissioned and I would be hard pressed to take seriously the assertion that he was a sellout.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought Sherlock Holmes was in an inferior category of literature but the only reason anyone remembers his "more serious works" was due to his detective stories. Was he a sellout? Even if you think he was, those stories have brought and will continue to bring joy to millions of people.

This idea that you must suffer for your art is an antiquated idea that is too mired in the elitist paint slinging circles who spend more time crafting artist's statements and lamenting how no one understands their art rather than doing something worth looking at.

By the way, in case you missed it:

JP might have said it best when he talked about losing meaning. I have never taken on a project or commission where I couldn't find something in it that I liked. Adding my own touch, whether subtly or overtly is part of the artistic challenge, and a big part of why doing art is fun!

PS Roberto, Eric...where are you guys on this one?! =) said...

This idea of whether or not an artist has sold out seems to me to be the wrong focus. It assumes there is something else the artist should be doing with their time, or that there is some sort of dishonest transaction occurring, or there is a bamboozlement being pressed upon someone who shows genuine interest in the work. (It also implicitly assumes that the artist should be making a different kind of art, a kind the accuser believes is more proper and worthy.)

It seems to me a better metric to use would be whether or not the artist's work is interesting, or relevant, or if it in some way makes a connection to other people. If yes, hooray. If not, meh.

The whole issue of what 'selling out' is strikes me as yet another way to argue what is or isn't art -- and that usually ends up being insulting to everyone involved. The artist. The audience. The patron. The artist's mother. Whatever. (Ha!) Not to mention the lazy or arm-chair critic who often lobs such a silly assertions out into the void more from a lack of anything interesting or insightful to offer up.

IMHO, let the artist paint what he wants, in the way he wants, for the amount he can get. It's a free world and it is big enough for all. If someone else doesn't like it they can go make their own.

Great blog James . . .


Mark Shasha said...

Hmmm. What is a sellout?

I think humility and quality of the work (as the artist himself defines it) is part of the answer. If an artist sees himself as a student always ready to learn more it is difficult to ever become a sellout.

A sellout is an artist who is not interested in mastery and squanders most of his time and talent for no reason other than money.

It is a term which fits very few artists I have ever met.

-M Shasha

My Pen Name said...

as with those who say money doesn't buy happiness... it's a dilemma i'd like to face :)

Honey P. Amplegood said...

I think selling out means you really have to sell everything and your art or your characters belong to someone else to continue in the way the buyers want, because it's not yours anymore.

And someone has to care about the art enough to acknowledge the selling and call it "selling out."

Oh, and there has to be something to do with the difference between the artist and the what if MAD sold to Disney, instead of Marvel? MAD would at first appear to be a bigger sellout, but then it would become really funny.

to me, anyway.

Sara Palmer said...

I think there is an unattainable ideal amongst fine artists (artistes) that you must put your art upon a pedestal and maintain it with the highest regard, coddled and cushioned from the blows of society or economics. Money and high art mix in an uncomfortable prostitution where the price should be high enough to not insult the sensitivities of the artiste. If this ideal was true, should not all art be free?

In order to maintain the starving artist ideal, one must need to starve first, and I think the great majority of us do not enjoy wondering how to pay the electric bill, or how we can afford fine surfaces to paint on. It may be a lifestyle suited to students and the young, but it does get old, and most people want to move on with their lives.

I contest that the ideal is a myth. Art has forever been purposeful, and I do believe that the rock painters of ancient times had clients as well to tell them that the Auroch's horns were too long, and that the people's spears were not aggressive enough. Where there are artists, there are people to pay artists, and there is selling out.

I think we use the term "sell-out" to degrade others and uplift ourselves, because many of us harbor ugly little people inside who with the world to be equal. We wish the opportunity or payday. We wish the artist was having a better year. We wish that we could draw that well, and we are deeply afraid that some economic situation might have US doing something we don't believe in.

michelle said...

If an artist is creating with honesty and passion it's irrelevant how much that artist earns. In our society money is a necessity, we must earn to survive. If you are lucky enough to earn "a lot" that's cool. If not, supplement with another skill and continue creating truthfullly.

Personally the art I create that comes from my heart is the most successful.

Brooks Hansen said...

good post, sorry I came to it so late.

A comparison of the "sell-out" work of Prokofiev and Shostakovich provides insight, and nuance, to the discussion. For them, "selling out" meant providing music to please Stalin and his ilk when Stalin asked. The price of not doing so - of agitating through more personal expression - could literally have cost them their lives.

What's interesting is that when you listen to Shostakovich's "Stalinist" music, you can hear his derision. It's not his best work. It's saccharine crap - pretty - but crap, and he knows it, and therein lies his subversive protest. "Here's the shit you asked for. Go enjoy."
And I'm surew Stalin did.

On the other hand, Prokofiev's "Stalinist" music is pretty much on a par with the rest of his output. One gets the sense that he would never compomise the quality of his product just because the cause was a horrid one. Prokofiev appears not to have been quite as politically sophisticated as Shostakovich, true, or bedevilled by quite as heavy a "conscience," but by the same token, he seems incapable of having turned out pure crap for the sake of crap, or just to please a murderous tyrant. If you gave him a job, he gave you his best.

The question then: which of these composers showed more artistic integrity?

I know my answer.

Gene Snyder said...

Stephen opened a big can of worms with this post...

A long time ago I was in the "Fine Artiste" camp that Sara Palmer mentioned in her comment. I looked to the old masters with the utmost regard. Viewed Rubens as a superhero, saw Rembrandt as indestructable, and knew there was no one more dashing than J.S.Sargent himself. I frequented the museums pulling apart paintings to figure out techiques. I bought lots of books, some rare, on artists I worshipped. Spent hours in my studio mimicking Degas "essence" technique or trying to figure out what concoction of oil and varnish Titian used with his paints. I'd go out on painting trips to the woods, trying to capture something Monet-like in its colorful glory. I was a gallery member, attending openings, rubbing elbows with other "artistes". I was having fun. Life was good. Art was noble. Art was pure. Art was... (enter the screeching sound when a needle runs across a record) ...a lie.

It hit me. I was completely convinced that fine art was "superior" to other art. Art had to be a fine wine to be enjoyed. I had sunk a lot of money and time into chasing artists that were long dead and from another era. Nevertheless, they created and left a legacy. The works they created were never meant to be hung in museums. They were hung in churches, public buildings, and homes. By collecting them and placing them in museums, we've taken them out of their intended context and placed their creators on that "pedestal" that lures many into the "fine wine" thinking of fine art. I think Ingres would flip if he knew his "Grande Odalisque" was on the cover of a Gene Simmons book... (I just saw this in a book store yesterday... nice!!).

So while digging into art history, I started to see flaws in my "perfect" art heroes. Monet abandoning his wife and kids, fleeing to England when the French-Prussian War broke out? What the...? Who does that? Different times? Then again, we don't know the circumstances. Yep, the business of art was cut-throat then too. Pissarro would get all jazzed-up when he found out that Renior had already sold paintings to his collectors. So when you think about it, these "perfect" artists are human and have a lot in common with what artists are trying to acheive today. (continued in next comment)

Gene Snyder said...

Then I began to think, "Why can't today's artists be my heroes too? What separates them from past artists?" Not much, if you ask me now. Remembering the thrill with comics and fantasy art I had when I was a teen (I was a D&D nut then), I started looking at art in other areas like comics, sci-fi, and fantasy illustration again. I can tell you after looking that there's a few comic artists alive today that could hold their own or run circles around Michelangelo or Degas when it comes to figure drawing! Not that there needs to be a competition, but there is a lot of talent out there and not just in "fine art". It took me a long time to come to that way of thinking. I'd imagine art lovers would gasp to hear the fresco paintings by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling referred to as big comic books. They serve the same purpose: to tell a story to a lot of people through images. Don't get me wrong, I'm the first to say that it is a beautiful artwork, taking tons of effort and dedication to complete - but isn't all art like that, or shouldn't it be?

I think that's where the "sellout" comes into play. Artwork that takes tons of effort and dedication to complete and is genuine should be considered valid. Art that is done without effort or dedication is, to me, sellout art. Both can have monetary gain, but when the art rings hollow... Then again, who decides this? If slapdash art is feverishly purchased by the public, should the artist rewind and ask themselves whether it is morally just to continue selling it? I think only the artist can answer that. We can't judge. I do have to say that I've read many blogs, interviews, and books on contemporary illustrators that work digitally and many of them say they miss working traditionally in oils. They've changed their entire working method to make a dollar. Are they sellouts? Can you blame them? If they don't, the next art guru will come in and knock them out of the market. Survival.

I some ways, I feel like a sellout because I didn't go the "starving artist" route, supporting myself, and building a career entirely by my art, but on the other hand, I see that as a selfish way of thinking. I am not a freelance artist. I do not make a living off of my art. I do sell a painting or commission here and there. I have a family to support and a mortgage. To deny my family a good life while I go off on my own artistic journey wouldn't be very fair to them. Does that not make me a true artist? Am I a sellout? I'm 41, closing in on 42. I do realize that time is coming into play with how much longer I have to create. Of course in reading Jim's blog I learned that Hal Foster was 44 when he started the Prince Valiant series. There's still time... Thanks again for the great blog Jim!!!

Gene Snyder
(I'm placing my link here to give you a context to judge my post by).

Stephen James. said...

Thank you James (and everyone else) for the very well thought out responses.