I think the term “sell out” was largely created for artists by other artists who never achieved as much success. That might sound harsh, but so is calling out a fellow artist for making money.
Are there people in the world who make beautiful, incredible, amazing things and then go on to create less amazing, less beautiful, less incredible things for the sake of money? Absolutely.
But…and do I even have to ask…why shame them for that?
We love the stereotype of the starving artist because it keeps artists where they “belong” – that is, in a place of desperation, and therefore, perceived inspiration. The notion of an artist is a romantic one – fraught with insecurities and tribulations, making art out of the pain.
Where does the pain go when the money starts rolling in? The vision is a tad less lusty, isn’t it?
Who wants to envision a rich artist in a fancy house happily writing the deepest poetry, or creating deep images. We work to immortalize the vision of the starving artist because that is the romantic version of an artist. And don’t we love some romance?
But as an artist, I take pride in specifically not starving. I take pride in making money…dare I say…from my art!
I subscribe to a common feeling about artists: artists should create first and foremost for the self. If no one ever saw it or bought it or commented on it, I like to know that an artist still would have made it.
But, having made it, I’d also prefer they profit from it.
First, we can compare art to any other job. It requires long hours of study (often of the self, which is some of the most difficult work we do in this life). It requires long hours of practice to become studied enough in the art of your craft. And it requires many, many hours of failure, often publicly, in order to find the good stuff.
Art is a job, if you choose it to be.
I know so few artists who make money solely from selling their art. They work other jobs, they diversify their business, and they make ends meet.
If I see someone create for the benefit of someone else, I don’t see a sell out. I see someone who understands that art does not have to be for the few, it can also be for the masses. Art is not meant to be hidden; there, it decomposes and falls to ash. It is meant to be shared, handled, observed, digested, spit out, and transformed by the human experience.
If someone can parlay their talents into a more commercial realm, good. I hope every artist with something important to say finds a way to fund that voice of theirs. Art is not cheap. It requires resources.
And if someone begins to create commercial work and never, ever goes back to creating solely for the self, then we can consider that person lucky for having found something that fulfills them even more. We can’t pretend that their path is the same as ours.
Rather than use the word sell out, which is derogatory and mean, let’s start congratulating artists who are able to make ends meet with their art. Let’s applaud those who figure out how to continue navigating life while creating art, because we know, it isn’t easy.
And for goodness sake, let us never put down another soul who is so bold as to create from their heart, even if they do not exclusively create from their heart.
That is the difficult work of humans.
It is the important work of the world.
May we all find a way to sing that song,
no matter the means.
P.S. If you ever want to have an honest conversation about money + art, diversification of income, cost to create art, or anything else you can think of that people don’t talk enough about for the “shame” of the topic, trust me – I want to have that conversation.