The Ouroboros: art, money, ‘selling-out’, legitimacy…

Artists! Let’s have a talk. Just you guys and I. I have a bone to pick with you all. Well, all of us. We’re all guilty of this on some level.

The topic? “selling out”.

My complaint? Those who are less successful bashing those who rise above by throwing the word ‘sell-out’ around.

Yes, yes, I know; the arts are a divided series of industries. I also understand that there are people who call themselves artists due to lifestyle choice or to define their hobbies. Lots of people make art for a variety of reasons and my argument is that it is all legitimate and it is all good. Got that? Great! Now for the tough love…

As a professional working artist, my bone isn’t to pick with anyone but with other professional or aspiring professional artists who condemn the successes of their peers. Quit condemning the successes of others, willya? It doesn’t do any of us a service when a person is condemned for committing an abstract crime such as “selling out”. What does that term even mean?

Well, let’s look at it: to sell out (as defined by the Internet) is to “the compromising of integrity, morality, or principles in exchange for money or “success” (however defined). It is commonly associated with attempts to tailor material to a mainstream audience.” Well, it looks like all street performers are guilty as charged, since the very basis of our job is to appeal to a broad audience, yet, street performers are generally viewed as artists in the truest sense of the word: those who live on the fringe unafraid to put their work out there, and as a result are considered both cultural heros to many aspiring and working artists and annoying scum to day-jobbers.

Quite often, artists who see financial reward for their work are accused of selling out and choosing money over integrity. I ask: where do you draw the line? And, who’s definition of integrity are we talking about here? Over the years, I’ve taken comfort in quotes from people like Charlie Chaplin, who, put it frankly: “I went into the business for the money and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.” And yet, he is one of the most celebrated film and physical comedy artists of all time.

I’ve even heard the argument that art and money can never reconcile themselves as they are in direct tension with one another. Why is that? Without money, we can’t make our art! To me, that just sounds like a defeatist argument.

One of the biggest ‘sell-outs’ by these standards is of course, everyone’s favourite surrealist, Salvador Dali. Dali famously branded his melting clock imagery from his piece ‘the Persistence of Memory’, and allowed it to be manufactured on everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts. And yet, he is arguably one of the most celebrated artists who ever lived. And let’s not forget David Lynch’s playstation advertisement, the Brothers Quay’s coca-cola commercials, hell, even Devo covering their own song ‘Whip it’ for a dry-mop commercial, just to name a few…

I ask you: where is the problem in that?

When I was younger, I admit to have fallen into that trap. It horrified me to hear my favourite ‘underground’ songs in commercials or see my favourite artists endorsing products… yet, as I got older and started working in the arts I realized that I would have to take corporate gigs to stay alive: in fact, if it wasn’t for those corporate car logos being airbrushed onto my body, I wouldn’t have the resources or time to produce the street acts that take me around the world currently! I learned quickly that a living statue who stands incredibly still and straddles the uncanny valley (while very visually compelling) does not make as much money as an animated, technically skilled character. As I wound further and further into the trenches, I saw my peers as a support group; we were in it together, bonding, fighting, working endlessly to get our work seen and be compensated fairly for it, and I began to feel that if ANYBODY made it, they deserved it for what we all put ourselves through! When my friends see their hard work become successful realities I applaud them, I don’t criticize their choices to get there, regardless of where I am in my position.

The absolute worst insult I have ever experienced was when I was flippantly told that I wasn’t a “real” artist, I was an entertainer. What a slap in the face, considering how much time I’ve put in developing ideas, thinking of my craft and creating moments, experimenting with my medium. Can’t entertainers be artists? Again, I ask: where do you draw the line?

The idea that art is above capitalism is a construct of the 20th century; great artists such as Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Michaelangelo… they were artists who produced work under patronage. In other words: they were commissioned to produce commercial work, essentially. And yet, we celebrate their work in the highest of esteem of High Art. To me, the whole notion of ‘selling out’ smacks of the same elitism that created the notion of ‘high art’ versus ‘low art’; it’s that very same attitude that condemns the work that so many talented artists produce. I dare any of you to condemn Banksy, who created probably one of the greatest pieces of street art in history, for being a sell-out after designing a title sequence for the ‘Simpsons’ television show. And if he is, then hell, I only wish I could be as much of a sell-out.

My friend, visual artist Stefan Valent, put forth this interesting idea that selling out is a concept created by fans who hold an internal mythology of what the artist is supposed to be. Because our industries are so non-linear, it’s easy to make all sorts of assumptions about the lives we lead, so I suppose it’s only natural for those not involved to have a romanticized idea that I eat caviar every day, fly first class only overseas, and sleep in five-star hotels EVERY time I travel (hint: that’s not true)–or–conversely, that I starve and suffer, that I don’t EVER compromise my ‘artistic integrity’ for ‘the man’, and that I quietly (and possibly nobly) accept obscurity over the threat of becoming recognized for work I’ve made that I am not 100% behind (hint: also not true). Mythology is too black and white, and the really real world is all sorts of shades of gray. This does not, by any means, delegitimize the work that people do to earn a living.

Artists should be supporting each other, not demonizing each other. I don’t know about you guys, but, to me, working a career in the arts industry is like navigating through a flatland filled with landmines at the best of times. So I ask you, the next time you are upset by a success of another artist, what are you: a fan or a peer? And, once you’ve made that decision, act accordingly.


  •    Reply

    I think part of the problem is that, while money currently seems to be a necessity in life for the vast majority of us in this society, we instinctively recognize that its existence (and the existence of commerce and trade rather than freely giving and sharing) is a sad failing on the part of humanity in general, even if many of us don’t realize it consciously.

    At least, that’s my suspicion, for whatever it’s worth. 🙂

  •    Reply

    If you don’t have a few haters you’re doing something wrong.

    I like to think I have a small, and evil, part of me that is fueled by others being mad at what I do. Especially if it is none of their business.

    I saw Marie Antoinette at Yonge and Dundas today. The sign on her royal pedestal directed me to this website. If you see Queen Antoinette again please let her know that her presence was well received by the peasants of Toronto.

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