SELL OUT: Does Art Suffer from Success?

When I was sixteen, I was a fan of a one-man-band, Dashboard Confessional.  My friends and I traveled miles to tiny clubs all up and down the east coast, stood shivering outside in line in winter in bad neighborhoods, got our ribs bruised up against the partition in mosh pit, covered our backpacks and messenger bags in band pins from Hot Topic, went thirsty or hungry or without sleep – all to hear the soul-bearing lyrics of someone we considered to be a modern day poet.

There was something so raw and intangible about Chris Carrabba’s performances.  Something that felt like synthesized magic.  The audience singing along with all the words felt as sacred and exalted as a church choir.  Chris was just a guy with a guitar sitting on a stool, stripped of pretenses, singing to some unspeakable, but essential, part of us.  And he could have been us and we could have been him.  In some way, even though he’d written his songs and performed them, once it entered the collective unconscious, it was ours too.  It was no one’s and everyone’s.  He sang to us and we sang to him and it felt like we were in it together.  It was divine.

Dashboard Confessional -

Years later, I saw Dashboard Confessional open for Weezer and Carrabba was posturing himself with all the rockstar machismo and bravado of Bono or Scott Stapp (lead singer of Creed).  He sang the same words into a wireless headset, eyes concealed behind a pair of sunglasses as he sauntered down a runway, raising his arms to the sky (as if to draw down a bit of the old magic) but they sounded like a dead language now, indecipherable and unrecognizable as the words that had felt sacred and inviolable in my youth.

“He’s sold out,” my friend shouted, over the blare of stadium speakers.  And I had to agree – there was something jarring and discordant about the way he’d evolved.  There was no longer any magic.  It felt like visiting a wax museum – all surface shine – and none of the things that had once made Chris a voice for our generation.

Sell-out was a term I used loosely as a teenager whenever a band or artist lost the emotional honesty that made me fall in love with them in the first place (or simply when they started making too much money).  When I criticized the way a band had changed, it made me feel like a tastemaker – someone with a discerning palate, someone who was on the pulse of what was cool and what had become passé.  (And honestly, it was way easier and way less risky to be a critic than to bear my own emotional self by creating in a public sphere.)

If you’ve lived long enough, we’ve all had or been that friend who’s said something along the lines of, “I liked their first album better” or “I liked them before they were famous”. In part, it’s a brag about being first.  Check any popular Youtube’s comment section to see someone plant their metaphorical flag on a video with the comment “first”.  There’s something about being the first in your circle of friends to “discover” a band or writer or artist.  But we also strive to be discerning consumers because we want to be seen as genuine, authentic, original and ahead-of-our-time – just like the artists we choose to follow.

For artists, public opinion is easily swayed – you’re only as good as your publicist and ability to not say anything insensitive or alienating on social media.  An artist is loved one moment and demonized the next.  There’s even something strangely satisfying about watching a famous celebrity fall from grace – that’s what you get, we think smugly – like Icarus, who got burned for flying too close to the sun.  Or like the parable the Emperor’s New Clothes – when someone postures themselves as Kingly – we delight when they’re revealed as a naked fool.

To create – and to do so in an authentic and emotionally honest way – is to bear ourselves to the slings and arrows of a fickle public.  But what makes one artist authentic and another a sell-out?  Why are JK Rowling and Ed Sheeran – two of the richest people in the world – England’s sweethearts?  Are they authentic because they’re portrayed by the media as hometown heroes, good boys and girls who made it big, modern day, rags-to-riches Cinderella Stories? Or are they authentic because they overcame tremendous odds and adversity – obscurity and destitution – for the love of their art, before money was even in the equation?  Or are they authentic because their art, their work, forever changed us?

There’s no denying that a passion project scraped together on a small budget is going to have a different emotional resonance than something with a budget in the thousands or millions.  But can an artist keep making work with artistic integrity after fame and money come into the equation?  Or – does art suffer for success?  

Artistic integrity is a highly politicized term in the art world.  Often it’s said to mean, when an artist goes it alone and does not take or make money from their art.  But it can also mean creating art solely for yourself, as a means of self-expression, without a consumer or audience in mind.  And while, there is something noble and self-sacrificing about this, don’t artists need to eat?  Is there any pride in being a starving artist and having to borrow money from friends and family all your life?  Is there any pride in being viewed as authentic or as having integrity if we can’t pay our rent?

I recently went to an joint art exhibition of Salvador Dali and Banksy at the Moco Museum in Amsterdam.  Dali was a unabashed narcissist, who called making money “a glory”.  But no one can deny Dali’s contributions to surrealism.  Even today, there’s a certain evocative mysticism surrounding his work – and its psuedo-sexual symbolism – that exists outside the context of dollar signs.

Salvador Dali -

At the museum, Dali’s work is juxtaposed with Banksy’s, an anti-capitalist, anti-establishment graffiti artist.  At first glance, they seem polar opposites.  But are they really so different?  After perusing the museum, I walked into a gift shop filled with Bansky t-shirts, Banksy plates, Banksy buttons, Banksy postcards and notebooks – and wondered is Bansky any more “authentic” or “real” than Dali because we don’t know his real identity?  Or because he positions himself as a radical, antiauthoritarian who doesn’t care about money or recognition?  Or is his mysterious, guarded persona just part of what he’s selling?  Is he just another white man – appropriating something that has long existed as a form of expression in urban culture – as a means of making himself seem cool and credible and original?

Banksy -

In the era of social media and online branding – where our name and our art go hand in hand – do we even have the luxury of creating art for art’s sake if we ever hope to have an audience?  A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who encouraged me to start this blog – asked me what search results came up when I Googled my name.  There was my Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and Goodreads account, among other things, but nothing about my writing.  I was calling myself a writer, but until I published a book, I didn’t exist.  And I have countless friends – who toil away on soundboards in basement studios – but don’t have a Soundcloud or Youtube, and therefore don’t exist in the music world.

We create because we love it.  Passion projects can very much become best-sellers, but not if we don’t let anyone see our art.  Don’t toil in obscurity, because there is someone, somewhere, waiting for your words and there’s nothing noble about keeping them all to yourself.  Create the art you want to create.  Realize that it won’t always live up to our perfectionist standards.  Know that somewhere, there’s an audience waiting to hear, see or read what you make.  Make what you’re passionate about.  But don’t be afraid to do something you don’t love for money.

My mom had an artist friend – who was extremely talented – but didn’t sell much of the work he loved to make, paintings of Native Americans.  Part of this was because he didn’t know how or care to market himself to galleries.  But he found at a point in his career, that there was a booming market for erotic art and that people would pay him a lot of money for it.  And so he did, while still painting his life’s work.  Does it make him a sell-out because he put food on his table?  Or did doing this allow him to make more of the art he wanted to make, free from financial constraints?

Try to stay true to your artistic vision.  Try to make work that’s emotionally honest, but realize that there will be times you won’t have the luxury of creating only the things you want the way you want to.  That you’ll have to edit your work.  That your book might end up with a cover you might hate or have the rights sold to a director who doesn’t understand your original vision.  Once you create art, it’s out of your hands.  It no longer belongs to you.  It belongs to the people and the people will decide whether you are a “true artist” or a sell out.  This has nothing to do with you.

Keep making art and stop worrying about what people will think.  Stop worrying about becoming a sell out.  Think instead of how you’ll pay your bills.  How you’ll get the draft of your novel out of your drawer and into the world.  How you’ll connect to that sixteen year old girl – who will one day say your music saved her life.

What do you think?  Does art suffer from success?  Can we be authentic and have artistic integrity while making money at it?

5 thoughts on “SELL OUT: Does Art Suffer from Success?

    1. Thank you! And I wouldn’t say that either. I think “sell out” is all consumer perception and the reality is artists need to make money from their work or have supplemental jobs to support their art. There’s nothing noble about starving for your art. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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