Should Artists “Sell Out”?
Recently, upon completing the multiple posts in my series’ entitled, “What ‘Should’ Artists Do?” and “The ‘Hidden’ Secret of The Creative Process”, I had the chance to reflect on the history of art itself. Having also previously promised the readers a series on that very topic, I realized that a mere chronology would not suffice to explain the underlying nature of art throughout history.
(Note: to understand the full context of this post, please read the aforementioned posts.)
This “nature”, the underlying forces that artists are within and without, dictates much in relation to what an artist decides to do and say. Thus, this “true” history of art, in my opinion, has involved three intersecting themes: what is official, what is unofficial, and what has been made. All art is made within the context of these historical concepts and forces. Understanding these forces will help us understand what is probably the most important artistic question one will ask themselves: what is “selling out”? But first we must look at the history of art to understand how humans have become “artists” in the first place. And though I will be referring to visual art, I am also discussing the general idea of creative makers as “artists”: composers, jazz improvisers poets, dramatists, anyone who creates what is defined as exemplary works in such media.
Humans have been making carvings and images for close to 700,000 years; various figurines, cave engravings/paintings showing up across Africa and India. This “art”, though its exact expressive purposes are not known, reveals that at the very least humans show interest in creative expression, that humans were engaged in activities that moved beyond the acquisition of food, shelter, and the expression of primal social behavior. And though art eventually evolved to become a possible tool in acquiring food and shelter, i.e. an economic activity, this nearly one million year old instinct meant that “making” is inherent in our humanity; we express, with or without the word “art” (which implies that “skill” and “imagination” are key elements in separating common expression from aesthetic expression of a higher form).
The ancient cave paintings and figures required minimal skill and little imagination, thus we house such objects in a different kind of museum than a Dali painting. This categorical divide is not controversial, as a 230,000 year-old rudimentary carving of a female figure required the innovation of a tool, but the subject and form itself is not one created uniquely in a solitary mind, like Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”. But as art history progresses we discover an institutionalizing force affecting the human ability to create common and aesthetic objects, social forces that separate and divide the uses of skill and imagination, creating what one might call official and unofficial objects.
Official things have a relationship with an authority, one holding a public duty to represent a larger group. When assign specific duties individuals essentially “sum up” the overall group, they act to work for the interests of the group that gave them that authority. As art then moves from unofficial acts by individuals to official acts, there is a move from the random to the specific: people who use painter become painters, people who use words become poets, writers, scribes, and so on. The more defined the act and actor the more official the action, at least potentially. Thus we do not call the 230,000 year-old human making hand prints in a cave an “artist”, unless there is now some modern authority or theory that assigns official values and status to that pre-historical being or act.
Thus we see the idea of “art” enter into human history as words and organized groups enter. There are now images of spirits and gods: the image becomes a summary of more than the creative drive. “Meaning” is given to what before being named, is officially “meaningless” (though it may be personally profound). The female figurine is a carving until it becomes a fertility symbol, a “symbol” requiring a symbolizer to make it so. The creative mind that now has the capacity to theorize about how and when a lightening god should be described, represented and appeased can also establish what the official image of that god or goddess must be in order to properly exist in the world of Man’s symbols. Thus we arrive at ritual behaviour being intertwined with social behaviour, a series of actions performed in a certain order, for religious or social purposes. Image making can be officially useful (religious, social) or informally useful (making, play).
This means images can now have have iconic value, they represent more than the physical or imagined physical qualities of trees, animals, gods, and such. They now represent courage, faith, love, rage, damnation: non-concrete aspects of being (abstraction). This allows the symbolizer, he or she whom is official to have even more power over what is officiated, as for every thing there is the iconic image of its opposite, which creates conflict. This is the unofficial. Herein lies power exchange.
The act of making, once a direct act, has now evolved into what is acceptable (canon) and what is not, because now there must be further measurements of not only what is or is not the official image, but what are the official attributes, and to what alternate icon the unofficial attribute will be assigned to. Thus we move from black and white to black versus white, each being iconic, being assigned differing values, in a dialectical process when what is official is “at stake”.
The history of Man has been written by those who have had socio-political control over humanity, as the literate amongst controlling factions have almost exclusively had the ability to write and build a canon (let alone have access to such a canon). Trillions of humans have lived and died under the various kingdoms, dynasties, empires and such without knowing the defining works of literature, art, and music history records as representative of each. So, as official and unofficial positions could be held in an era, the core making still occurred: Imperial portraits, folk crafts, orchestras, reed flutes, all occurred in the process of making while icons were chosen and canons were crafted and contested.
This also means that various official icons and canons fell in and out of favor with each passing era, with the passing of authority from one group to the next. Many positions of authority also made what they considered progress by returning to past models: a “classical” style the previous generation had erroneously forgotten.
This still exists today though it takes on a new significance with the rise of the Internet and greater access to the various official and unofficial creations of humanity. If you are an artist you have been part of this greater whole, in any number of positive or negative ways. The complexity of the relationship between what is official vs. unofficial is also affected by environmental and economic complexities never before known by mankind.
Thus my previous posts on what artists “should” do and the “hidden” secret of the creative process (informal, making) tie in to the official art world via how to supposed “succeed” in the art world or make money making art; topics I have not covered yet. As they may or may not be opposing forces, this finally brings us to the personal dialectic, maybe the only one that matters to the modern artist who seeks to move from unofficial to official status; the aforementioned idea of selling out.
To make a certain amount of money is often called “selling out”, if the artist is perceived to move from non-commercially to commercially viable genres. This means giving up status as a personification of purity to commerce, which carries an implied moral dimension; to be on the “right” side of the dialectic between pure creation and crass desires for attainment. The moral dimension of official art returns as what is financially less viable, as the properly personified “artist” doesn’t make alter their style to make money. Various amounts of money then become iconic of purity or uncleanliness. The artist bears guilt, shame, uncleanliness, impurity, as judged by those who, for example, value art for art’s sake, holding true to an ideology of art that makes money instantly suspect in its perceived official capacity to “pollute” and “alter” the core principles of the ideology itself.
So the true history of art, on the personal level, has now become a general choice to position oneself somewhere on a line between Point A and Point B, the official and unofficial, and how one’s making shifts and evolves, how it moves back and forth between the points. Making itself exists as a “pure” act, only to be altered later, if one has already sold out. Making alternately exists as an impure act, redeemable by making solely for the sake of art or non-commercial personal reasons.
Is the dialectical process filled with conflict or does it flow smoothly? Do you or I find ourselves conflicted over being outside commercial art or non-conflicted? Do we sell what we make or do we just make it? Does money matter or does art provide personal fulfillment that cannot be assigned a dollar value? Would we be filled with self-loathing to be commercially viable as an artist if it meant altering what we consider our true creative voice? Many artists find themselves outside of the dialectic, when what they have created is financially viable even as they pursued aesthetic purity (their own perceived morality of “not selling out”). Others may also agree with this assessment: that so-and-so never sold out and still became “successful”. There are many examples through out history of artist who never sold out and died for it, and artists who never sold out and ended up being extremely famous and rich for it. Ultimately the answer lies in the moral dimension we give to art, what we ourselves define as official, unofficial, and making.
THE MORALITY OF ART
The morality of art may found in our understanding and application of words like skill and imagination. Whether schooled or not, “artists” have shown levels of skill and imagination that are recognizable as such, though not always within the lifetime of the artist (Vincent van Gogh and J. S. Bach being prime examples). Thus selling out usually comes down to how, where, when, why the artists uses that skill and imagination. This is the morality of art within the artist, the central focal point of the individual; the basis of our critique of others and self in the art world, the political, world, the religious, world, and all other intersecting “worlds” a member of society finds themselves active in.
The use of political skill and imagination for self-gain is bad, while the use of skill and imagination to rid Third World nations of malaria is good. To paint just to please a certain set of art adjudicators in order to add a gallery showing to a resume is neither good not bad until a moral decision is made, until one has assessed how skill and imagination usage fits with an aesthetic morality, an ethical code, a line over which one shouldn’t cross in order to maintain the perceived integrity of their skills and imagination. Free jazz is an excellent example of this.
The world of freely improvised music has become an intricate and complex one, considering its simple and ebullient beginnings in the music of Ornette Coleman. Never destined to be a popular style of jazz, the history of this music is an ode of the resilience of the people who wished to keep it alive and well as a recorded and studied genre. It is for all intents and purposes akin to taking an oath of poverty to commit to making and promoting freely improvised music, though there will always be some academic interest in its history and limited social interest in the more idiosyncratic performers and works that somehow get the attention of the general public. Thus it is easy to imagine a certain kind of rugged morality existing in those who “refuse” to commit their musical careers to more financially and academically viable routes. This idea, though romantic to the college freshman that imagines himself or herself a musical outsider, has significant real world costs in the long term outside of academia. This musical estrangement also seems insignificant, considering the socio-economic and environmental issues facing 21st century citizens.
SHOULD ARTISTS SELL OUT?
We now arrive at the critical artistic issue, the inherent core to all of our artistic decisions: our creative morality, which I will define as our aesthetic ethos. If we share the same creative desires as our ancestors 700,000 years ago we desire to make known through art what is within us, which is beyond regular expression. As society made the issues surrounding such expression matters of ritual, religion, politics, aesthetics and so on, our desire to “make” remained. Then certain segments of society created groups and institutions that had hierarchies built within that made things official or unofficial. Our aesthetic ethos places things in a dialogue between good and bad: what to do and not to do, what we “should” or “should not” do.
Artists thus can only sell out, not be true to an ethos, if they have established that such an ethos is the most desirable one, the one that their skill and imagination must serve for the correct or best usage of their skills and imagination. Thus no one can tell an artist what they “should” do, as that is only answered in context of the skill and imagination of the artist, which is permanently outside of the understanding of another artist. If the artist must then answer such a question internally, what one “should” do must be measured against their ethos. As this can change, thus the methods and actions of the artist change, and thus no one bit of advice can work for all people. One can follow Kurt Vonnegut’s advice on writing, but to do so means at least some people would have to change an ethos they deep down know they cannot without dissonance in their soul. This also why no one method is guaranteed for all people; there never was nor will be a singular answer to any creative question. This guarantees there will always be art, skills and imaginations evolving and surprising us.
Can an artist “sell out”? Should an artist “sell out”? Your skills and imagination, in service of your ethos, are the only measurement of that.