“Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed.”
~ Frank Lloyd Wright
A few months ago, when I was considering becoming self-employed, I went to a free course on business basics, which was mainly attended by people who had a business idea, and wanted to learn some more about how to actually set up and run a business.
One of the questions asked during the course was “are you going to sell what you can make, or are you going to make what you can sell?”
The distinction may not be clear at first. Let me give a hypothetical example.
Let’s imagine you are an origami expert, and your favourite thing to make is a beautiful paper flower. You know your origami flowers are amazing, and your friends and family agree. So you decide to try and make some money from your skill. You spend weeks making hundreds of paper flowers and list them for sale on eBay. After a week, you are dismayed to find you haven’t sold a single one.
It turns out, nobody wants to buy paper flowers. Your friends and family like them, because you made them, but nobody wants to pay money for them.
However, several people have contacted you saying what they really want is a paper swan, and they are willing to pay you if you will make them one. You don’t enjoy making origami swans as much as the flowers, but you could certainly do it, and you know there are people willing to buy them if you make them.
What would you do?
Art For Art’s Sake
In an ideal world, every artist could just create whatever they wanted, without having to worry about whether it would sell.
If you’re well established and making plenty of money, or you’re just doing art as a hobby purely for pleasure, then maybe you can afford to create art for art’s sake.
But for many of us, art is our livelihood, and if we don’t sell what we create, then we don’t eat, and this inevitably influences the kind of art we create.
The concept of ‘selling out’ is thrown around a lot in artistic circles. Some people consider selling your art at all to be selling out, while others are happy to create whatever people want as long as they get paid.
It seems a large part of what is considered ‘selling out’ has to do with intentionally tailoring your work to a mainstream audience, while compromising your values or your creative integrity.
British Graffiti artist Banksy has often been accused of selling out the graffiti community. His response in a Time Out London interview was:
“It’s hard to know what ‘selling out’ means – these days you can make more money producing a run of anti-McDonald’s posters than you can make designing actual posters for McDonald’s.
I tell myself I use art to promote dissent, but maybe I am just using dissent to promote my art. I plead not guilty to selling out. But I plead it from a bigger house than I used to live in.”
As you can see there is a fine line to tread between selling your work and being accused of selling out. So how can we find the right balance?
Selling Without Selling Out
The fact is, I can’t tell you if you’re selling out or not. As selling out is a very subjective concept, you will have to judge for yourself. What is selling out to one person, might just be considered good business sense to another.
My advice would be to do some research. See what other artists are selling, ask your followers what sort of art they would buy from you, try some different ideas and gauge the reaction. Then try and find a style in line with these factors, which also enables you to authentically express yourself.
If you love painting realistic portraits, I wouldn’t recommend doing cartoon illustration just because you find that someone else is making a killing from it.
However, you may find you need to adapt your style, or explore new directions in order to reach a big enough market to support yourself financially.
If you’re in the early stages of your art career, you may even take on work that you’re not crazy about in order to keep yourself afloat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing work you don’t love from time to time, if it means you can continue to finance your creative lifestyle. But if you find yourself constantly doing work that gives you no pleasure, then you probably need to make some changes.
Overall, I would advise that you go with your gut feeling. If the art you create is in line with your values, you enjoy it, and you feel you can sell it with integrity, then you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you always have a nagging feeling that something doesn’t quite sit right, then you might want to think about whether you are being true to your creative integrity.
Selling Out Doesn’t Always Mean Selling More
Finally, I would just like to dispel the myth that if you want your art to sell well, you have to sell out and ‘go mainstream’. In fact the opposite may be true in some cases.
As Hugh McLeod points out in How To Be Creative, selling out is harder than it looks:
“Diluting your product to make it more ‘commercial’ will just make people like it less”
If you try to create mainstream art with universal appeal, you will likely end up with a bland, soulless product that nobody really cares about, whereas if you stay true to your creative integrity, your art may appeal to less people, but those it does appeal to will really love it, because it is authentically you.
If you can find the right balance between creating art that you enjoy, that is in line with your values and artistic expression, and that plenty of people are willing to buy, then you are well on your way to a successful career as an artist.
Have you ever struggled to find the right market for your art without ‘selling out’? Have you ever created art that isn’t ‘you’ just for the money? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.