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Will You Sell What You Create, Or Create Something You Can Sell?

Origami Swan
Image courtesy of anna

“Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed.”

~ Frank Lloyd Wright

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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.

Selling Out

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.

10 Comments on Will You Sell What You Create, Or Create Something You Can Sell?

  1. Charlie says:

    A good blog Dan, and worthy of plenty of debate. Always food for thought and always highly motivational and very likeable!

    In a sense, I sometimes half jokingly say to people ‘don’t ever do a fine art degree’, as the tuition attempts to break every single notion of what art is, has been, and can ever be, how it functions in society and as such the fine art degree attempts to help the individual being ‘tutored’ awaken to this concept, and to his ‘voice’ – his message and his way of working. For example, Since the artist Marchel Deuchamp put a urinal into a gallery and signed it in the 1920s -he broke every single rule, he was also saying Who says this is art? Who makes art, what stops me from signing something that someone else made – notions of authenticity and authorship. Now Im not saying it is my favourite art at all, but it had a worthy place. In one stroke it ended elitism, and at the the time the art world could only respond by accepting it as it was so radical. Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Shepherd Fairey all played with these ideas in different ways as more modern artists! These are all questions that you are met with on a first year art degree course which is why you have to get *philosophical* to an extent. Men in White Coats are knocking as we speak looool! For instance, Why should a gallery be the preserve of the trained, priviliged master who had the money or who was lucky enough to be able to draw – there are arguments for and against this – which is what makes art exciting for me. (I love drawing btw! just adding to debate in my limited idiotic form lol) The ‘truth’ for me is, of course, to be found in the middle ground, between an artists technical mastery- a relationship with his/her chosen medium and materials and secondly the message or what the artists is trying to say. On our art course we are advised that if we have nothing to say we may as well give up, which i knew all along, but is harsh when you hear it from someone else.

    The most encouraging thing I heard from a friend on my course was that because we live in the ‘postmodern age’ i.e without so much boundaries – in part THANKS to Deuchamp, Hirst (even Tracey emin – no matter what you think of those guys) ANYONE can talk about art without being backed into a corner by the middle class, repressing others without formal qualifications etc etc. Before the Tate Gallery in London it would only have been middle class families engaging with exhibitions and art etc etc. So, we can do whatever we want now. Like you say, its become so wide that if you can find a market then it CAN happen. YEY!!!! I guess networking being the main key to the door though.

    It may interest you, google TOM MARTIN HYPER REALIST. He was on my course, sells his work in Plus One in London at 20k a throw, technically virtuosso.

    Perosnally I like art that is halfway between Design and fine art, and I love illustration especially. The fine artists hate it cos its too designy, the designers hate it cos its too arty ! (to use a massive generalization!) one of my best tutors loved all styles of art and simply said ‘what feels right in heart will lead to mind’, when I asked him about the difference between all the art forms and the amount of pretension within art, and for me, he was my best ever teacher! ’nuff said! Sorry for rambling, stick a fork in me looooool. Happy Christmas Dan! keep painting and working away, you are a gifted designer too. xxx

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Thanks for your always in-depth insights, Charlie 😉

      I think what your tutor said pretty much sums it up, do what feels right.

      Tom Martin’s work is pretty amazing! Almost indistinguishable from photography. Part of me thinks, why not just take a photo?

      • Charlie says:

        RE: Tom Martin, ‘part of me thinks, why not just take a photo?’ I agree, in a way when the novelty has gone your left with something perhaps even a little soul-less.

  2. Charlie says:

    btw, amidst all that shit, I forgot to add, I will be creating two types of work, one commercial , whilst keeping my ‘fine art’ ideas seperate, and just enjoying the fun of creating – hopefully this will work ….. eeek.

    btw, I know youre a painter, but have u tried printmaking if you like drawing (you seem to). have a go at some point if u havent, I think you would like intaglio and aquatint, the control of the computer almost, but the mastery of painting. The printmakers are down to earth, most work in workshops, look after one other, rembrandt, Escher, and they like design, process and solutions. And editioning makes work democartic and purchasable, whilst each copy is unique and not just a printout….

    Thats where Im at loooooool 😀 x

  3. Emma says:

    Wow this is food for thought! I think it is about personal integrity, and also being realistic about your individual circumstances. I think there is a market for anything created with passion and skill. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with doing something you’re not 100% passionate about, in order to get to where you want to be. It’s all about balancing the two things, especially in the beginning. At the moment I am creating things for family and friends only, so I am just making what I enjoy and finding my style before I think about anything else 🙂 Great article by the way!

    • Dan Johnson says:

      Absolutely, there’s no glory in being a starving artist. As long as you have integrity then I think anything goes.

      If something isn’t selling, it’s ok to try something else that is more likely to sell. There’s no limit to one person’s creativity:

  4. Robin Smith says:

    Many struggling artists, creators, painters, writers — would maybe love the chance to sell out. But then, would the reality be worth it? I walked away from a publisher who wanted my drama TV script flipped as a teen comedy; I really have it at heart as a drama with some humor. Would that be selling out if I’d said yeah sure …. teen comedy? In writing children’s books, I know the not selling out part of my mind says tell a good story that’s going to be fun for KIDS, not just the adults vetting it for marketing. Sometimes the complaints about selling out are hurled at those that simply put out a terrific product or creation, got noticed and sold… I see them as successful at adjusting to market demand! Which I hope to be right there with them some day. Are there lines I won’t cross , certainly. But I want to be read and published and bought; painters and writers want to reach the audience. And why shouldn’t we? As this article states, selling out is a personal thing, it’s what’s ok to you and what’s just too far no matter the money involved? Most of us starting out, just dream of getting to the place where selling out is a problem or possibility at all!
    And if Banksy should see this, LOVE Unbrella GIrl, love Erik Wahl – you guys should be buddies —
    I have one of Erik Wahl’s John Lennon paintings on a packing box! He only gives paintings to charity, and makes his living with key note speeches and his books, like UNThink. He’s found a way to make art pay, while it helps charity — now that’s not selling out! It can be done. Pink paid $10K for one of Erik’s paintings at auction for a charity fighting abuse to women.

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