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July 1, 2008

"selling out"

A while back I taught a course at ITP/NYU called "The Creative Act" . The following year I proposed a course called "Selling Out", but circumstances (the show) made it difficult for me to commit. SVA just announced a new MFA program and has invited me to think about designing a class for them, and I'd like to resurrect this idea. And, of course, I'd like your thoughts (cuz i like you).

I won't get into the details or goals of the course quite yet, but i'd love to start by asking you a question. If you wanted to, could you (personally) "sell out" right now, and if so, how would you go about it.

UPDATE :: to be a little more clear - the course would be about exploring the relationship between commerce and creativity from an personal standpoint - what does that relationship mean to you... not a how-to guide on "selling out".

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Comments (57)

There's not much I could personally do to sell out (book deal for an untested author, anyone?), but I'll offer some thoughts on selling out in general.

Most often it comes up as it relates to musicians. Some fan will say "dude, their latest album sucks so hard, they totally sold out." Of course this person is basically making a parody of themselves as a music fan. They feel betrayed because they discovered this band way back when, way before anyone else knew about them, back when they were good, back when they were untainted by the mainstream, man. Basically the cost of "making it" as a band is the loss of these hardcore fans.

In the view of these types of fans, the band always sells out on purpose. They tend to see in such naive and black and white terms.

In terms of authors and actors, it can be more easily spotted when someone is turning out pap just for the cash. But not every good-looking script turns into a great movie, and writing can be just as risky an affair. There's still some gray area.

Now for many artists being commercial is what they are, so who's to say they sold out? Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami are our latest versions of commercial, pop artists. Pop has always concerned itself with mass production and consumerism, so the consumption of this art is only natural. (Can I buy anyone a Murakami-print Louis Vuitton handbag?)

And as for the non-pop artists (we'll pretend here that there are real distinctions between movements in art); everybody's got to make a buck. "Selling out" would seem to mean compromising one's artistic vision in order to make a few (or a lot of few) dollars, I would argue it's all just matters of degree. There's no such thing as a "pure" artist, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Posted by: Johannes at July 1, 2008 5:50 PM

For me, I absolutely have the opportunity to sell out. It comes down to the difference between what drives me and what I'm good at. I find myself drawn to creativity and expression, but I have a significant lack of imagination and drive, so my artistic efforts are difficult and amateurish. But I'm very good at my mind-numbing job, and there is significant growth potential. Selling out would literally simply require that I make the decision to forego creative expression professionally, walk over to my upper management, and suggest that they structure a new department around my particular skillset. They love what I do, so I have that opportunity. If only I loved it as much.

Posted by: Jordan Molina at July 1, 2008 5:56 PM

Selling Out... not to be confused with Being Successful, would mean to me doing something I'm not passionate about for money, Like when I was a stagehand for 18 years.
Would I make a video for GE if I could do it my way, yes. Would I make a video for GE if I had to kiss ass and had little creative control BUT, would make a bunch of money and lead to other creative pursuits... yes but I'd bitch miserably throughout the process.
But as far as a course on selling out... I teach the students how to walk the line and get what they want, while having "THE CLIENT" think they were getting their needs met also.

Posted by: atomic elroy at July 1, 2008 6:16 PM

Would you consider Paul McCarthy's chocolate santa butt plug selling out?

Posted by: atomic elroy at July 1, 2008 6:20 PM

Does a definition of 'selling out' matter? One man's sell out factor could be another's moral imperative

Posted by: RobK at July 1, 2008 7:10 PM

Nope. Wouldn't sell out. I'm with Bill Hicks on the marketing and advertising folks :D

Posted by: kaninchen at July 1, 2008 7:20 PM

What an interesting topic. The balancing act between art and making a living, supporting yourself and maybe a family. My secret dream is to be a writer, because I love to write, need to write. But I'd also like to support myself with my writing.

Posted by: jodi at July 1, 2008 7:34 PM

i am currently trying to decide between a job teaching drama to disabled young people and a starter job in television.

Posted by: bex at July 1, 2008 7:42 PM

"Selling out" the act of no longer making art/artistic works for pleasure but for profit.
This implies that others will have control over and the work will suffer and or be rushed.
Its what I dream of... I'm willing to compromise any artistic value. (www.mikes3d.com)

Selling out is all about being successful, financially. does anything else really count? Fame? blah, were are talking about a career.
I don't think tricking the clients is a good message... Educating the client is.
There is a big difference between what a client thinks they want, and what they need. Your job is to find what they need and show them why. Its NOT to do just what you want, under any guise.
I really feel that if you cant enjoy working for a client and are always itching to do your own project. That you are either doing the wrong thing, or going about it wrong. Perhaps you need to work for yourself, instead of "demanding" clients, or find new clients.

Always get a contract!
Don't be afraid to say no, just not too often.

Posted by: Mike at July 1, 2008 7:47 PM

In the broadest sense I would define selling out as compromising personal (and artistic, if applicable) integrity in exchange for commercial success.

By that definition I'm already a sell-out. Years ago I chose to forgo passions I once pursued as careers (piano, photography, astrophysics, writing -- if you can't make money doing it, I've tried it) in favor of more financially lucrative pursuits that I'm not passionate about.

Though on the flip side, my sell-out day job allows me to enjoy my passions with a certain degree of freedom that I might not otherwise have were I trying (and failing) to be the next Horowitz or Cartier-Bresson.

So you say sell-out, I say pragmatic (or maybe vice versa), let's call the whole thing off.

Posted by: Derek at July 1, 2008 7:51 PM

Is it strictly a "how to" class, or also a discussion of what "selling out" means to different people?

I've always been amused and/or disgusted (depending on my mood) by the absurd hypocrisy of fans complaining about their favorite artists selling out. Why should we consider it disgraceful for an artist to do something "just for the money" but perfectly acceptable for the rest of us to?

To my mind, "selling out" is only egregious when it involves a compromise of morals. If Michael Stipe decides to license an REM song for use in a commercial, I'm fine with that; why shouldn't he? I'd only think less of him if the commercial was for, say Exxon.

Posted by: Rubrick at July 1, 2008 7:56 PM

Ze - Do you think you have sold out in the conventional sense of the term? I don't have a copy of your CV on hand, but my impression of you is someone who is always very much in control of their creative output. Are you proposing to teach this course with a straight face, or is it one of those ironic titles?

Posted by: andrew at July 1, 2008 7:59 PM

I always feel bad charging for more than I think my work (freelance designer) is worth. So I don't overcharge, or I overwork. To start selling out I'd have to get used to over-charging, or re-evaluating what I'm worth.

Posted by: Jeff Werner at July 1, 2008 8:04 PM

I would spend the first quarter of my life in school and go tens of thousands of dollars into debt through college, then I'd drive to work 5 days a week just to be a slave to the man, and I'd faithfully pay my taxes to a corrupt government so they could fund they're wars and give subsidies to rich multinationals corporations.

Oh yeah, I'm doing that already.

Posted by: Tony at July 1, 2008 8:41 PM

I sell out every single day. Every time I turn around I'm doing something I wish I had the courage not to do. For me to genuinely not harm another person indirectly through my efforts to fill my personal needs I would have to work an awful lot harder. No matter what I buy there is something wrong with the way it came into existence or how it arrived in my home. I used to think of it as a "buy in" to the grand scheme of things - bank account, education, debt, mortgage, vehicle lease, oil consumption, clothing trends, packaging, communication devices, computers, etc. But it is also a sell out, because there are people out there who harm very little. Ya, for me a "sell out" is someone who has a standard for themselves that they don't keep. It can be in any facet of life.

Posted by: natisha at July 1, 2008 8:45 PM

If I were to sell out now, I'd get a bunch of credit cards and live my life on credit, over extend myself on a huge Mc Mansion mortgage, and drive a huge gas guzzling 'mobile, get a wii and play it all day, and spend all my free time in the mall. Or Walmart.

This is NOT my fantasy...just when I think of selling out, I think of giving up on ideals and living life the easy way...

Posted by: Anonymous Girl at July 1, 2008 9:11 PM

Could I sell out right now? And how would I go about it?

I don't think I could sell out if I had to be the one that made it happen. I am not even sure I would know how to go about it. I think _someone else_ would have to open that door for me and lead me through it.

Does it even count as selling out if you do it to yourself, if you're the one in control?

Is pandering to an audience the same as selling out?

As a cartoonist/webcomic guy I sell a few prints and things, I guess the way I would sell out is to find some kind of formula, some kind of stupid thing that people liked, and then just milking that _way_ past the point that there is any milk left. And then not knowing how to do anything else. Is that what selling out is?
I think that would be more soul-destroying than something like having one of my drawings advertising GM foods, or landmines.

Posted by: andrew at July 1, 2008 9:34 PM

i did a presentation on something along a similar vein once, and in research for it came across a great quote. "what punk calls selling out, hiphop calls cashing in." it's all a matter of perspective.

Posted by: jenks at July 1, 2008 10:12 PM

When I was in college (artskool) fine art kids often said illustration was "artistic prostitution" I sneered and replied that no they were thinking of graphic design. Usually the reply was "what's the difference?".

Now I'm in a degree program to update my GD skills and couple them with my established Illustration abilities. Basically... I grew up and realized design is hard core no matter what genre you're in.

Right now if someone approached me and offered me a job to draw pictures of random boring crap for a huge wad of money that comes in regularly.... I'd take it.
Why? Because selling out for a day job isn't the same thing (to me) as giving up my dreams or creativity... it's simply utilizing my skills to earn myself a comfortable lifestyle while pursuing my goals. Impermanent selling out isn't the same thing as not knowing your self worth.

Good luck on the course Ze, go mold some fresh young minds, make em think so you don't have to. ;)

Posted by: Kerri (aka PennyWylde) at July 1, 2008 10:22 PM

People generally don't think of scientific research as a creative act, but as a scientist I can tell you few other pursuits can more tangibly reward genuine creativity and original thought.

That being said I - and every other molecular biologist working today - am torn between two main options: either do basic scientific research for the good of the global knowledge base with relative intellectual and creative freedom (but toil for peanuts) or earn a healthy salary as a cog in some faceless multinational corporation.

The temptation to sell out is pretty much constant.

Posted by: ClockworkSoul at July 1, 2008 10:41 PM

hi all,
I am also a bit foggy on exactly what Ze is asking for here, but I think just the topic of Selling Out is one worth discussing and defining, because once any artist or craftsperson gets to a certain level of confidence in what they do, there is some kind of temptation to go over some kind of [individually set] line to Sell Out. the opposite of that being to Not Sell Out; or to remain true to your clients/fans/artistic trajectory???
And [a devilish question] if you do Sell Out, and no one notices or knows but you is it ok?
Is it only a bad thing if suddenly your SellOut action/effort is universally noticed and it's agreed upon that you've done so? and How do you UN-Sell-Out?
I think the question of Selling Out can be a very hair-splittingly personal thing, even tho there are lurid examples of this idea in every medium that money has ever touched.

however, I think that it can be possible, in some mediums/artforms/crafts that sometimes money isnt even really the main the currency that Selling Out garners one. Sometimes it can be notoriety and maybe fame but more like being the first one to claim authorship on an idea or technique. the first to attach your name to something [as well as sell it as a book or a seminar or even a religion]

I know that if an individual decides to promote themselves as the solo creator/producer/expert on a subject or technique or craft when really they just happen to be best able to market it, and not the only or first person to ever do what they've done, and then they explain it, or teach or sell it to the public for their OWN profit, sometimes [usually] to the detriment of those [one or many] who have actually authored and/or developed a particular idea/artform/thing.

Alot of money can annoy most people when they see someone getting it for repeatedly unremarkable efforts and/or via 'easy' ways {like the eternal evil of Nepotism!}
Really I think what will earn someone more wrath from others in their field, and even their own fans/consumers, is when they claim to be the sincere originator of whole chunks of an artform and profit from that when others came before them {and whom even may be inconveniently still around!} are ignored in their version of how they created it.

cases in point:
> musicians who use traditional jazz or blues and dont credit living musicians who wrote that music.
> people who re-discover some obscure [sometimes cultural] artform and re-present it and write some how-to book about it as if they are the only practitioners/experts on it.
> dancers/yoga/healing modality/even religion: people who barely change a discipline and then market it as their own new idea.

I think you can find an example in every modality/artform/media/industry of someone who crossed an invisible line for their own glorification and just pissed many people off and possible even stole from some.
maybe this was innocent, maybe it was not. maybe they had a backlash maybe not.

There are so many people who are so creative and who make and invent such beautiful things and many of them really really suck at marketing themselves. Conversely there are many many more people who are mediocre at best and yet are tenacious at self promotion and have resources and support that make it possible and even easy for them to make a million dollars. and some of those people are not evil, some are just really good and honestly clueless. Therefore they Sell Out ideas and work that isnt even all theirs sometimes.
sucks but it seems to be a situation that occurs in every medium, from science to art to music to poetry to academia to more recent media.

an interesting aspect of this topic is this : I know for darn sure it's gotta be somehow measurable that the time lapse between any human effort being somehow 'published' and it being sniffed out and assessed as a SellOut is WAY shorter than it has ever been in human history in this digital age of news/blogs/interest groups+internet. backlash is faster than ever before! but then we are also usually also more aware of [and maybe even connected to] bazillions of others locally and worldwide endeavouring to create in the same directions as we are! SO does that make us more hesitant to Sell Out? or does it make us more anxious to do it first?
or to strive to be as unique and inimitable as possible?

sorry this was sort of rambling and not very clear but I think this is a fascinating subject that SHOULD be discussed and analyzed as it relates to any medium, as well as just a question [among many] that you need to keep asking yourself as you work on things that matter to you.
I think using money as the barometer of Selling Out is too simple. It;s more the horrible feeling you get when watching some one crassly or erroneously interpret [then market and SELL] something that you really care about, primarily to prop up their own career/fame/progress.

thanks for opening this can of worms. you will be glad you did at some point!

Posted by: ssliska at July 1, 2008 11:22 PM

Selling out would be difficult at the moment. My current focus is live performance in the pochinko/gaulier clown traditions. Not so very attractive to marketing.

I DO have a short film that I've been offered cash for 5 years of licensing in certain or all regions of the globe. I'm not sure what advertisers will be flashing adjacent to my work or how they will choose to present it.

The basic trade there is many more people seeing my work and me getting a bit of cash for my hands being tied for any other opportunities that may come along. Suddenly my work doesn't belong to me to do with what I will, show who I will, somebody else makes those decisions. I'm finding that scary at this point. I haven't set a mental price yet. There probably is one, though. A price at which, yes, you can take my work and decide whatever you want to do with it and I have nothing to say in the matter because I'm sitting with a lump of dough. When I've spent years crafting a thing, knowing each intimate detail, and then cannot do whatever I like with it, that's pretty iffy. I may well be a tough nut to crack...
Money has never been a huge inspiration for me. Perhaps that's why I don't have any. Exposure is attractive, though. The internets are getting pretty full these days, harder each day to be heard above the din. Might be worth a little stifling to get some amplification. We'll see...

Posted by: Zea at July 2, 2008 12:04 AM

I've asked this question of a few people, the answer tends to be "a lot."

How much would I make playing classical piano in a Dubai hotel restaurant?

Posted by: Richard Walker at July 2, 2008 12:40 AM

To totally evade the questions you asked, I think that the only real way to sell out is to create something incredibly inartistic for a huge one time financial boost and because of that major flop be incapable of ever rendering your true artistic vision to a large audience. As such, I'm of the opinion that you can't really teach a course on selling out, because, frankly, how often does that happen? Further, as a writer (unpublished) I feel like no amount of money could make me totally cater to a publisher/audience/etc., but at the same time, if you aren't pleasing these people, your work won't have impact anyway. As such, the relationship between commerce and art would be the same as the relationship between commerce and programing. If you are passionate, you program for you for free and for others for money. With art, you compose for you for free (unless you get lucky and people like what you are writing for you) and for everyone else for cash. There are my two cents.

Posted by: Tim at July 2, 2008 2:07 AM

I've been a practicing attorney for about 2 and a half years. At this point in my career, I know enough of the fundamentals of litigation that I could probably become an associate at a big law firm with relative ease. That would mean, in the city where I live, a likely six-digit salary.

To get that kind of money, though, I'd have to work regular 50+ hour weeks with bare minimum vacation time, working in a cutthroat environment, getting shit on by my higher-ups, living in constant fear of layoffs, doing rote work, all to make sure that Halliburton can keep making prefabricated concentration camps.

Right now I work for a small law firm that functions as a mutually supportive team, where I have several attentive mentors who respect me as a peer; I get to do interesting, rewarding work, and have the flexibility to take a day off and, say, hang out at the beach if we're not terribly busy. The main thing is that I get my work done, which I do.

I'm fairly comfortable, but I'm certainly not getting rich. Thankfully, I'm more professionally satisfied with the actual work I'm doing than I ever thought I'd be. Someday soon I will probably need to earn more if I ever want to pay off my loans, but I'd like not to have to go the big firm route.

Posted by: Seth at July 2, 2008 2:14 AM

There are potentially lots of definitions of selling out.

This is tricky. Does it mean "don't quit your day job and stay with something mundane and personally compromising because if you actually feed yourself that way"? (See: bitterness)

I feel like I've sold out, but only insofar as I am *not* doing what I love. I spend hours every day doing something I am not fully committed to. I've lost myself and my own vision. I'd love to make money (and by this I mean pay for rent/food) doing something I'm passionate about.

I think personal integrity (as Derek said) really encompasses what selling out is. That is, giving up personal vision/values for money. And in this case, I have, insofar as I don't love what I do.

Another reason why I find this question is so tricky is that we are in this incredibly unique place/time where we have the luxury of questioning the role of creativity in our daily lives. Most of the world still lives hand-to-mouth. It makes me feel tremendously guilty when I think about questions like this.

It makes me wonder where my time/energy/passion should *really* be applied and certain that it is often selfishly spent.

Posted by: ingrid at July 2, 2008 4:40 AM

I think in order to sell out I would have to be letting someone down. So, deciding on a career that makes tons of money over one that doesn't isn't selling out, unless I have a ton of talent and I'm letting myself down. And I haven't. OTOH I don't make tons of money either...

Do I have the opportunity of selling out? Not really. I have a blog with about 100 followers, but no-one is going to pay me for that. If someone did offer me large amounts of money for it then I suppose that would be selling out. And I suppose I would do it, too, because money = security, and putting the security and safety of those I love comes before anything else.

Posted by: shadowfirebird at July 2, 2008 5:17 AM

I work for a tiny software company that can't seem to find a place for itself. Selling out for me would be putting on the marketing smile and telling our prospective clients that it doesn't matter what their problem is, we have the cure. It's amazing how you can justify preposterous claims with a little rhetorical creativity. I consider myself half sold-out already and it doesn't feel good. Pretending to feel good about a product you don't believe counts as selling out.

The upside is that it has motivated me to get some of my side projects off the ground so that I can drop this gig.

Posted by: Hyperbolic Dan at July 2, 2008 11:03 AM

Let me co-opt a Winston Churchill quote to explain my feelings about selling out:

Never, never, never, never, never sell out.

I don't even take commissions, I'm that passionate about never allowing my personal artistic vision to be compromised. If people don't want what I have to offer, there are other artists out there who *will* prostitute themselves for money. I'm not one of them.

Have I had the opportunity? Yes. Did I take it? No. Do I miss the money? No. If you're doing what you love, the money--enough of it--comes. If you're not doing what you love, no amount of money will ever be enough.

Posted by: Brenda at July 2, 2008 5:45 PM

No. I could not sell out if I wanted to. Nothing to sell out in my opinion.

Well, if not speaking of money making, there are some things anyone could sell out. Shifting of values or standards to get something desired. I could sell out in that way and get a mate by burying my own talents, skills or goals. But that just ends badly. Or one could sell out to a culture or movement easily. That happens all the time.

Probably more people sell out for connection than for money or fame no? Get the right clothes, hit up the cool people, do something dramatic, pledge, vow, grovel and use much hair product. Use the lingo.

Posted by: boo at July 2, 2008 9:32 PM

If this is for the D-Crit program, I'm one of the incoming MFA students and I say: anything you want to teach, I want to learn. And as far as selling out, I feel like I've already done it. Professional design: you think you'll be expressing your creativity. Except you're really just providing a service for a fee. So in the end the guy paying the bill is the guy who gets to piss all over your work, and then it doesn't look like your work anymore. And then you feel really sad and then you go to grad school so you can be a writer and experience a totally different set of circumstances. Right???

Posted by: MrsJones at July 2, 2008 11:50 PM

i think that selling out is being anything less than who you really are.

loosing self truth, as it were.

i remember that there was this class in art school where we had to push our paintings -- paint and paint and paint until they were ruined. in this way we learned when and where our boundaries were.

i love the idea of this class because it can afford the opportunity to explore that in a safe way.

and by the way, my background -- went to art school, got my senior thesis project on art and technology picked up by the village voice which lead me down a road to be hired by bell labs - back when that meant something.

over 10 years later i am still in high tech. i am good at what i do, it is a gift that i share with the world, and i feel really lucky that early on in my career i discovered a place that would allow me to play and get paid well.

selling out for me isn't about money - it is about being less than who i am and playing small because you think that is what you need to do to get by. and playing small could be manifested as a commercial success, if it is counter to your love.

however, just because you get paid to do what you love doesn't mean you sold out.

thank you so much for posting this, i have learned a lot from the comments and i hope you do teach this class.

Posted by: greta at July 3, 2008 11:52 AM

I had to think about my creative talents and if anyone would even want to buy my sell outs. Since I don't think any of my crochet projects or drawings or rhyming poems are in high demand, the only thing I could sell out are my relationships with people. I could write out secrets I said I'd keep or intimate conversations we'd had or sweet memories that make us warm, but I'd never do that. The end.

Posted by: Elle at July 3, 2008 5:33 PM

I could take up my offer of English and Philosophy that I delayed for a year after my A Levels. I could get the part-time job and the leadership skills at the student union. I could write essays about gothic novels and post-modernism, Wuthering Heights and Hegel, etc and etc. I could then get a job somewhere, anywhere in England and work the 9-5 and slowly progress through the ranks until I impress my relatives back in Ireland. Especially since every job requiring half a brain needs a degree in England, I could practice my stapling and smooshing of coffee and etc. I could do the whole, find a deposit for an apartment, get a car, go shopping every Saturday. For me, selling out is buying in to the whole culture I live in, which is a scary thought. :(

Posted by: Amy at July 3, 2008 8:02 PM

For me, selling out involves giving every aspect of yourself to whomever is willing to to listen until you have nothing else to give. Each Wasted Moment I move a little closer into the aspect where I've run out of things to give, and now I have to work on creating more things for me to give away. I personally can only get close to selling out, where there is nothing else to sell, but then I find a way to get a bit more to sell.

I guess I'll really sell out when there is no one else there to "buy" what I'm selling.

Posted by: Gordon at July 4, 2008 2:37 AM

This may not fit the examples you're seeking exactly, but I work in a zoo and so while we don't really have such a hard line between "commercial" and "creative" there is a bit of a choice we make daily between entertainment and education.

The pull between being there for the animals vs being there for the public -without either a good zoo cannot survive- leads to compromises all the time.

Large colourful graphics means not as much animal info, but also means more ppl are likely to read what info is there.

What we end up doing the most is making signs child friendly, giving caretakers something "to do" with the kids whilst sneaking in some knowledge.

We then save our heavy info sessions for animal talks and encounters, the bigger the entertainment the more facts you can squeeze in. "Yes Jimmy, the otter is good at balancing a ball, did you know they are highly endangered in the wild and YOU can help protect them?"

If I could just make every sign a plea for ppl to stop littering/start recycling/buy locally and have it make an impact I would, but first they have to like the animals enough to care in the first place. So we put happy smiley things around a lot and do what we can, when we can.

Most days it doesn't feel like enough, but yah...you gotta do something, right?

Posted by: helsbells at July 4, 2008 10:42 PM

oh god i wish i could
for the past few months i have been making music to request with the goal of reaching the point where i receive enough requests to make charging for them, songs to wear pants to-style, justifiable and sensible
currently i only just recieve enough requests to keep me busy

Posted by: Nivi at July 5, 2008 2:01 PM

Ah - I teach at a music camp in the summer that's serious about music and semi-serious about sports. The faculty play on recitals during the season, and we are asked to consider our audience for programming(read - don't get TOO esoteric on us, chumps).

Last year i was new and picked something my friend hinted that owners of the camp would like - this worked well. Don't get me wrong, I liked the music, but I gravitate toward more contemporary stuff that I consider cool. This is where my best expression comes forth.* So, this year we submitted pieces,and one of the instructors and I submitted a twinkle fingers/flashy trashy piece alongside some more substantive works. My modern items were put on the waiting list, so if someone cancels I'll be asked to go on later in the summer.

The pieces I have to choose are all great listens and I've turned a lot of curmudgeons on to new music with each of them. Still, some are more accessible than others. There's a good chance my turn will come, and I've been thinking of asking for input from my colleagues, yet I suspect they'll choose one of the more upbeat pieces instead of the more medidtative/series of event compositions. This COULD be for the best, but I've also noticed that the kids here - hell, people anywhere - tend to enjoy a good performance no matter what the music is.

That's my art vs. commerce dilemma du mois (julliet ou aout). Rely on myself or others/the help of others to make the best decision. In the back of my mind I also think about the fact that I don't have tenure at this camp and I'll have more freedom to experiment once that happens. So, we'll see/hear the result in 3 weeks.

Hmmm...did I answer what this MEANS to me? Possibly. Just that it affects my choices when job security is low, and feel freer to follow my own career path wen security is greater. For my personal life, I do what the hell I want.

*CD coming out by the summer's end. There's a string spin design on the back of the CD booklet!!

Posted by: gypsy sister at July 6, 2008 1:59 PM

Sorry, this is long, but it's along similar lines to something else I've been thinking about recently, so I have some thoughts stored up on this topic. I hope this is in some way useful.

It seems to me that "selling out" consists, ultimately, of lying in order to receive some reward. Art is communication, and we look to art to explain / make-sense-of the world around us. This has two components, one epistemological and one moral. I think that all art necessarily conveys two messages: "This is how the world is," and "This is how the world should be." Every person has their own judgment on those questions that is unique, and because it is unique, that judgment is precious, not only to that individual but to all of us. Put another way, every person is capable of enriching our sense of the Truth, and when they honestly communicate to the rest of us their notion of what is and what ought to be, they give us a tremendous gift.

However, the key to that sentence is the word "honestly." Selling out occurs when the communication is not honest. The artist conveys a description of the world that is not consistent with his/her actual belief, and thus deceives the audience. It could be that the communication says "this is how the world is," when the artist does not perceive it that way, or "this is how the world should be," when the artist does not subscribe to that moral view. Or it could be that the communication conveys an is/ought view such that, though the artist does not necessarily disagree with the view, the artist hasn't thought about it sufficiently to convey the view with the level of confidence that the piece of art conveys to the audience. Either way, the communication is hurtful to the audience's attempt to understand their world.

And it has to be for some reward, which I think was missed by a few posts above. Some people lie (knowingly convey a falsehood), or bullshit (convey information confidently when there is no justification for that confidence) without any desire for gain. In "selling out" however, the artist/communicator knowingly lies or bullshits for a reward.

So an example might be a rock band. Rock and roll is a good example because its whole raison d'etre is to convey some truth about how the world is and should be, rather than parrot societal conventions. If a band cuts a record that accurately describes their view of the world, and then later cuts another record where they agree to change the message in order to use their previously-earned moral authority to convey the message of their new paymaster, (and thereby deny their audience their true views) that's selling out. That new corporate message might be some version of "conform," or "consume," or whatever, but that's not really relevant here.

Some people here look at "selling out" as not following your passion, and I don't think that's quite right. It's related, for sure, but rather the harm there is to the actor, not the audience, and it somehow seems less morally objectionable to hurt oneself than another. (Although all of the rest of us may be hurt indirectly by being deprived of the potentiality of some unique contribution from that person).

I think the group you might really want to interview on this question is trial lawyers. (Sorry Seth, hopefully you're not a litigator). A lawyer frequently employs tools of moral authority to advance claims that are at least dubious, for pecuniary gain, which seems to be the definition of selling out. If the argument advanced is genuinely held, fine, more power to them; but if it's not genuinely held, it seems wrong, and blameworthy.

But, all above being said, we all have to eat too. It's not easy.

This is off the cuff and a little sloppy, but hopefully its understandable. There has to be someone who has written something about this somewhere? The Wikipedia article is useless.

Posted by: Jake at July 6, 2008 11:25 PM

for me, art has always been more for my own personal tastes than anyone else. i thought that all artists worked that way, for some reason - completely masturbatory. i usually only sell the paintings i make that i don't like. i can't imagine getting rid of most of them, though.

it was only a few years ago that i first heard the opinion that artists should, and in fact, are obligated to pander to an audience and to critics. i don't know why it never dawned on me before, but for some reason, when i heard it put that way, it felt so cynical and, well, wrong.

i'm still getting used to the idea of art for other people. i guess i always just thought that people create what they want, and if someone else liked it, it was just a coincidence, or they had something in common.

so naive...

Posted by: lorn at July 7, 2008 12:37 PM

I just made this up:

Live the way you want to, and see if you get fed.
If you dont you wont survive and ur gonna end up dead.
Or Wait it out, go hungry, and hope your ship comes in
Then burn out, give up, sell out, and forget ur greatest sin
Go get your million dollars, your house, your wife and children
And dream about your rockstar life, and how it shoulda been

//selling out - amost everybody does it, but nobody publicly admits it. Its a fact of life - What's to get ze?
////'children' and 'shoulda been' was a bit of a stretch, but whatevs
/and i sold out a looooong time ago

Posted by: j.w. at July 7, 2008 1:55 PM

I'll to go straight to the heart of what it means to sell out. Here's a quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama (found when I flipped open my book of things to think about today).

"The threshold between right and wrong is pain."

Taking money for one's art is not necessarily selling out. Compromising one's self or art to make a buck is selling out. There's a sick little feeling in the heart and belly that will tell you when you're going on the cheap. Note: this feeling can be numbed with lots of food, inebriants, or constant mental chatter.

Selling out comes in levels, there's not just one moment, because at every moment redemption is possible. But the first falter is to say "yes!" to offers of money and fame when my heart says, "NO!!!!"

The next step would be to make my creations into something someone else wanted. Now, at that juncture I'm just going commercial on the side. I can still keep my good stuff pristine and holy! I sell out when I say, "yeah, my other stuff was no good."

The further I get from the childlike feeling I used to get from creating, the more I hate what I'm doing and feel like I'm under someone else's whip, the more completely I'm selling out.

Posted by: jeano at July 7, 2008 2:42 PM

Making money from something you enjoy doing does not necessarily equal selling out. I got an invitation recently to get studio in a cooperative artist/writer's space, but the organizer said that they were all about making art, not money, and there could be no events there that charged admission, so that means i couldn't do the workshops there that help to support me. I don't understand why we have to be so negative about money or look down on artists, musicians, and writers who are wanting pay for their work. Everyone needs money to survive. If they don't get it directly, they get it indirectly lving in their parent's basements or otherwise sponging off other's efforts. Nothing is truly "free." I'm not trying to "make a million dollars." I live quite frugally so I can live the creative life I want to live. I don't believe that my desire to charge for what I have to offer makes me a sellout, or diminishes my status as a creative.

Posted by: efemmeral at July 9, 2008 7:22 AM

I started dancing when I was 3 yrs. old. It became my career for the next rest of my life - until I turned 50 yrs. old. Now - due to things beyond my control (unless you're Hindu and then this all my karmic fault) I am an office girl - working for a hard money lender and real estate company.
Until a couple of years ago this would have been totally selling - working for money? instead of living from hand to mouth and being an artist? out you bloody stain out! ok - 8 months later and I'm loving it - I'm not sure why. It's totally outside of my experience, it's something I've had very little interest in (business in general) and I'm finding it challenging, exciting, fulfilling. So I guess long story short what I use to call selling out- in a space-time continuum long since gone - is now what I call fun - I'm dressing fancy - getting respect along with a regular paycheck - able to save for a future that at 20 yrs. old I never thought I'd have (you know die young and leave a good looking corpse.)
I'm not sure if this gives you a different perspective on the subject - but if this is something you'd like to know more about feel free to e-mail me. happy happy joy joy bisou bisou bye

Posted by: suzanne at July 9, 2008 3:35 PM

The question of the relationship between commerce and creativity is pretty fascinating.

I think for me the biggest issue is whether money gets in the way of creativity.

But realistically, while money can get in the way of the creative process, it can also aid it.

See, I've got this band. We all work regular jobs and do the band on the side. Were we to have the opportunity to "sell-out" - maybe have a song in a movie or commercial, we'd certainly jump on it.

Making money from your creative ventures obviously can be good because it can free you up to have more time to spend on your creative ventures.

Also, nobody doesn't like to get paid to do what they love.

So, it kind of depends on how you define "selling-out." I think Ingrid brought up a good point, too. If you give up your personal vision and value for a day job and security rather than accept money for your art, isn't that a kind of selling out?

I guess for me, making money isn't the point of my music and art, but it would certainly be NICE.

Posted by: joshua at July 9, 2008 7:20 PM


(c'mon you don't even know me, how do you know you like me? I bet you don't really.)

Posted by: sc at July 9, 2008 8:10 PM

The idea of 'selling out' is inevitably tied to that of success. Our wizen elders impress into young minds the idea that goal to happiness is to "find something that you love and can make money doing it".

However, professional hobo doesn't pay well. Nor does nomadic ne’er-do-well. (Trust me – I’ve looked!)

If this is what our society has summarized as the pinnacle of aspirations while on this pilgrimage to… wherever… we must come to terms between two extremes:

What can you accept? A life comfortable? Or a comforted mind? What would nag at you more – the empty stomach and leaky roof, or the aspirations and ideals tucked away in the recognition of reality?

Posted by: Tel at July 10, 2008 11:39 PM

look at it this way....
if you, Ze Frank, started an
Art Camp for Amazing Children
and all the children were totally bright and funny
lets say 9-13 year olds
lets say it is on Nantucket (or some other great island)
the weather is perfect every day
no problems encountered
fairy tale perfect
the children remail 9-13
they love art
they love coming to camp
within ten years
you would feel that your great art adventure
was a ball and chain
of sorts...
end of story
any thoughts?

Posted by: MoJoRiSin' at July 11, 2008 4:19 PM

Selling out isn't just for creative types. I'm a scientist (which has its creative aspects) and frequently have the opportunity to sell out to the media. This would take the form of being a "talking head" for newspaper articles, radio shows and TV science documentaries either for pay or for the explicit purpose of promoting pop science books. What makes it selling out, rather than professional service, is that it would require me to simplify my science to the extent that it is not longer an accurate representation of the research. I think this is what artists mean by selling out; that they have to change their 'product' to appeal to the masses and this is deeply upsetting if you believe your original work had more integrity. Does this make sense?

Posted by: Lisa at July 11, 2008 8:44 PM

As a music teacher, I refuse to charge for instruction (it's a long story) and I make my books and workshops freely available online.

To pay the bills I sell instruments and hard copies of my books. Over the last few months we have expanded the business by contracting small wood shops to produce high quality American made instruments.

It is not a matter of selling out because my main goal making music instruction freely available is never compromised.

You can keep your ideals and do business - but to do so you have to be willing to break new ground and create your own opportunities.


Posted by: Patrick Costello at July 13, 2008 7:21 AM

I love the ambiguity of the title... "selling out" also means selling all of the seats in the house or all of the copies in the edition.

I recommend the Robert Frost poem "Two Tramps in Mud-Time" for a lovely text on the topic.

More thoughts later.

Posted by: Michael Jolkovski at July 15, 2008 3:19 PM

If selling out = being untrue to oneself for gain in money, popularity, etc then it's needs to involve the deep question of what's true to yourself... and this is a moving target throughout life. Miles Davis could have sold out by recordings variations on Kind of Blue over and over -- the first one was true to himself (I presume) but if he had made it into a formula it could have been a form of selling out.

To answer your question: my day job is as a psychoanalyst, something I find great value and satisfaction in. Selling out would involve doing a work i don't personally believe in, I suppose. I've tried differnt things on for size and then discovered they weren't for me. The process has helped me be more sure about what I am and am not. I'm glad for the trial-and-error of it all. Every week I feel I'm finally learning how to do what I do, and it's been almost 25 years. I've never had a boring day.

There are things I could do that I would consider b.s. that could bring in some nice money. These never seem to be real options -- not because I think I have some kind of special integrity, but because I would be so bored and miserable doing them. I'd rather sell real estate. So for me the definition of selling-out would be doing work I don't actually believe is valuable.

But a creative person does need to wake up every day and find the work that's truest. This will involve some surprises about what this turns out to be.

Selling out isn't always about money. The devil seduced Faust with the promise of knowledge. Artists sell-out for approval or cool, as well. I find that the uncertainty of whether one's work is worthwhile or not wears people down -- and a situation that provides approval and reassurance is a safe haven from this strain and anxiety. This can be very seductive.

What an endlessly interesting topic. I wish I could be there to see what you do with it.

Posted by: Michael Jolkovski at July 15, 2008 4:09 PM

If selling out was only black and white it would be an easy judgable decision to make. Unfortunately life is in shades of grey. The basic choice is doing what you really want or doing what seems the most reasonable or practical at that point of time. It doesn't only go for creativity, but for all life-choices. I'ld like to be a musician, if I wouldn't sell out (on my core me), I'ld be a musician and live on welfare the larger part of my life, because I wouldn't be a very good musician. So based on practical reasons I chose a different career and I'm still an amateur musician. If your believe in what you do is extremely strong, you keep following your own path and accept the practical consequences like not having an income, having only a small audience or not getting a record deal. It takes a strong will and fierce persistence to remain true to your own ideas no matter what. A good example is Prince's reinvention of himself to get out of a record deal that didn't give him the freedom he needed.

Posted by: Amiek at July 22, 2008 4:12 AM

I thought I sold out years ago when I started working in T.V. at a small station in Toronto called "Citytv". Moses Znaimer started Citytv years ago. As it turned out it was one of the most innovative television stations in the world. I worked and travelled with some amazing, creative people. It was the type of place that if you had a great idea they would just say "go, do it!". Now I sit in the middle of the biggest "sell out" as the former owners sold to corporations. Citytv used to be one of the only creative television stations in Canada. Sad to see it die, because it was the end of an era in Canadian television. Changing things from the inside out is impossible when it comes to corporations because you are merely a digit. Do you as well sell out by virtue of being stuck inside the larger body who sold out hundreds of creative people?

Posted by: Lisa Lightbourn-Lay at July 22, 2008 6:44 AM

i think the previous comments concerning the definition of selling out are intriguing. i mean, are we talking about being untrue to your self expression/art in order to get money? allowing someone to control you in order to gain acceptance? being a jerk and squelching someone who has a new voice, new ideas, new visions in order to gain power?

my second year of writing for television i realized that i wasn't being an artist, i was being a drone... or "fodder" as my boss used to call the staff.

and for awhile i was indignant and self righteous. i was a writer for fuck's sake. an artist...

yeah, right. i soon realized that my writing had nothing to do with art. i was helping others create escapism for the masses and money for the corporations.

but then i thought about "sullivan's travels". what if sometimes the masses need a bit of escape?

and what if i could be subversive... slip something into my writing that might cause people to open their minds around an issue that they would normally dismiss? actually make them stop and think for themselves instead of blindly being lead by the media market.

can the act of creation be about how to be creative, passionate and new within the confines of old, stable, opiate-for-the-masses hour drama television?

mystic wild man jan cox once said (and i'm paraphrasing) that living on the edge is the most creative thing you can do. and anything that you create there is subversive. but the machine (society) eats everything... twisted sister is now muzak. but that doesn't mean there isn't constantly an edge to live on.

in order not to "sell out" one must be in constant revolution. which is fine and wondrous... and exhausting. sometimes the revolutionaries like to sit down to a nice cup of coffee and enjoy a bagel and a soft bed.

so, again, the creative task becomes about being in constant revolution and yet make it look to those who employ you that you're a smiling team worker so you can reap the benefits, thus continuing to fund the revolution.

comedian's do it best. court jesters. they can get away with it because they make people laugh. and it's scientifically proven that laughter allows the brain to open and accept new concepts (i just made that up but i think it should be true). but not all of us are funny.

my fantasy is that i'm a silent saboteur, like a virus that doesn't kill the host but creates slow mutation and evolution of the host organism. because, truthfully, financial anxiety sucks.

Posted by: Sara Cooper at August 2, 2008 1:39 AM

Selling out in my mind means being successful with a feeling that you need to equivocate or apologize for the success you have. If people give you lots of money for exactly what you want to do, you feel good about it, and lots of other people like to watch/listen to/look at what you do, why not?

Unfortunately, many creative people are in need of financial security (and approval) and can be manipulated into a situation they later regret. In the other direction, many fans of artists don't evolve in the same direction as the creative people they idolize, and when the artists change the fans do not want to go along with them.

The issue reminds me of a series of lectures a friend gave to me. They address the ideas of mainstream culture v. high culture, commerce and the "coolness" factor. I found them available at the site below, you might enjoy:


"Are commerce and culture perennially at odds with each other? Does the marketplace inevitably corrupt artists? At most colleges and universities across the country, the answer to these questions would be "yes," but the Mises Institute offers another perspective.

Paul Cantor, Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is a pioneer in literary criticism from an Austrian perspective. Having studied with Ludwig von Mises, he has been working to counter the Marxist understanding of culture that dominates in the humanities today.

Conceiving of culture as a form of spontaneous order, he argues that market principles such as free trade and competition are as beneficial in the artistic realm as they are in the economy as a whole. He shows that commercial culture is at least as vibrant and varied as the elite culture championed by Romantics and modernists.

In this seminar, Cantor discussed a variety of case studies of commercial culture, including Shakespeare's theater, classical music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the serialized novel in Victorian Britain, the Hollywood studio system, and the development of the Fox network on television. He also considered the alternatives to commercial culture, from aristocratic and church patronage to totalitarianism and other forms of government support for the arts."

Posted by: Lara Klemens at August 4, 2008 3:32 PM

I think a lot of people self-righteously claiming they would never sell out, probably COULD never sell out.

Frankly - They're probably just not that good at what they do to justify anyone paying money for their art.

Secondly - the world does not owe you a living, or an audience - so you might as well get on with the business of balancing: a) staying true to your dreams and b) feeding yourself and your family.

Thirdly - creative people that consider themselves above taking menial jobs are not only wrong, but doing themselves a disservice.

Artiste photographers who baulk at the idea of taking $2000 to shoot a wedding because it's not art. Guess what - you'll learn more about photography shooting a wedding than sitting around at home playing wii.

Artiste musicians who baulk at the idea of playing dinner music because it's not their specific flavor of 1950s post-bepop progressive jazz.

Gimme a break.

Lastly - selling out and going mainstream doesn't cut off your opportunities to create "real art" - it only enhances them. Jobs come from jobs (particularly in the performance world).

And if you still feel conflicted. Turn off your television. Do your own stuff in your spare time. Meet some like-minded people. Get good at what you do.

If people aren't prepared to pay money for what you do - maybe they are not the ones with the problem ...

Posted by: Phil Willis at August 26, 2008 12:45 AM

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