I first heard the term “sellout” while in art school during a discussion on the subject; I’m not entirely sure why we were having this discussion, but it seemed everyone was in agreement that the one thing that guaranteed sellout status was a shift in values that alienated anyone who admired you as an artist.
When someone calls an artist a sellout, what they’re actually saying is, “I’m bitter and resentful that you’re gaining success and recognition and I’m not, so I’m going to try to make you feel bad in order to make myself feel better.” One might also refer to this as bullying, but I won’t for the sake of the argument. This is the definition I have more experience with.
If we are expected to subscribe to this hogwash, then we’re expected to believe in the validity of this equation:
ART + SUCCESS = “SELLING OUT”
Remember this equation because you will need it later.
If someone has ever called me a sellout I wouldn’t know it, because they don’t have the stones to say it to my face. From the very second I knew that I could be an artist, I wanted to make money at it—because if I want to do the things I love for the rest of my life then I have to make a living doing them or else I’ll have to survive by eating oil paints. The romantic notion of the starving artist living only on his inspiration is total B.S. and is completely unrealistic; poverty does not equal purity (another equation I would like you to remember). Because of this, wanting to make money as an artist is perfectly sensible.
However, most people are well aware that art isn’t something you get into if you’re looking to strike it rich. And when someone gives me a cocky smile and says, “I’m just trying to make some money,” I understand that they have no idea that the long road they’re headed down is paved with empty pockets and penniless piggy banks. Sure, money may come somewhere down the line, but in the beginning you spend most of your time being dirt poor. The psychopath in me finds it amusing because I know that if I tell them how much work it is they probably won’t believe me. They’re the people who are the quickest to let the word “sellout” drop from their mouths.
Never let someone make you feel bad because the art world kicked their ass and you’re still standing. Standing is hard when you’re a working artist, so it’s great when someone notices and is happy to acknowledge what you do. What I don’t get is why, if art is so innate to human civilization, are we discouraged from doing it on every level? If we “fail” then we have to contend with all the alcoholic, drug-addicted stereotypes; if we “succeed,” we are made to feel like we have sold our souls for money. The fluctuation between failure and success can change within the hour, and I only feel like a success when I don’t go to bed crying about it.
So, here’s what I want you to do the next time someone tries to judge how you go about your business in this manner. You look them straight in the eye and ask them to “do it better.” Because if they could do it better, than that’s what they would be doing instead of trying to make you feel bad for what they can’t accomplish. Because ART + SUCCESS = AWESOME.
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As an artist, if you don’t evolve, you die. Not literally, lying in the gutter surrounded by wine bottles with the bitter air of artistic contempt swirling around your corpse—though people still buy into that stereotype. It isn’t nearly that dramatic, but it is scary.
The realization that the style you’ve been comfortable working in is now something you’ve grown bored with is melancholic. It becomes exhausting to meet deadlines when you’re agonizing over incomplete work that you struggle to finish because you’re old methods frustrate you. You become resentful of other artists for showing off their new work and promoting their new exhibitions; you feel like everyone is leaving you behind. I always tell myself to keep moving forward; I say this to keep myself motivated and to stave off my spiral downward into insanity. It’s worked so far, but there are days when I wonder if I’ve gone as far as I’m meant to go. Maybe my journey as an artist stops here.
Once you’ve found a method that works, something that people will buy, you don’t want to change because you’re afraid that no one will want anything different. What if galleries don’t want to show your new work? What if publications don’t want to write about it? What if no one buys anything ever again? Some artists survive solely on the money their artwork brings in and evolving can be a big risk that greatly cuts into your livelihood.
Every artist has that fear; the fear that the pursuit of a creative career won’t become fruitful. For me, that fear manifests itself as working a minimum-wage job at Walmart, and having to do that demeaning Walmart chant every morning with the horrible Walmart dance and squiggle included.
Is the risk worth taking? Well, in some cases you don’t have much of a choice. Currently, I’m finding that not only am I bored with my work, but so is everyone else. I’ve told the same story in the same way too many times and no one, including me, is interested anymore and no one wants to buy what they’ve seen countless times for free. The world is bigger than the 8.5x11 inch pieces of paper I use to draw on, and my mind is expanding much further than my old methods can express. What was once my truth is no longer true and to continue to make work based in what is no longer true would be dishonest. I can’t lie to others that way, and I certainly can’t lie to myself, not while I’m trying to pursue the most honest part of who I am.
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Mainstream Guy DGI
A remix of this photo from a 1940 Minneapolis art show has emerged.
Since the 1970s, artist Cindy Sherman has been taking photographs that resemble portraits and film stills, in widely varying styles. The common thread: virtually all of Sherman’s photographs are photographs of herself. Read Jay Gabler’s review of the Cindy Sherman retrospective opening Saturday at the Walker Art Center.
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Cheryl Wilgren Clyne
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Chris Larson - Deep North (2008)
“Set into the snow, this abandoned house had the artist working in below zero temperatures to get the interior and exterior carved out just right. During the coldest months the dilapidated house was sprayed with thousands of gallons of water and left to freeze. The result was chilling, and at some points looks more like a thick coat of white acrylic.”
Minnesota artist Chris Larson is on the Tumblr Radar.
Tom Bluett - Installation at the National Portrait Gallery