In the mindset of artists and creatives there is this divide between selling out and staying “real.” Over drinks one night, Tim (with whom I had an ongoing bet during 6×6) he tells me about how he used to be in a band but got tired of being poor so he quit and got a job instead. Tim declares, “I didn’t sell out, I bought in. I bought into the system instead.” Now, that is a cleaver spin.

Wrestling with the big, abstract questions from time to time is great because it can help you get clear. Too often, I hear artists get into a rant about “selling out” and yet when prompted to address, what exactly they mean by that, they fumble to come up with any kind of specific answer. I suspect in the minds of artists, selling out is closely associated with losing the badge of honor that comes with being in the “starving artist” club.

Does success, critical and financial, mean you’ve sold out?
What did you sell exactly? Your pride? Honor? Integrity?

In Anthony Bourdain’s book, Medium Raw, he spends a lengthy chapter on the notion of selling out. I think he presents an argument that is worth examining.

He says, “Who in this world gets to do only what they want — and what they feel consistent with their principles — and get paid for it? Well…I guess, me — until recently. But wait. The second I sat down for an interview, or went out on the book tour to promote Kitchen Confidential….surely that was kind of selling out, right?  … You fuck somebody for money, it’s cash on the barrel. You pick up the money, you go home, you take a shower, and it’s gone….but what about week after week of smiling, nodding your head, pretending to laugh, telling the same stories, giving the same answers as if they’d just — only now — occurred to your for the first time? Who’s the ho now? Me. That’s who.”

Is this why artists hate networking? Because it is a form of “selling out?”

I’ve spent a good portion of my time networking, smiling and telling the same stories, but I try to listen and converse with sincerity and genuine interest. I have no qualms with my desires to further my own career and promote the works of my artists. I see the very act of networking as a necessity. My art can’t speak, so I must speak for it. Does the very act of doing my job mean that I’ve sold out? When did the act of meeting people and sharing the details of your passion become dishonest or lack integrity? Granted, if you are disingenuous to start with then you could be acting a bit douchey. Are artists phobic of networking because it is associated with “selling out?” Is part of the desire to be represented by a gallery simply due to the artists themselves not wanting to hustle their own wares and sell? They would like someone else to do it for them? If so, how is that any different than a pimp – whore relationship? Larry Gagosain is simply a billionaire pimp.

Bourdain proceeds to tell a joke that illustrates the point with unmitigated clarity, “a guy in the bar asks the girl if she’d fuck him for a million dollars — and she thinks about it and finally replies, ‘well, I guess for a millions dollars, yeah…’ At which point he quickly offers her a dollar for the same service. “Fuck You!” She says, declining angrily. ‘You think I’d fuck you for a dollar? What do you think I am?’ To which the guy says, ‘Well…we’ve already established you’re a whore. Now we’re just haggling over the price.’ It’s a crude, hateful, sexist wheezer of a joke — but it’s as applicable to men as to women. To chefs as to any other craftsmen, artists, or laborers. I’d deluded myself for the longest time that there was….’integrity’ involved…or something like it. But as soon as I became a daddy, I knew better…. When my daughter came along and I continued to say ‘no,’ I knew I wasn’t saving my cherry for principle. I’d just been waiting to lose it to the right guy.”

Bourdain systematically seeks the council of his peers on the matter of selling out. When Bourdain asks Emeril why he continues to accept endorsement deals (when will enough be enough?) Emeril smiled tolerantly and began to list all the people working for Emeril Inc., all the people whose livelihood depends on him. Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud told Bourdain about all the talented, loyal chefs who have trained with them, helped them succeed and deserve to move up or have their own successes. It becomes a simple matter of expand — or lose them. Once your success reaches a certain level, it takes on a life of its own, and in order for it to survive, it must continue to grow and expand. Your responsibility at that point is no longer to yourself. A finer point Bourdain did not understand until his daughter entered the picture.

Be very clear with yourself. Are you holding on to the notion of selling out because of integrity, vanity or a sense of self-righteousness? They might feel similar but they are not the same. Are you afraid of having your membership in the “starving artist” club revoked? Did you ever consider all the ways you would be able to give back when you are successful?

Did Takashi Murakami sell out when he accepted commission from Louis Vuitton? What about U2 when they licensed their songs? The Murakami empire employs a lot of people and Murakami is nurturing of young artists who work for him. U2 might be the most mockable band in the world, but they raise an incredible amount of money for charity and causes that band members believe in.

If you truly believe what you do matters, that it deserves to be seen, tasted, read, heard, experienced, felt, understood; if you know in your heart that what you create will offer me delight, poke me in the eye and jump start dormant parts of my mind, then put this question to rest and do what ever it takes. Selling out or buying in is an exercise in semantics and best left behind once you are done with your MFA. Not sharing your art and talent with the world is perhaps more selfish and lacking in integrity than being successful.

Related Links:
How Clearly Do You See Yourself?
Misconceptions on Life of an Artist
The Authentic Self

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