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The Financially Successful Artist: Commercial Sell Out or Role Model?

Art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake. . . The old 10cc song played in my head as the annual Sparx in the City art event kicked off in Cleveland. Over 500 regional artists put out their wares and the city turned out to art walk at a number of locations.

I was stationed at the Galleria doing a live painting demo when a group of out-of-town artists unloaded from the trolley. They came to see and be inspired by others of their kind, and a dialogue soon developed about the business of visual art.

Participating Sparx artists were emerging artists, craft persons, locally accepted fine artists, unknown artists, commercial artists, folk artists and artist wannabes. With such a diverse group, the conversation invariably turned to questions about the definition of “real” art.

When does an artist cross that magical line and become a collectible “real” artist? When does that “real artist” go too far and become a commercial “sell out” to his or her peers? And why does profitability seem to be both a dirty word and the thinly veiled longing of our artistic society?

As a group, the artists from out of town all wished to be working full-time in their medium, making money at it. They commented on what was being exhibited at their local galleries with disdain. Many were looking for a way to get that break that would establish them as “real” artists—meaning they wanted to get recognized.

Some of the Sparx artists were at their tables, waiting for buyers, trying to make money. A few were, unapologetically, businesspeople as well as artists. The artwork at their tables was well executed and pleasant.

“Sell outs,” floated on the air.

Was it the pleasant non-confrontational images, or the fact that these artists were actually making money that caused this condemnation?

A house divided isn’t a pretty sight

It occurred to me that day at the Sparx that this conflict has its root in a longstanding division between fine artists and graphic artists.

Back in the day we called graphic artists “commercial” artists because their art was used for publicity and advertising – it was art with perfectly defined objectives, destined to simply sell another product.

Today the phrase “commercial artist” has expanded into a negative portrayal of fine artists whose art happens to be appreciated by a larger audience.

Each group, the “fine artists” and the “commercial artists,” both admit to wanting to sell their work, and to make a living from their creativity—yet there is a clear sense of elitism in the fine arts camp.

Art that’s in your face, challenging and confrontational seems to have a higher mission than art that focuses on mastery of execution, representation, and visual appeal.

The truth is, in art all boundary lines are blurred—and without any real parameters to define it, there exists a completely subjective line in the sand that confuses and constricts many in the artistic community.

There’s a fear that if we make too much money, we’re selling out. . . and if we make a product that is commercially appealing, we’re no longer “real” artists.

But really, what is “selling out”? Why can’t the art simply speak for itself?

If art is appreciated by the masses, why does it land in the “commercial” category by default? If an artist creates a distinctive body of work that barely sells, why should he or she be perceived as a better artist than a mass-merchandising guru?

Why is the business of art despised as often as it is desired?

Creating for the buck or to benefit others?

A painter friend of mine told me that real art is okay to sell in giclee’s and limited edition reproductions, but once it goes on a mug, it’s no longer real art.

I mentioned I had the Mona Lisa on a mug that I bought at an art museum. Apparently the art museum failed to realize that they would be devaluing this great work by so blatant an excursion into profiteering.

Should I be ashamed to be lighting my kitchen at night with my John Rodgers Cox nightlight? I love that backlit reproduction of “Grey and Gold” and feel inspired every time I see it casting its light over my counter.

Is there any definitive proof that art is diminished in some way when it makes an appearance on unconventional surfaces or shows up in too many places at once?

So many opinions, so much dissention. Why can’t the art just speak for itself?

What does it mean to sell out?

Part of the discussion at the Sparx centered around a contemporary fine artist whose work is widely reproduced while he retains his originals.

The complaint against him (his loss of status as a real “fine artist”) involved his mass-market appeal and the belief that he had others do the majority of his paintings while he simply finished them off and signed them. Yet many of the old masters did this. . . were they sell-outs?

In truth, selling out may have more to do with an artist who keeps duplicating a single image or idea over and over again because it sells rather than delving into new vistas.

In my opinion, artists by definition create an entry point for humanity to see, feel, experience, and process a unique connection to their own soul.

In other words, fine art reveals something in me, to me.

The artist who created it was captivated by the same thing. . . only by being truthful to the imagery in their own soul will their art connect with another’s.

If their art is beloved by the masses and reproduced on everything from greeting cards to calendars, then so be it. A larger connection has been made.

Wasn’t making the connection the point?

It isn’t profitability that diminishes art—profit and sales are simply a measure of appeal. Perhaps we should evaluate where this belief comes from, and see whether our own envy, or perhaps the snobbery of the artistic elite, is coloring our judgment.

So who decides who the real artists are?

I’ve attended many exhibits where I’ve wondered what was behind the motivation of the curator to make specific selections.

Several years back, a prominent regional show selected 100 entries to display, one of which was a freezer plugged in to the wall. The card caption revealed this as the title of the work: “It’s so cold and lonely in here.”

A few years before that, the same show featured a large green canvas painted over many, many times with the sketchy outline of a shark. The work was entitled, “Shark”.

Acceptance into this show was considered a mark of prestige. . . but by all standards of artistic measurement, these works did not qualify.

No doubt you have found yourself asking the same question from time to time.

Every other profession has acceptable standards that are considered minimums of competency. Unfortunately our profession is harder to pin down. Many artists are legitimized by galleries, some are anointed by the critics, and others are lauded as fine artists for no reason than that their art is unusual or shocking.

But waiting for that anointing is a waste of time, and selling your art for profit doesn’t disqualify you from being a “real” artist.

An artist is. It’s soul deep.

Think about it. . . all true professionals aim towards excellence in their craft, and in every other profession, sales are a legitimate measure of that excellence.

I’ve never heard a doctor say that so-and-so was a “fraud” because he had captured so many patients. I can’t imagine a carpenter proclaiming a fellow wood-worker’s cabinetry to be grotesque if every builder in the valley wants his design.

Yet artists think that way every day.

It’s clear that we have some re-evaluating to do if we want to demonstrate true professionalism in the field of art.

We must celebrate creativity and artistic skill in all its forms—graphics, so-called commercial art, and fine art. We must let the art speak for itself and ignore the rest.

Because if even one person felt moved, or touched, or challenged, or appreciative, then that work of art achieved its purpose—and nothing else is more important than that.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

Since writing my last article for EmptyEasel on financial success in art, I have been deluged with comments and opinions about whether commercial art can be fine art (and vice versa) or whether those distinctions are even relevant.

This subject still remains of interest. . . read more

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