Are You a Sellout?

Every artist hears this at one point in their development. The worries of becoming what others call a ‘sell out’ enter into our artistic lives much like the recognition of what death is for children who are innocent of the pain of such knowledge.

What is a sellout, exactly?

According to some who are too free with the term, it can be the fan artist, the merchandising artist, the faerie artist. The term sellout is attached to many types, particularly certain genres like fantasy.

sell·out (slout)n.One who has betrayed one’s principles or an espoused cause.

That is the dictionary definition of the slang, but I have heard this term thrown around for something as simple as drawing fan art, which is a gross misinterpretation. If you draw something like fan art, or any form of art, and enjoy it thoroughly, why should this be labeled negatively? Why should our enjoyment of art be ruined just because what we enjoy drawing happens to be popular?

I have also heard this term thrown at artists who have reached a level of success where their art can be found in popular venues on a variety of products. Amy Brown and Thomas Kinkade are two of the more hotly debated artists considered ‘sellouts’ by many.

Amy Brown is an artist most popularly known for the stripy socked variety of fairies which are featured on an endless amount of products, from journals to candles to stickers and beyond. The question of whether she is a sellout because she has found such a successful niche is not the important one. Rather, the question should be, does she love what she does? Even if she doesn’t, is it wrong for an artist to make money doing something in their field that’s at least more satisfying than mopping floors at the nearest grocery mart?

Without knowing Brown personally, I cannot say whether she loves what she does or not. I will admit, I am not innocent in that I did, at one point, think of her as a sellout. I got called out on this once by my boyfriend who said “Well maybe she’s just trying to make a living? That’s harder than a lot of people realize. Maybe she hates her artwork just as much as some others do, but she’s just trying to get by. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

No, I still do not like the gothy brand of stripy socked faeries, but coming of age as an artist trying to make it professionally has softened my heart to people I may have been too judgmental about when I had others paying my way and wasn’t trying to make a living off of my art. Who am I to tell others what to like? I’m entitled to my individual likes and dislikes as much as anyone else. Just as Amy Brown, or any artist, has a right to make a living.

Who knows? One day people might look at my stuff and say my angel art is ‘selling out’. I know I’ve not escaped the gothy label myself. In which case, I’ll just shrug and keep drawing. Why stop doing what I enjoy doing? People are inclined to label you no matter who you are and all anyone can do is be a professional and keep going, keep seeking out inspiration, keep experimenting, especially if you feel their labels are true to any degree.

Thomas Kinkade is another hotly debated figure. The afamed “Painter of Light” has a worldwide corporate reach for his depictions of brightly colored paintings of houses and landscapes. I have sat with many discussions with my mother, who is an avid fan of Kinkade’s, and pondered about what the appeal is. I have asked her if she thought he was a sellout for being as widespread as he is and for using studio assistants to paint in his work, and she shook her head, smiling. The enjoyment of his art had nothing to do with the process, according to my mother, who has collected miniature houses since I was young. Anybody who said differently was someone who was jealous of his success, in her eyes.

And herein lies the difference between many of us. Most normal everyday folks are enamored by the seemingly mystical end-product of art. They recognize it for what it is to the naked eye and marvel at the artist’s skill, while others, particularly artists, get to the heart of the matter, which is the artist’s intentions behind creating the work. Does Kinkade paint houses now ONLY to sell or does he enjoy it as well? It’s impossible to tell just as it is for Brown without knowing him personally.

Again, I still think all his houses look the same, but my mother is completely and totally in love with them, and I would never seek to deprive her of that. Kinkade is a genius in her eyes and just because I don’t like him doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy it.

In the end, there is one thing I am certain of in this area of gray that is ‘selling out’. If you do not love what you do, it is going to show in your artwork. Art has a habit of losing that special something that we are all tuned into subconsciously when the artist becomes uninspired. Does this automatically mean you are a sellout if you keep going? Perhaps…but whose right is it to tell an artist, even an uninspired one, to stop creating and go do something else? We all go through these waxing and waning phases of inspiration and sometimes it takes a jolt of epiphany to get us back on track again.

Now are you a sellout if you create artwork and slap it onto a thong, even though your art doesn’t really fit the products you’re putting it on? Yes, but if you can actually SELL that thong to someone who enjoys it, than more power to you! Generally, however, it’s much harder to sell a product you don’t believe in or that you are not inspired for. With the number of artists increasing every day, it is becoming harder and harder to stand out from the crowd, meaning the less inspiration you have, the less chance you’ll have to be noticed and to succeed.

My advice is this: Throw the nay-sayers to the wind and do what you enjoy. Experiment! Have fun! Learn! Create! The next time you think about calling someone a sellout, bare this in mind:

Are you only doing so because you’re jealous, deep down?
Are you quite sure that they don’t love what they do?
More importantly, is it so bad to make a living?

Save yourself the drama and go do some art instead! Take a moment and judge yourself first before you go labeling others.

One comment

  1. I think if someone starts their career taking a stance (against ‘the man’, painting for the process rather than outcome, etc) and then does an about-face when the opportunity comes to make it big, that’s a more appropriate label of selling out. Actually shedding a conviction, as your definition says, for the sake of money. Just doing what’s popular to begin with, or creating something that also happens to be popular, isn’t selling out in my opinion. It may be shallow — like banging out books just because a genre is popular rather than because you like it — but it’s not a change of principles, so I don’t see it as selling out.

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