Is there a more romanticised scene than that of the “starving artist” persona? The struggling artist who moved to the big city with hopes of making it big. Whether the painter in Paris or the actor in Los Angeles, there is an idealised view of these creatives and their lifestyle whilst striving to prove themselves to the community of artists and the wider public. Cries of “sellout” abound when that same artist receives not just a level of success, but more importantly payment in return for that success. So, should creatives sellout? Let us look past the romanticism of the “starving artist” role and see.
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If you are reading this because you have been offered an opportunity and you are concerned about being called a sellout, I will summarise what the conclusion of this post will be: sellout. Being an artist and following your dreams is a great thing, but you need to pay the bills too. No matter your creative pursuits, there will come a point when you need to focus on the lucrative aspects of your passion to sustain yourself. There is nothing wrong with that and anyone who thinks there is has a warped view of reality.
What is a Sellout?
The idea behind this post came from a book I recently read: “Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered” by Austin Kleon (affiliate link). I am going to do a more thorough review of this book soon, but in short, it is a great book for both the amateur and more experienced creative. The ideas and tips contained in the book can be used to great effect regardless of how long you have been working at your passion.
In the book, Austin Kleon writes that we need to move past the idea that money corrupts creativity and the “starving artist” notion. “Money has to come from somewhere,” he writes, “be it a day job, a wealthy spouse, a trust fund, an arts grant, or a patron.”
Ultimately, creatives need to find a way to pay the bills and keep food on the table. It is unfortunate, then, that when creatives find a way to use their craft to make money that might not line up with what fans find acceptable, that they are marked as a sellout.
To be fair, it is worth prefacing this with the knowledge that most fans probably could not care less that their creative of choice is doing something to earn some money. Others, however, can look unfavourably upon the creative – as if their work has been tainted by money and greed. The creative becomes a sellout in their eyes.
A recent example of this that comes to mind is when in March 2021, Games Workshop (a proprietor of one of my hobbies) employed several animators to expand on work they had already done. The majority of their fans rejoiced at the prospect of these remarkable animators getting the resources of a quickly growing company behind them. Some, however, lamented what they saw was the inevitable curtailing of the creative freedoms of the animators. Looking past the fact that these animators had used Games Workshop’s intellectual property in their animations which had made them popular, there was no indication that the creative endeavours of the animators would be negatively impacted. Regardless, a minority of fans now regarded these animators as sellouts.
Should Creatives Sellout?
“Some awful people use the term sellout to include any artist who dares to have any ambition whatsoever. They’ll say you’re a sellout if you try to make it outside of your hometown. They say you’re a sellout if you buy better equipment. They’ll say you’re a sellout if you try anything new at all.”Austin Kleon Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered (affiliate link)
Worrying about things like being called a sellout when in a creative industry can be a very stifling experience. Instead of trying to innovate and create new things, you will end up stuck doing the same things repeatedly. Without a source of income dedicated to, or because of, your skillset, your progression will stall.
Producing the same thing time and time again is also not the way to expand your audience. It requires new ways of thinking, experimenting, and pushing the boundaries of your craft to improve and attract new audiences. This is will, in time, also attract more possibilities for streams of income.
Any true fan will celebrate your growth. Just because it might be made possible due to other creative endeavours you are paid for – whether these endeavours and what you are known for or not – does not matter to the average fan. There is an understanding that creatives cannot solely focus on one aspect of their craft and never expand – even if that expansion is purely for financial benefit.
If you are a creative who practices as a hobby, then you can decide whether to expand your creative abilities to get a side income, or whether to remain “pure” in the eyes of those fans who might consider you a sellout for doing so.
For those creatives who want to turn their passion into a full-time job, becoming a sellout is practically mandatory. And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you are happy. Turning what you love into a way to make money can sometimes mean compromise, but if what is being asked of you is acceptable to yourself (regardless of what others may think) then you should go for it and take the money. With more money comes more resources and more opportunities for creative growth. As well as, you know, food on the table and a roof over your head and other such trivial things!
Should creatives sellout? Yes. It is time to move past the idea that the only way to be an artist is to be the starving artist personified. There is nothing remotely cute about not being able to feed yourself or pay the bills. As a creative, you deserve to be paid for your work, whatever that looks like. Whether through donations from patrons, freelance work, or any of the other myriad of ways to make money in the modern age.
If some fans consider you a sellout for looking after yourself, then they are not real fans. Any true fan would understand that your work has value and you deserve to be able to ask for payment for that work.
Say yes to new experiences and opportunities. Do not hobble yourself by trying to “keep it real”. Become a sellout and become a better creative.
Trying to make the most out of your time? Don’t forget to read my post about the Einstein Window!
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One thought on “Should Creatives Sellout? Moving Past the Starving Artist Romanticism”
[…] However, this notion is deeply flawed. Creatives must be able to support themselves financially to continue producing their work. This is where the concept of the “sellout” should be replaced by the idea of the “successful creative”. Artists should not be judged solely on their financial success but also on the quality of their work. I’ve written on the topic before and you can find an introduction to Starving Artist Romanticism here. […]