Sell Out

I wrote a bit last week about the difference that can occur between the way an artist lives their life and the way almost everyone else does. I’ve been thinking a bit more about that difference and what’s been hitting me especially hard is the strange and terrible relationship most artists have to money. I think this issue in particular – how we think about money, what it means in relation to our work, and how we decide to navigate that relationship – has a lot to do with why so many of us feel like no one understands how we live.

While it’s obviously simplistic to reduce an entire nation into one value system, in my own experience I can say that I often find myself a little at odds with the American context in which I exist. Ours is, and of course I’m generalizing, a culture that places a high value on earning as a measure of success. And because of that, it’s one that makes justifying the life of an artist particularly tough, tougher perhaps than countries whose wealth it exceeds.

I would wager that on the whole, the impulse to make and share our work is anti-monetary. Artist are in a rush to give away their product, especially when they first start making it. I would also wager that the impulse to “own” ones work like a product or thing is a learned skill. It’s something we find ourselves having to do, not something that is inherent to the thing itself. Of course this is not always true, and not always true of everyone, but for the purposes of this article, I’m again going to generalize and say that on the whole the artistic process is one that is at its core financially altruistic, and therefore at odds often with commodification. (Read Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift for more on this.) We do it because it’s what we really want to do. And for whatever reason, we’ve managed to value doing that higher than we value making it value driven.

Think about how radical a notion that is. Seriously.

For most, the conversation about how to navigate career is so thoroughly dominated by money that it’s almost hard to imagine how deeply strange it is to most people. No one is surprised that a doctor might choose a specialty that pays more, but we often feel guilt about picking a role or working with a company for the same reason. We make our work and then we are dying to give it away. We are inclined (and often do) so whether or not other people want to pay us. We don’t want to choose jobs on solely on income potential but equally (if not more) on artistic merit. The fact that you feel that at all means you have decided to step outside a value system that many people accept as a large guiding path in their entire lives.

And weirdly, because art does live outside of this metric in some ways, I think the oddity of such a thing, the mystery of how art can “charm” people out of this traditional way of thinking, becomes romanticized in its own right. We think about “poor” art as something that must be so enrapturing and enthralling that one would give up money to do it. Even I still bring forth the specter of the young impassioned creator in a terribly tiny apartment and having no money but loving your art so so so much that it’s worth it. This is in the cultural subconscious and it’s something we have to contend with.

But we’re not oblivious. There are tangible ways that money matters: it influences who has power and status, it can give us access to security and education, it feeds and houses us, and can give us cool stuff. Wealth can determine an artist’s path – to pursue art in the best way that the work demands or to make difficult choices about the kinds of personal investment they can leverage or the resources and programs they have access to. Frustratingly, training in the arts is almost always expensive. Compensation in the career is generally not. As creators we don’t want to care about it, but as citizens in this country we see we need it. We don’t want to make our work about the money, but we also don’t want the people we work (or ourselves) with to live in an unhealthful and unsustainable way.

This must be why some parents bitterly resist their children embracing a life in the arts. If you don’t have the experience of the intensity and depth of the artistic practice and experience, of course doing such a thing looks like a waste – like deciding to work at the GAP when you could be saving lives in the medical professional or running a business. Not all artists are poor. But in general, a great painter or theater actor or dancer is not making the same income as a doctor or lawyer. We are indoctrinated early that we do our work for love and not money. We are told ad nauseam by our society that “starving” and “artist” are nearly synonymous.

So as artists, we live daily with some pretty insanely contradictory attitudes and behaviors in relation to money. There are a lot of voices saying that we should want to make a lot of money if we’re good at what we do and there are a lot of voices also saying at the same time that if we are doing this art thing then it must be fulfilling enough to do for it’s own sake.

Take for example the phrase: “Sell out.” What’s your gut reaction to it? Is it good or bad? Well, it all depends on what context you’re looking at.

When you are mounting a new work there is this thing that happens when a show starts to “sell out.” This is true even outside of the self-producer realm, where you actually are counting the dollars that those ticket sales are bringing in. Yes, I’d say even in a straight up “actor for hire setting,” if you’re a “sell out” show there is a sense of accomplishment, of pride, of elevation in your work having reached a certain kind of level. That it’s something people connect to. Even if you receive not a single extra cent for the sold out-ness, it makes you feel better, doesn’t it?

What does that phrase even mean? Literally, that all the seats were bought. But it’s come to roughly equate with artistic quality. If all the seats are bought it must be valuable. And if it’s valuable it must be good or why would so many people pay for it? Conversely, there’s an unspoken pressure that says if a beautiful and amazing production has few buyers that something is wrong it. It’s a value system that isn’t concerned whether a piece happens to have picked a bad time of the year to perform. Or that the subject matter happens to have a smaller audience base but for that base the work is HIGHLY impactful. Or that your 3/4 full houses absolutely LOVE your show compared to the full houses for the work down the street that is merely entertaining enough to spend 20 bucks on. It’s a message that uncomplicatedly says more money equals better art.

Even if you know it’s not true, it’s still working on you somewhere in the back of your mind. So it’s worth sometimes saying out loud, even when it seems obvious, that small houses don’t mean you’re a bad artist. You might be, but the two aren’t necessarily related.

And weirdly, while on the one side we’re putting pressure on ourselves to be financially successful, we also have another voice inside telling us that making art for money is a cop out, a cheapening, a bastardization of the “true” impulse for creation. “Sell out” also has the connotation of the artist that is corrupted by money, who makes their work for financial gain alone and has lost touch with a “real” creative spirit. We tend to romanticize the bohemian life, both from within and outside the profession. It’s also a fallacy, this idea that our work without the pressure of money is “purer,” but it’s equally as potent.

It is strange, no, that the exact same phrase is both an indicator of our highest measure of success as well as a total debasement of the form. It is a frustrating dissonance that an art maker is trying to navigate all the time. And if we aren’t vigilant about what the goal is at a given moment we can end up in a kind of schizophrenic negativity where no matter what we do we’re coming up short.

Look, if we only made the work that made the most money, we’d probably cut out the most ambitious, and personally fulfilling projects. And yet, it’s also true that there are limitations on what’s possible with our work and those limitations are often determined by a project’s bottom line.

There are times I’ve looked back at works I made with a thousand dollars and felt wistful about the “purity” of my choices. I look at that work and think about how I did it just because I loved the art, that it was uncomplicated and “true” (or whatever). But, really, when I’m honest, that’s pretty BS right? The impulse for the work wasn’t actually less complicated by money, I was just making the same kinds of choices about how and where to allocate cash but on a much tinier scale.

I think that as we become more successful, we more obviously have to confront these questions – how does money work in out work, what do I spend it on, what kind of aesthetic am I after and how does cost play into that – but I don’t actually think they are new.  People who want to always spend all the cash on fancy stuff do it when they have a little. They do it when they have a lot. We just notice it more.

And troublingly, I have no good answers here. Just an observation that we, like everyone, have to figure out what standard of living we want and what we are and aren’t willing to do to achieve it. What we can do is not abdicate the decision to others but continue to make it for ourselves. You can argue whether you agree with the way that America equates wealth with success and decide how much you’re willing to let it influence your goals in life. You can create a work environment you believe in and pay people whatever you decide you want to and allow them to make the choice if the monetary recompense is equal to the task. Your project can lose money or knock it out of the cashola park. It can be the best thing your ever made or a total hack job. With every choice there are two assessment tools we need to use – one financial and the other artistic. And it’s up to you to decide which one needs to take precedence at this particular moment.

We don’t want to make money the value on which we measure our creations, so we should be wary of allowing it become an indicator of our success. On the same token, our ability to make work is predicated on the rest of our life being functional enough to keep the artistic part going. Money plays a part in that.

I don’t want money to drive my art making process.

I want to make enough money as an artist to live sustainably.

Two statements.

Two totally different standards of measurement.

So the trick is to remember that they have to be either/or and they don’t have to be correlated directly. They both are like spinning plates that I need to pay attention to in order to keep them in balance. Which might mean a little nudge on one for a while and then run back and push on the other a little.

And my guess is that I’ll always have to keep an eye on that balancing act.

– A

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