On Selling Out
Category: Commentary
Written by Elizabeth Tennant
Editor: Kellie Hanna

As I awake from my student-hood, I become aware of the grim realities facing any would-be career artist. Although undiscovered genius is romantic, I, like many others, take little comfort in the stereotypical idea that my work will become known for its brilliance long after my sordid life and suitably dramatic death. Most art students have been faced with the same specters (usually presented by well-meaning parents), ranging from simple undiscovered talent to madness and an early retirement to the nearest gutter. Often such warnings are accompanied by advice on the wonders of a career in architecture, graphic design, or illustration.

The carrot, at that time, was the golden possibility of discovery. We had all heard of paintings by a precious few which sold for ridiculous prices; money that, at my standard of living, would keep me well into old age. And it was all supposedly about luck. Be in the right place at the right time, be seen by the right glitterati, capture the right trend and any one of us could become rich and famous; if only we believed enough, truly loved art, and worked hard enough. We would pay the price of suffering and poverty for a shot at the golden dream of attention, riches, and living in a style to which we were unaccustomed.

How very passive that was. When I look behind the lines of that idea, I see a fairy tale that many of us have grown up with: the virtuous and suffering princess is rescued from her plight by a passing stranger who is captured by her beauty. Snow White never worked for her own redemption. Neither did Cinderella nor Sleeping Beauty. This was the basis of the artistís ideal: simply through the purity of our souls and the beauty of our art, we can achieve the recognition and rescue of which we dream. I have many friends who have refused to abandon the "ideals" of their college days by openly promoting their art. Now, decades after those ideals were formed, they are still tired, lonely, poor, and waiting for discovery.

This is yet another of my many fears for the future. The strength of this idea rests on the belief that passivity indicates virtue, and to sell or otherwise actively court financial gain is a sign of selling out. I now believe that this is wrong, wrong, wrong. The truth of art is this: it is open communication to the world. That the more I sell, the more people will see it. That the more I sell, the more I can create. And money, and the attainment of it, is not evil. It is simply a way to provide for myself and to help ensure a life that is more fertile, more free from anxiety, and more creative. To say anything else is simply an excuse to avoid the challenge of opening my art and myself to criticism.

Instead of remaining a pure but spineless princess, I now believe that I owe it to my art to be strong. Although art requires of me an internal focus and mysticism that is the antithesis of salesmanship, I must also find a way for that vision to speak to someone other than myself. It is not enough to create the message; I must also convey it. I must change into someone who can face rejection by strangers and still be open. My art requires it. Otherwise I will have in my studio a hundred painted letters that are never, ever sent. And that is not art. That is a fairy tale.


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