Artists Can’t Sell Out

April 8, 2010

I mean, it’s not even possible. Once Andy Warhol came on the scene and made selling out his personal artistic expression the wall between art and commerce was destroyed. Well, that’s what I learned from it. Once an artist can buy a sink at a garage sale then sign it and turn it into a gold mine, our age is revealed as the one where commerce became an art form.

I studied Fine Art in college which is another way of saying that I studied snob art because only elitists and academics could understand what the hell was going on. There were a whole group of artists who wouldn’t title their work for fear that it might influence the viewer into some preferred narrative of the creator of the work. What happened was that people who liked to study art could keep up with feces-as-a-medium but your average pedestrian didn’t bother.

After a while, I realized that I was the dummy for bowing to this snooty specialization of the arts while those who rejected this Fine Art as junk were onto something. The street wise were right, and the round heads were exposed as fools. Just because we can study the Emperor’s new clothes doesn’t mean he’s not naked.

For the most part, artists have always sold their work to whoever was willing to buy it. We artists still have to eat, and once that transaction takes place commerce has influenced the work. I used to criticize my friends where were just illustrators for being sell outs. Yet, I had to admit that I purchased plenty of art, was influenced by the imagery of illustration more in my day to day life than by the Fine Arts.

I took to the commercial arts pretty quickly given I loved animation, video games and telling stories. It’s funner to have an audience just like something without me having to explain to them what they’re even seeing. Art is communication after all, so why not communicate to a ton of people instead of just three if it takes the same amount of work?

So this is why I don’t think an artist can actually sell out. There is an implication that someone isn’t being pure by admitting that they have to eat and that strikes me more as inhuman than artistic. The painter can purposefully make art that leans away from commerce or he can solely chase a buck and both are just as artistic, though I’m more likely to enjoy the latter than the former. I’ve seen the pure artist Warhol’s films and I enjoyed “sell-outs” like Transformers 2 much more… even as fine art.


25 Responses to “Artists Can’t Sell Out”

  1. Sean McGowan Says:

    This is so true except for the Transformers part. My latest work has been focused more on real-life relatable subjects and it’s gotten much more of a response than my more artistic work. I find that strong audience response so much more rewarding than self expression. I could make a film about alien warriors or I could make a film about a guy locking his keys in his car and the guy with the keys is ultimately much more satisfying as a subject.

    • Doug Says:

      Go watch an Andy Warhol film then tell me about what you think of Transformers.

      But it’s great that you’re learning this now in college instead of after college like I did. I had professors telling me this and I didn’t listen. I have to learn things the hard way.

      Though I still haven’t given up all of my fun artistic crutches, because as much as I want to tell a story about a guy locking his keys in his car, it’s funnier to have a praying mantis man locking his keys in his car.

  2. lemm Says:

    There’s no less skill that goes into it – there’s a heck of a lot when you’re using art to tell a story. If I learned anything over the last few years, it’s that it is a very difficult profession. I was drawn to the drawing skill/painting/story side of it, then recently found out that you only really get to make children’s illustrated books etc, once you’ve actually got time/money/experience to do that. So I’m banging my head against a wall right now. It hurts.

    That’s the side of illustration that I like. Though I have yet to make my own real dent with something I’ve created, and right now I don’t really know how to do it.

    • Doug Says:

      The first one is the hardest, and that’s why I encourage you guys to just finish one instead of wait for perfection. You need to know what it’s like to go through the whole process from beginning to end on a book, because it’s the lack of experience on the whole project that’s screwing up your creation right now.

      There’s two things wrong with going for making a dent… first, you’re thinking to serve an audience that doesn’t even exist yet. They haven’t earned the right to dictate anything on where you’re at right now. Second, don’t aim for the dent, aim for global, thermonuclear destruction with your story. Read THE GIVING TREE, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, OLIVIA (the pig one), SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE and see how big ideas will last and go broad even if the artist is completely true to his self.

      Spend your time being frustrated putting single sentences on notecards, drawing more critters and reading more input from people you hope to create like. It’s impossible to reverse engineer what someone else is doing but I’ll be damned if it’s not fun to try! Read someone else’s story, diagram it in note cards, and pretend like those note cards are what they used to write that book you love. Then try to emulate those cards in your own story structure.

      • lemm Says:

        Good advice as always…Thanks Doug. Well, from the bottom of a well there’s only up I guess. x____x :)

  3. Stephen Says:

    I’m quoting this.

  4. Bob McGowan Says:

    OK Doug, drink plenty of water and start slow. You’ll do fine. Whoops, wrong blog! Nevermind.

  5. Bruce Says:

    I absolutely loved this post. Quentin Tarantino commented on this, when pitching Reservior Dogs, someone said they’d supply the needed funds if they let the producers girlfriend play Mr. blonde. As Quentin put it, at that point you start and try to work it from every conceivable angle asking the question “could a girl play this character? ”

    That said, I’ll take the high snooty art form over robot testicles any day… assuming I couldn’t just leave both art forms behind to rot.

  6. Syz Says:

    Yeah, I don’t really get the people who complain that an artist who makes money off of their work is a “sell out”, some (i.e.) most people who’ve said that to me also apparently think this means “selling out” doesn’t amke us a “real artist”.

    So I guess “Real artists” must paint and create sculptures using their own bodily wastes, otherwise how else are they going to afford charcoals, paints, scrap metal, clay, etc.?

    It’s just another excuse for the critics to put themselves above other people, make them feel good abou themselves.

  7. Ben Says:

    Earlier today I was watching a video of one of your speeches in which you talk about your background.

    Sounds like you won’t be returning to the old Neverhood movie idea. I did know you through The Neverhood. My older brother played it when I was very young. I remember watching some of it. Later, when I was older, I asked him about it. He told me, and I got my own copy. Later I was able to find out about what you were doing, and now I’ve become interested in your Graphic Novels. I was never into graphic novels before. Now I find them extremely intriguing.

    I like your work because it is very artistic. Your works have showed unique creative artistry. It really is a pity that The Neverhood, an artistic masterpiece in the gaming industry, was overlooked by so many due to the obsession over the new 3d Graphics games. For us who were fortunate enough to discover the masterpiece, we had the chance to see something wonderful.

    The type of art you create may not be as accepted by certain art communities, but it certainly is intriguing and entertaining to look at. This is what makes it so great. I also love your respect for and use of classical and great storytelling, and how you use it even while so much of the world has abandoned it.

    Through your journey through art and storytelling, which work did you enjoy the most? Which was most fulfilling?

    • tennapel Says:

      Thanks for following my work!
      Like you, my heart is really close to The Neverhood. It may look a little old and clunky now, but it really was an artistic and business success that makes me very proud. It’s probably the thing I’ve been involved in that came out the closest to our earliest visions on paper. I also got to work on it with my closest friends. We had a lot of fun together and grew closer over the years even as we faced adversity. It also represented the first time I got involved in a larger business enterprise which was both terrifying and challenging.

      But of all the works I’m closest to, the only one that really hits closer to home than Neverhood is my graphic novel Earthboy Jacobus. I think it’s one of my best stories, though I admit that it’s hard to gage my own work given how close I get to it by the time it’s finished.

  8. Justin Says:

    WOW. I’m in utter shock right now. I’m going to clear the air and and say I don’t claim to be articulate nor artistic, but I really think you just broke a mold here. To hear an artist personally refer to fine at as, not necessarily ‘shit’ but more so ‘overrated’ or ‘over analyzed’. now that just blows my mind. i think it takes a really free mind to see what you want to see out of a piece of art, rather than what you think you’re supposed to see. If you see nothing special, thats what it is. I’ve never met and artist who had the pride to admit that maybe some works of art just shouldn’t be worshiped. it’s like they love it because they’re expected to. i know i’m not exactly on the same subject as you but i just needed to get this off my chest. personally i consider art to be the most appealing when it protrays talent and hard work. I mean, a canvas being molested by strokes of putrid colors might be ‘cutting edge’ but it just comes off as lazy to me and that’s the last thing i want to think of when i see art.

    • tennapel Says:

      I wish there was more art for people like you to enjoy. Before the modern elitism in academia, the artists were much closer to the people, to the soil. The general public didn’t leave the arts, the arts left the public and became a self-fulfilled irrelevant prophet.

      • sk8ingbullterrier Says:

        You have a very intellectual way of saying it but i know what you mean. It’s like art is, ironically, become more of a science. Only the educated are allowed to fully appreciate or criticize it.
        Aside from that, it’s just impressive to see that you’re so in touch with your fans that you take the time to reply to all of the comments. like you said, artists should be much closer to the people. actions speak louder than words.

  9. legendaryjman Says:

    I still think Creature Tech is your best work to day. Sure EBJ is longer and has space whales, but it was the super artsy merging of science and religion that absolutely blew my mind with CT.

    Though I was recently rereading Tommysaurus Rex and the bit where the boy tells Tommy to eat the bully and the dinosaur completely ignores him is hilarious.

  10. Hal Says:

    I have to disagree. An artist can sell out, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s simply a negative connotation to the idea that we creative types are oversensitive about. “Selling out” is a great way to make good money being a creative individual, and if your goal is to simply have the luxury of being creative and artistic for a living Doug’s right – its really not selling out at all. But when you have a concept you believe in and allow others to compromise the core integrity of your work… then you’ve sold out, plain and simple. It may lead to financial gain, but you have to accept the cost to the soul of your work. Most of us do in commercial fiels, and often there’s some need and reward that outweighs our creative ego (a luxury which many rich art school brats have so they can pursue their “visions”), but its nothing to be ashamed of, as Doug points out. Unless you preach the integrity of your creative vision while selling out – that’s hypocritical. CASE POINT: Doug released CREATURE TECH as his vision in graphic novel form instead of a lukewarm feature it apparently was beforehand – as good a case for not selling out as I can come by since Doug’s done well by standing by his convictions. Equally, I’d rather have galleries chock full of “fine” art most people think is BS instead of stuff accessible to everyone so long as the creators are passionate about their work. Yes, there is often an elitist attitude to the fine art world that’s difficult to connect to, and often a lot of BS to sift through (not too hard), but sometimes you find that truly unique voice and the rewards from engaging that world (as well as its creative members and their work) strengthens those of us in the commercial realm. It pushes us to consider not only what we do, but the possibilities beyond our frame of reference. For example: I would be lying if I said my gut reaction to Rothko and Warhol in school wasn’t contempt, but viewing their work physically before me there is an undeniable power I had to engage. Whether you like the work or not, I have to encourage all of you to engage the fine arts ESPECIALLY when it seems to go against your taste – challenging yourself either strengthens your convictions or opens you up to new possibilities. You don’t have to like it, but sometimes we blind ourselves to fine art work OR commercial work because its easier to stay within our comfort zone of interest and our social circles that regurgitate our stance on things. Too much of that and you stagnate – the worst thing a creative person can do. Good case scenario, you stumble upon someone doing something brilliant and you’re there before anyone else and the magic happens. Best case scenario – that person is you.

    • tennapel Says:

      Whether you like the work or not, I have to encourage all of you to engage the fine arts ESPECIALLY when it seems to go against your taste – challenging yourself either strengthens your convictions or opens you up to new possibilities.

      So let’s go to a Thomas Kinkaid art gallery together and put your theory to the test. And you know all of the fine art snobs would have a period before every stepping into that same gallery, or pay respect to a Wyland painting etc. The elitism never puts the pressure on itself to open up to other people, it’s always assumed that it’s the common man who has something wrong with him for not being able to embrace a Rothko, but no New York art snob will go watch the Cable Guy stand up and scratch his beard with the same open mind, trying to pry open his refined tastes and intellectual perfections to enjoy a day at Dollywood. I’m onto their game and it’s a sham.

  11. Justin Says:

    what does compromising the core integrity of the art have to do with didly squat? If you’re so self-conscience about what other’s will think about your intentions, why does it need to be exposed. Really though, a person that’s honestly that concerned about the foundation of their work should not advertise it. Keep an open mind. Why not let others critique what they see. let’s be honest here… what makes art? the viewers right. otherwise it’s just a hobbie.
    Aside from that, i find dougs reference to Larry the cable guy very affective. as simple minded of a sense of humor it is, who says that’s a bad thing. These days, the world tends to over complicate things. i find that to be a huge downfall. leaves much more room for error. Technology is like a game of jenga.

    • tennapel Says:

      Art that is “just a hobbie” is no less art. Today, our culture wants to have a say in everything you do, “This is art. Not that. Installations are great, Kinkaid is not.”

      For most of modern art history the arts weren’t dominated by the people, but by academics. I think you’re missing my point if you think I’m being self-conscious about the form of art.

      If I may opine to a few hundred readers what art can be that is not being explored today, that’s my passion. I’m ranting against a machine, and it’s my little way of contributing to the medium for which much of my life has been in dedication.

  12. Martin L. Shoemaker Says:

    There are those who are convinced that, whether it’s through divine revelation or innate brilliance or years of study, they have absolute expertise on what constitutes quality. Anyone who doesn’t see things the way they do simply lacks revelation or brilliance or study.

    What they utterly fail to grasp is that quality is an N-dimensional measure, where N is AT LEAST as large as the number of people assessing the quality. Quality is simply goodness of fit to requirements or tastes or expectations; and every person has different requirements and tastes and expections. The idea that anyone has the One True Standard is hubris, and nothing more. Quality simply cannot be objectively measured on an absolute scale.

    And yet there IS a way to objectively measure it: in the aggregate. We can’t know how any one person will assess the quality of any one work of art; but by the choices a large group of individuals make — ESPECIALLY the choices they PAY for, since money is a measure of perceived value — we can get an objective measure of what people really value, vs. what we think they’re supposed to value.

    And yes, I realize that this will scandalize the elite, because it means that Larry the Cable Guy’s films are higher quality than Andy Warhol’s in the only way that’s really objective: more people watch them and pay for them.

    And by the way? I don’t find Larry the Cable Guy remotely funny, and haven’t lasted five minutes through his films. Like all of us, I have my own personal scale of quality, one I’m quite sure is more enlightened and correct than yours. But unlike some self-appointed elites, I don’t try to rationalize my preferences as some sort of natural law or enlightened opinion. A preference is just a preference.

    Oh, and speaking of my artistic preference… You can’t go wrong with Quent Cordair and the Magic Realism school ( — some art NSFW if your workplace is puritanical). Their work is indisputably fine art, but it’s also accessible to the general public. Wonder of wonders, it’s actually representational!

  13. Hudson Says:

    Scott McCloud defines art as “any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction.”

    Based on this definition, I’m not sure Transformers 2 can be considered art since I’m pretty certain Michael Bay drops “Hey, I directed Transformers” for reproductive reasons all the time…

    I love this post and completely agree with you. I can’t imagine my art being any more genuine or elevated if I WEREN’T getting paid for it. The people who pay my bills just become my collaborators.

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