Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

The starving artist and the sell-out

2009 . 09 . 30 - Comments / Commentaires (9)

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As artists, we live with two stereotypes, both extreme and both extremely damaging to our profession.

The starving artist is the more popular of the two. It’s the category that almost everyone we meet puts us into the moment we tell them we’re an artist, and it can mean everything from “lazy leech on society” to “eccentric dilettante.” It’s also the stereotype that many artists self-identify as. After all, there’s a pride to true bohemia, a certain glittering purity to being hungry and still not giving up what many would call a hobby.

On the other hand, the term “sell-out” is for internal use only. By that I mean that most people in the wider community would never judge an artist as a sell-out. It’s a label that’s applied to a creative by other creatives (usually starving artists) as a way of belittling her-his outwardly measurable success.

The more I think on these stereotypes of artists, the more I’m convinced that the former is a disease of the mind and the latter does not exist. The starving artist is not an actual person but an idea or even an ideal. For artists, it’s a comfortable way of being poor; for everyone else, it’s a comfortable way of not supporting the arts. And, as for the term “sell-out,” the only person capable establishing if an artist is a sell-out or not is the artist. After all, the label implies that the artist has acted in a way that does not fit with her-his belief system. Since I can’t understand the inner workings of anyone else’s sense of integrity, I won’t pretend to know whether she-he has sold out or not.



American artist Gwenn Seemel's portrait of Jeannette

Gwenn Seemel
Jeannette
2009
acrylic on canvas
48 x 34 inches

In my career, I’ve done just one thing that, in retrospect, I’m not entirely proud of. In that instance, it’s safe to say that I sold out, and I’ve been uncomfortable about it ever since.

Still, there are many things that I continue to do in my work that don’t conform to the rules of today’s art world. For one thing, I do commission work, a form of art-making that fell out of favor when open market art became the more popular source of income for artists. To some, making work on commission implies that the artist is beholden to the patron. While for many artists that is probably the case, I have never made commission work that wasn’t also entirely my own. It’s an attitude that benefits me since I get to make the work that I want to make while also being paid, but my approach doesn’t fail my clients either. Because of it, they end up with art I am glad to have as part of my portfolio instead of something I’m ashamed of. For example, Jeannette’s portrait (pictured above) is a commissioned portrait, and both the patron and I are pleased with it.

I don’t see the world in black and white. It’s not open market work OR commercial output: nor is it starving artist OR sell-out. The in-between is a lot more interesting than either extreme.


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(9) Comments / Commentaires: The starving artist and the sell-out

-- gabe flores -- 2009 . 09 . 30 --

Are you suggesting being a post-artist?  To just be and stop using touchstones for identity purposes.

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-- joshua -- 2009 . 11 . 10 --

1. Dave Hickey really helped ME out of this bind. He has great things to say about
a) the art world thinking its so PURE, hence…..
b) the art world thinkinking it is somehow above money and transactions

Those are 2 NEW ideas, as you briefly mentioned.

The great works of art history were mostly made within tight restraint and with money and transaction on many an artists minds (I know there are exceptions)

For me, as with Gwen, I pump out my best work when I’m pressured by commisions or grant guidlines. (Theres unlimited edges within every assignment where total creativity and freedom happen). Hickey and Gwen think that pressure is even NECCESSARY.

Think of what was done for over a thousand years with one simple thing= 1 man hanging on a cross!

Am I wrong here?
Were they illustrators? If so then I’d love to be even on the fringes of THAT crowd.

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-- Mark Colman -- 2010 . 01 . 25 --

As an artist thinketh, so is he/she.

Without commissioned work, there would be no Sistine Chapel, David, etc, etc. Viva selling out!

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-- cjy -- 2010 . 11 . 05 --

I concur. I think pressure is key. Deadlines are friends.

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-- Pat K -- 2012 . 04 . 26 --

I know this is an older post, but I am reading it for the first time tonight…even though I should be in bed.  Thank you, Gwenn, for having the courage to call the art world on the carpet for what should be a non-issue.

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-- jessica -- 2015 . 11 . 29 --

hi i came across this post while doing research on my final for English. which has to do with reminding artist and the art community to not fall in to being a sell out. for me i am writing to tell them not to forget why they became artist to begin with. i am so glad i came across this blog. gave me an other arpoch to my argument

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-- Gwenn -- 2015 . 12 . 03 --

It is true that remembering why you started down a particular path is important. When I think back to why I began making art, I feel the pleasure of doing a thing well and connecting with others through that skill, but I also see a lot of anxiety about the role of the artist and the purpose of art. These days, I still feel pleasure and I still think about the things that worried me at the beginning, but now I do it with less anxiety. Usually. smile

Are you just starting out as an artist? What motivates you, Jessica?

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-- Jessica -- 2015 . 12 . 03 --

I am an artist that’s going to school right now lol. My motivation is just cuz I love to create new things and love working with my hands

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-- Gwenn -- 2015 . 12 . 09 --

I wonder if that joy in creating is at the root for all artists? I recently interviewed a few artists about their ultimate goal with their art, and I think that love for making is buried in the statements, even if it isn’t the most prominent thing being expressed…

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