In ancient times artists produced work for the good of their tribe or village community. Art was a gift not a commercial tansaction. Whether art had a magical or ceremonial function or simply to honor the heritage of the community it was given and accepted freely. This function of the artist continued in similar form for centuries. As commerce grew and a few wealthy community leaders arose they could give patonage to a few artists. Of course as monarchies and city states developed so too did patronage. However things changed rapidly as the rise of the merchant class accelerated in the latter half of the last millenium. Add industrialisation to the mix from 1800 and we can recognise a complete change towards modern lifestyles. A paradigm shift as the economists would call it.
More artists could take up the calling to create, but this increased competition and art as a gift was no longer viable. Artists had to live and compete for a living just like members of other trades and professions. However artists still wanted to create unique work. Different work that spoke for them. A message or concept that the artist needed to communicate. How could such risky work ensure an income? After all the world had gone in the direction of mechanisation to meet demand for products. Cookie cutter art anyone?
Artists have a few choices. Work for the man and retire then take up art. Do art on the side while working at a regular job to pay the rent. Both of these options are compromises and will get in the way of creativity. Third option - do art fulltime and risk it all. This may work for a few, but there will usually be some sort of financial cushion to pave the way. Paul Gauguin, for example, relied on his former earnings as a stock broker. The odds will always be against the artist. Wait for a state grant? Better get comfortable! It will be a long wait.
There is another option however. To sell out.
Selling out has been villified as a betrayal of artist's principles. This idea is perhaps carried over from the sixties and seventies when counter-culture demanded that artists reject collar and ties and all that regimented mainstream thinking. Artists working in corporations were simply regarded as suits. There was no art in such an environment. Time marches on and so too does the demands of the economy. Can artists compromise and still produce unique art?
The starving artists in tie-dyed T-shirts is a thing of the past. It seems that artists have moved into business and embrace selling out. There is precedent for this and it may surprise you to note that a leading exponent of selling out was Jim Henson of Sesame Street and Muppets fame. In her book Make Art Make Money: Lessons From Jim Henson on Fueling your Creative Career Elizabeth Hyde Stevens illustrates how Jim Henson realised that money had to be obtained to make more great art. To produce Sesame Street required cash. Freedom to make art means not having to fret about paying the bills. So Henson was encouraged to license Sesame Street toys. A move he hated to do, but with fantastic financial rewards that could be reinvested in his art.
Henson realised that selling out with a plan and purpose was in fact giving him freedom to create unique art on his own terms. How does this translate for artists trying to make ends meet? What products can you produce that can be replicated for volume in order to raise funds for something unique? Perhaps prints, licensing, DVD's, books, downloads, lessons, demonstrations, freelancing and many other avenues opening up in the connected economy. All of these opportunities are part of the artist's way to fuel unique art.
It is the artist's unique art that is the modern gift. No it is not given for free, but it is still created and shared in an age of commodatisation. That is the gift. Without unique work our community is lost in sameness. If it means selling out to do so then so be it.
Malcolm Dewey: Artist. Country: South Africa