Pop Art Artists: Corporate Sell-Outs or Smart Cookies


December 03, 2012

Everyone has an opinion in the art world. In fact, most people have many, many different opinions. This is one of the many beautiful things about the art community. There is a common term, "starving artist," that is often applied to painters, writers, musicians and other artists because art is not supposed to be about making money, it is about the work an artist produced, their connection to it and the passion behind it. Money is actually even looked down upon in the art world as it is almost a mark of honor to "slum it" all in the name of one's art. Is this really logical though? If a typical starving artist was offered $5 million dollars for one painting, would they turn it down on principle? Maybe. But they certainly could do a lot of good in the art community with that money, so it's hard to really call them a sellout until they actually do something negative with that cash.

So where should the line be drawn? When does a starving artist morph into a corporate sellout? The moment they sell their artwork to support themselves and their family? Or when their artwork ends up on a T-shirt? (Just for the record, The Mona Lisa has been known to show her face on more than a few tangible commodities.) Let's explore some of the different angles.

Modest Selling, Just to Get By
Some artists will attend art walks, set up shop on street corners, and even show off their work in parks to give the public a chance to purchase it. Their pricing is modest for the most part, just desiring to find someone who will truly appreciate it, and keep their head above financial waters in the process. Although these artists are still selling their work, this way of profiting from art is typically not frowned upon by the art community as much as other forms of selling. After all, everyone needs to make a living.

The Michelangelo Argument
Famed Renaissance artist Michelangelo is one of the most highly regarded artists of all time. However, he was also one of the first artist sellouts. The reasoning behind this is because his main claim to fame was the ceiling at the Sistine Chapel, but he actually hated painting. Michelangelo's real passion was in sculpture. He not only hated painting, but was also said to have felt that it was an inferior art form. However, during that time, there were very few jobs for sculptors or painters and needing to be realistic, he took the job and painted what is regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of art in existence. Now, taking into account how loved and well-regarded Michelangelo is even to this day, how could being a sellout really make sense in his case? And for that matter, any artist who does that could be the next Michelangelo, so why be so quick to judge and brand an artist a sellout?

Placing Artwork on Commodities
This is the most heated argument. Is an artist a sellout for selling their artwork on t-shirts, coffee cups or mouse pads? There are good points on both sides. Some feel that by creating these types of novelties with a carbon copy of their artwork they are cheapening the original piece. There is also the argument that by mass-producing the piece through the use of machines, the new versions do not have the artist's touch and are not true pieces of art. However, on the other side of the coin, sometimes selling art in this fashion is a statement as part of an art movement. Such is the case with Pop art. Pop art takes found objects, advertisements, candy wrappers, comic strips and other items to create new pieces of art. It is a form of art meant to shed light on mass consumerism. By printing Pop art on novelties like cups, pens, magnets, notebooks and key chains it creates an interesting debate about art and its place in mass consumerism as an educational tool.

So in the sense of Pop art, part of the art form may very well be argued to be about the mass production and consumerism of the art form.

Judgment Never Helps Further Art
When it comes to the art world, there is little merit in judging the way an artist chooses to profit from their work. Pigeonholing someone into the category of a sellout based on how they choose to market themselves or what jobs they will take outside of their craft to support themselves is just counterproductive. Nothing good can come of it. Even those that are doing the judging lose out because they waste time arguing that someone is a sellout when they could have been working on a new piece of artwork themselves. While constructive criticism is always going to be helpful, there is a huge difference between that and passing judgment on the methods by which an artist tries to survive. It simply serves no purpose.



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