Does Commercial Success = Creative Sell-Out?

Van Gogh's painting Wheat Field with Crows

One of the most eye-opening experiences of my life took place one afternoon in Amsterdam, in the summer of 1990. A hundred years after the death of Vincent van Gogh, his paintings had been gathered from collections across the globe, for a spectacular Centenary Exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum.

Such was the demand for tickets that I had to buy mine two days in advance. When I finally got inside, I wondered from room to room in a kind of trance, bowled over by masterpiece after vibrant masterpiece, each one familiar but bigger, brighter and richer than any prints I’ve seen before or since. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and stayed for hours until we were shepherded out by security.

That building held staggering artistic riches – but the financial scale of the exhibition was no less mind-boggling. When you consider the auction value of a single van Gogh painting, the cost of borrowing, transporting, insuring and protecting virtually the artist’s entire oeuvre must have been astronomical. Factor in the money spent on marketing the exhibition and generated from the sale of tickets, catalogues, prints, and endless other items of merchandise, and the amount of cash involved starts to look obscene.

The irony, of course, was that all of this wheeling and dealing was in the name of an artist who famously died penniless, disillusioned and despairing. Van Gogh was the ultimate artistic martyr, ignored by a cruel world and an art market that failed to reward his talent.

The irony gets deeper and crueller when you consider that the legend of van Gogh the tortured artist has contributed to the rise of his posthumous fame – and the price of his paintings. His tragic tale has been immortalised in novels, poems, films and songs. His name is now a byword for misunderstood genius.

Would we accord van Gogh’s paintings the same reverence if he had lived to be old, fat, rich and conservative? Hardly. His paintings are undisputed masterpieces, but like the Mona Lisa, the mythology has helped the marketing.

It’s almost as if poverty and suffering made him a better artist.

Let’s face it, we find it easier to love our artists when they are young, poor and idealistic. There’s apparently something infinitely nobler about starving in a garrett and making sacrifices for your art than dictating your latest screenplay to one of your minions as you sip cocktails on the edge of your swimming pool.

One of the most damning criticisms that can be levelled at an artist is that he or she has ‘sold out’, forsaking artistic integrity for filthy lucre. The consensus seems to be that creativity and commerce are worlds apart, and that money necessarily corrupts artistic talent.

But does this popular view represent the truth of the matter? Not according to Tyler Cowen it doesn’t.

Does Capitalism Support Creativity?

In a book provocatively titled In Praise of Commercial Culture, Cowen argues that, far from corrupting the arts, capitalism actually fosters creativity:

The capitalist market economy is a vital but underappreciated institutional framework for supporting a plurality of coexisting artistic visions, providing a steady stream of new and satisfying creations, helping consumers and artists refine their tastes, and paying homage to the eclipsed past by capturing, reproducing, and disseminating it.

(Tyler Cowen, In Praise of Commercial Culture)

One of the ways he supports this claim is to present numerous examples of acknowledged artistic geniuses who pursued wealth with enthusiasm and success.

Many artists reject the bohemian lifestyle and pursue profits. The artists of the Italian Renaissance were businessmen first and foremost. They produced for profit, wrote commercial contracts, and did not hesitate to walk away from a job if the remuneration is not sufficient. Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, in his autobiography, remarked, “You poor idiots, I’m a poor goldsmith, and I work for anyone who pays me.”

Bach, Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven were all obsessed with earning money through their art, as a reading of their letters reveals. Mozart even wrote: “Believe me, my sole purpose is to make as much money as possible; after good health it is the best thing to have”. When accepting an Academy award in 1972, Charlie Chaplin remarked: “I went into the business for money and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.”

(Tyler Cowen, In Praise of Commercial Culture)

Another of Cowen’s arguments is that a healthy market economy and popular commercial entertainment help to sustain avant-garde and minority artists. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, art materials were too expensive and artists too dependent on conservative minded patrons and customers to be able to outrage public taste with their work. But by the 19th century the cost of art materials had fallen, so that artists were under less pressure to recoup the costs by selling the work – and were therefore free to indulge their own tastes. At the same time, the art market had grown so much that artists could earn a living by appealing to minority tastes. Similarly, many publishers have made most of their money from popular bestsellers, allowing them to publish more literary works at a reduced profit or even a loss. In cases like this, popular culture is essentially subsidising more refined tastes.

So bohemian outsiders like Baudelaire and Bukowski may rail against the bourgeois tastes and morality of mainstream culture, but according to Cowen their niche art is actually supported by the market forces they despise.

Even poor old van Gogh benefited from the market economy – and not just after his death:

Falling prices for materials have made the arts affordable to millions of enthusiasts and would-be professionals. In previous eras, even paper was costly, limiting the development of both writing and drawing skills to relatively well-off families. Vincent van Gogh, an ascetic loner who ignored public taste, could not have managed his very poor lifestyle at an earlier time in history. His nonconformism was possible because technological progress had lowered the costs of paint and canvas and enabled him to persist as an artist.

(Tyler Cowen, In Praise of Commercial Culture)

What Do You Think?

Does an artist go down in your estimation if you discover he or she was ambitious for money?

Does capitalism corrupt creativity or support it?

How do you manage the tension between creativity and commerce in your own career?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post


  1. An artist is in no way dimmed in my estimation simply because they are driven by money. Some of my favorite artists of all time were chasing the almighty dollar, even those who front as they they aren’t.

  2. Nice post, Mark.

    In no way does the pursuit of good pay *require* diminished artistic production. Mentalities differ: there are some artists for whom money is a distraction, but there are probably many more for whom the *lack* of money is a much bigger distraction.

    The myth of “selling out” is, I fear, one of those stories artists often tell themselves to justify their lack of commercial success after the fact, because it’s clear from your examples (Bach, et al.) that remaining unstained by commercial success is *not* a requirement for artistic achievement.

  3. 1. I gauge creative output on its own merits, not by whether the artist created it for financial gain and/or made a lot of money from it.

    2. Artistic creation / creativity is corrupted by the artist, not by an economic system. The need and desire to survive however, can certainly make for more difficult choices on the part of the artist.

    3. As for the *tension* (great choice of words) between creativity and commerce in my career, I’m not an artist, but have often felt I had to make certain product or offering compromises I didn’t really want to make in the name of survival.

    Nothing feels ickier.

    I think it boils down to creative integrity. If the artist’s passion or voice are being stifled or completely thwarted for the sake of monetary gain, we all “pay the price” for it in the long run–particularly the artist.

    I’m still coming to terms with this lesson in my own work and as such, am currently in the process of having to make some tough decisions.

    Thanks for your always-thoughtful output, Mark, and helping to keep me on track.

  4. This phrase caught my eye:

    “It’s almost as if poverty and suffering made (Van Gogh) a better artist.”

    Did it? Or did it make him more marketable, by making his accomplishments seem that much greater because he had such a crappy existence and therefore seem relatively better?

    Back to the point at hand:

    I think it’s unfair to look down on anyone who wants to make a living (and a comfortable one) based on their skills, talents, and passions except…

    Well, there’s a problem. The problem is that societies and governments tend to dictate morality, codes of behaviour, and determinations about good vs. evil. Here are some “skills” that many would say are immoral or otherwise unfit for public behaviour:

    – Assassination
    – Torture/Terrorism
    – Sexual techniques
    – Theft
    – Emotional manipulation

    Creativity, regarded in isolation, is much more benign that these ideas, yet the sparks of creativity lie throughout the above.

    Nonetheless, we seem to value artistic/creative skills and talents as being more pure and selfless and therefore people are sometimes shocked and disgusted by the desire to maximize your income by “going commercial”. I remember a friend railing upon Charles Dickens years ago because he “padded everything he wrote for profit”, as Dickens was supposedly paid by the word for some of his work. We also sometimes look down on people who take on commercially popular work instead of doing more critically acclaimed work. But the fact remains that bills have to be paid and, given a choice, most people would rather live in pleasant surroundings that they can control than to live in a messy, chaotic environment which hinders more than helps.

    Is there a line, though, that creative people shouldn’t cross? It’s probably no different than for other kinds of professionals. Creatives produce goods and services like other kinds of workers.

    I think the line, though, is regardless of whether or not their work is commercial or popular, creatives will tend to draw criticism if their quality becomes inferior. We expect creative people to do their best, always, to challenge and excite us. If they perform lackluster work that attempts to capitalize on their reputation and popularity without meeting their normal standards of quality, regardless of genre or audience, that’s when they cross the line, IMHO.

    Sorry for the long-winded reply, but it was a very interesting question!

  5. People who become artists to make money, rarely make any. If an artist does make money it is merely a validation of his/her work

  6. Agree with @ David Moulton – if money is the sole driver it doesn’t always work out.

    I think we have to phrase the issue as “Is it alright for an artist to make money from his/her talents?” The answer is, why not??

    Capitalistic societies, especially tech enabled ones, empower artists and enable them to find their niche and benefit from it. One of the issues is that many artists hate the business side of things, don’t embrace it, and thus don’t commercialize their work effectively and live as “starving artists”. Knowing how to make money from one’s art isn’t selling out, it’s good business.

    As an artist myself, who also knows multiple artists who are living solely off their art and very comfortably at that, I think selling out is actually less enabled in a capitalistic society like we have today.

    Why? Because if someone demands that an artist change this or that, the artist can often just say “no” and do it themselves and leverage their fanbase, niche, etc. The music world is full of examples of this.

  7. Good read, and something to think about as well. I think you helped clarify the topic on hand.

    I’ll hang around and comment on any post that catches my fancy, keep up the awesome writing! 🙂

  8. Consider a recent tweet of mine:

    BMW video featuring corporate “art”: The real art they ripped off:

    Both by “real” artists, both paid, and in my estimation only one is selling out here.

    The sad thing about this post and these comments is they reflect and either/or thinking re the arts when many of you (based on my own experience) might be hard pressed to name a single contemporary artist working today. Van Gogh pursued money his entire life… his friend Gaugin had it but died sick and penniless on a remote island.

    As long as we discuss things as binaries (choosing between two things) we are doing exactly what the corporate world wants us to do; namely, to think as consumers. But we can hardly think of ourselves as consumers of art if we don’t even know what is going on in the arts.

    Mark Rothco’s death by suicide (cutting wrists) was famously romanticized as well as his “last painting.” The fact that the people who would like to profit from saying really stupid stuff about art will always be there doesn’t mean there is some “choice” to be made. If you aren’t looking at art that is being made today, you’ve already made the choice the money people want you to make.

    My twitter feed is

    Thanks for the post & discussion

  9. The thing Van Gogh had right was not listening to anybody but himself. As Hugh says, Ignore Everybody. As @kidmercury just wrote, selling out is a term relative to one’s own view.

    An artist’s gotta make art. Plain and simple. How they do that and look at themselves in the mirror is the whole shebang. Everybody has their own gut check. I know I do. How people perceive my actions based upon my gut check is really not any of my business nor in my control. When people try and control the reaction to their actions is when I think they become inauthentic, sell out, and get, as Mary Anne used, ickier.

    Thus the trick is to stick with that individual gut check and not be swayed by, um, people.

    Did Metallica sell out? Newsted once said something like, yeah we sell out, every show. The problem with capitalism is its flattening, commoditizing effect. It’s hard, as Brian noted about me today, to find a niche that people already know about while sticking to one’s original creative idea. It’s probably why most artists hire people to promote them and their art so they can in their own minds keep the two separate. The problem is that that separation is a lie. The public’s perception will then be the marketing, which will further disconnect the artist from his art and it’s initial purpose.

    I paint my portraits to create conversation pieces for people to connect with their music, their culture, their memory and to celebrate that with others, to connect and pay tribute to the music, the photography, the people who create our culture. Anything that brings me sales with that known goal is awesome and honestly, as I’ve said before in my blog, the money is a means to create more art and to give my wife the life she and I want.

    Oh, and I’m doing it my way.


  10. @Writer Dad – “even those who front as they they aren’t.” – of which there are plenty!

    @ Tim – “there are some artists for whom money is a distraction, but there are probably many more for whom the *lack* of money is a much bigger distraction.” Exactly. Either way, it’s the distraction, not the money itself, that’s the problem.

    @ Mary Anne and Daniel – Agreed that listening to your gut/creative integrity in the face of outside pressures is one of the hardest things to do. It’s great when it works out and we feel vindicated, but there are plenty of times when the logical argument for compromise is hard to gainsay.

    @ Mark – I guess we all have to decided where we’re prepared to draw the line . The more successful/prominent you become, the more people there are who take it upon themselves to tell you where you SHOULD draw it. John Hegley wrote a very funny poem about Otto Dix, whose later work was criticised as not being up to his early standards. It ended:

    but after those past decades of exhausting brilliance,
    in his retirement,
    why couldn’t they allow a chap
    to paint for pleasure
    and be crap.

    @ David – Yes, money is a nice reward/validation, but if we’re not focused on the joy of the work itself then paradoxically it won’t be good enough to earn any rewards.

    @ Michael – Good point about leveraging your fan base to maintain your (artistic) independence. There are many more opportunities to do that these days than there were even a few years ago.

    @ Fred – “The sad thing about this post and these comments is they reflect and either/or thinking re the arts” – Reflecting something doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with it.

    “As long as we discuss things as binaries (choosing between two things) we are doing exactly what the corporate world wants us to do;” – I’ve met plenty of representatives of the art world who were just as guilty of binary thinking as corporate types.

  11. I’m an artist and as such seriously appreciate this article. It is unfortunate that art and artists, regardless of the media are often not considered a valuable social asset.

    Art is often seen as a commodity rather than an important even essential part of a community or a society. The value of such creations, such outstanding and unique vision is frequently misunderstood or overlooked for what it really is.

    It is artistic vision which creates television programs, or films. It gives shape and form to virtually every object we use in daily life. It is the music we listen to and the paintings we hang on our walls. It is in fact the very essence of the creative process through which most anything moves from imagination to reality.

    Why then is it so hard to comprehend that art and artist should be as valued as any other profession occupation or trade. Putting aside the skill required to create something from raw materials, there is behind that a drive to express the most human of all characteristic our consciousness.

    It is the artist who gives voice and sight to all that we are.

  12. I greatly respect artists who are able to combine their artistic talent with business smarts.

    When I see an artist sleeping out of the back of their van (and I know one like this), it tends to take away from their integrity as a talent, because it gives the impression that their art is not good enough to support them.

    Most artists that are “starving” do so because they lack either business knowledge or the motivation and work ethic to do what it takes to market themselves.

    An artist that has confidence in his talent enough to properly market and sell his work is an artist that elicits others confindence in their work as well.

    An artist who is waiting tables isn’t an artist, he’s a waiter.

    I think if one wants to be an artist, then they must be an artist. Nothing else.

  13. I’d just like to comment on the previous comment. While I respect every point of view I think the previous comment is somewhat short sighted.

    Artists, regardless of their medium of expression often must struggle to become established. Success doesn’t always come tripping lightly nor on gilded wings. This is especially true for artists who are pushing against established norms or excepted tastes and styles. History is filled with such examples.

    My son is an actor and a very good one. However as acting is one profession where work can be spotty and competition for parts fearsome, he’s often required to maintain himself by taking other jobs.

    This is common in the profession especially among young actors. Very few work continuously in the profession in their early years.

    It is disingenuous to suggest that if he must work as a waiter between gigs he is no longer an artist. He’s doing a production now but, that will end shortly and, the rent will still need to be paid.

    Those in the fine arts also find getting established to be difficult. Becoming represented by a gallery or an agent is not as simple as simply turning up with bunch of work to sell. The ramp up to success can and generally is steep. Without generous support from others artists much pay their own way.

    In my early years I was offered a menial job airbrushing customized T shirts in a shop window – a job I declined because I had a family to support. I took a job as a screen printed because the pay was better.

    It is ridiculous to assume that the I should have let my family starve so I could maintain the integrity of my artistic talents. I was in fact still able to draw and paint as well as pursue an interest in photography.

    Art is often held out as some kind of sacred thing that must be pursued with a kind of religious fervor. While I do believe that art has a special place in our culture I also understand that it’s importance is generally misunderstood by the vast majority of people.

    Like so many things today, art is often simply a consumable commodity, something that has more to do with commercial branding than the creative force which makes artists take up brush or pencil.

    I for one an not defined by some limitation or arbitrary definition of what an artist is and I reject any attempt to do so. Art is in the heart and can never be contained by the simple opinion of others.

  14. When one has money from a “day job” it also can give the artist cash flow so that he/she can actually pursue the art. My first CD was funded through my day job.

  15. Marvin, Maria, Michael — Very interesting discussion!

    Maria — I agree with you that there are many artists who could benefit from beefing up their business and marketing skills. That’s why we’ve recently featured interviews with several artists who are excellent at doing just that — John T Unger, Hugh MacLeod and Natasha Wescoat.

    However, I don’t think business skills and artistic integrity are the same thing. To me, an artist is someone who makes good art, whether he’s waiting tables or being waited on himself, by the side of his own private swimming pool.

    Of course, the artist/waiter may be so distracted by financial pressures and working late that he fails to reach his full potential. But then the artist/millionaire also has plenty of distractions on offer, which could undermine the art just as badly. In either case, it’s the distraction that’s the problem, not the money or lack of it.

  16. I’d like to clarify what I meant when I wrote my comment earlier on this topic. I realize I may have offended some people. My point wasn’t made properly – so I’ll be more direct!

    I get so sick of the “sell out” topic. If an artist makes money, he’s accused of selling out. And typically, that money is made commercially, because, well, that’s where the money is.

    Here’s my problem with the “sell out” topic:

    If an artist does a deal with a large company, he’s accused of selling out.

    If an artist has too many prints being sold all over the world, he’s accused of selling out.

    If an artist uses his art to design useful products, he’s accused of selling out.

    None of these things are sell outs. If they are, then waiting tables when you’re an artist is a sell out. Then being an art director when you want to be a fine artist is a sell out. Then selling insurance instead of selling your fine paintings is a sell out.

    There are many definitions of “selling out” and the one I found that I like the best is something like this: You are selling out when you take an action that goes AGAINST YOUR PERSONAL BELIEF SYSTEM.

    So, an artist who HATES Sharpie but does a deal with Sharpie for money, under that definition, is a sell out.

    Also, an artist who LOVES Sharpie products and does a deal with Sharpie for money, under that definition, is NOT a sell out.

    Personally, I think artists should do whatever feels good to them. If using their art commercially pays the bills and keeps them painting, go for it. You’re better off doing that than waiting tables. After all, waiting tables won’t sharpen your art skills.

  17. What a very interesting discussion. Let me just add a bit to my earlier comments.

    When I was in Art school some years ago, all of us budding Rembrandt’s were given a reality check by one of our instructors. He quoted statistics on the average income of someone pursing a career in fine art. In 1969 that average was about $12,000 / year.

    That figure took into account artists who pulled down 6 figure incomes as well as those making much much less – which is the majority. He said frankly that of those who pursued “fine art”, which I’ll define as simply painting, sculpting, print making or more broadly the “visual arts” – less than 5% could sustain themselves as an artist from the sale of their work alone.

    The instructor made it very clear to us, that if we had ambitions of fine art as a career we needed to understand the business of art. That’s not to say we had to sell out our artistic integrity. He emphasized the point that commercial success and artistic integrity were not mutually exclusive.

    He smiled when he said, “very few truck drivers collect original paintings” or, put another way. if you want to survive as an artist and work as an artist you must also know your market; concepts which are clearly more of a business nature.

    Art is a cultural statement and as such can’t be simply or easily defined. That aspect of art goes well beyond it’s monetary value. But, the value of an individual piece of work to any given buyer can be measured and often is.

    It is often the case, masterpieces are sometimes discarded as trash or castoffs by subsequent generations. Such pieces commonly turn up on the news or famous antique shows on TV.

    The value of art is a transient thing and there is something to be said for the statement that “art is in the eye of the beholder”.

    Everyone has an opinion and each one is right. I say if you are a commercially successful artist, bravo. If on the other hand you are pursuing art for arts sake, good on you too. Non one should be forced to chose one over the other.

  18. Maria – No offence taken here. I agree that some people are too quick to condemn artists for ‘selling out’ – often without having tried to make a living from creativity themselves.

    Marvin –

    The instructor made it very clear to us, that if we had ambitions of fine art as a career we needed to understand the business of art. That’s not to say we had to sell out our artistic integrity. He emphasized the point that commercial success and artistic integrity were not mutually exclusive.

    He sounds like a wise man.

  19. Capitalist definitely supports creativism. In my latest article titled “How The Starving Artist Achieves Career Success Using Social Media”. I discussed how Capitalism symbolized by the Media Age, the Internet and the Online Publishing Industry has lowered distribution costs, so that any media savvy artist can get their message to the mass market.

    You may read more here:

    I suggest this post as a good sequel to your post.


  20. Kingsley – I agree that social media creates opportunities for artists/creatives that weren’t there a few years ago. Of course, many of them still need a change of mindset before they’ll use the tools to market themselves…