Artists must sell out to break out

“Why Artists must sell-out to break out”

“Sometimes you have to sell-out to get your work seen in the mainstream.”

Yells of fury and murmurs of disagreement erupted. As you would expect from a panel of artists with whom I was debating Art and Activism on Al Jazeera English earlier this week.

I can see why ‘Selling out’ might be seen as a purely derogatory term. It implies a certain lack of integrity; a disintegration of values. And yet, the commercialisation of art is surely what enables it to exist at all. Without the galleries, the buyers, the collectors, how can we hope to create lasting artworks that have the power to affect?

I’m not saying that it’s right. The art world is small, and conservative, and exclusive. More often than not, it prefers to play it safe. I lose count of the number of my paintings that have been rejected by galleries who don’t want to be associated with negative discourse or political statements, and I can’t deny that it is frustrating. But I am under no illusion. I must work my way up the ladder of opportunity and respect, just as one would in any other industry. I must earn my right to create these pieces and to have them seen by the world.

I believe that art is like a marriage. It begins with passion and romance. You throw everything you have into it, blinded by the rush, regardless of the consequences. Together, you go through life stages; you learn from each other, carry the weight of each other, through good times and bad. And if you want the relationship to survive, then at some point, you have to compromise.

I have my passion projects. The art that I want to create. The art that reflects the world as I see it, and invites people to consider, to discuss, to appreciate the beauty, and to take joint responsibility for the injustice and persecution. That is the artist within me.

But I also have my work. My occupation. The art that is accepted, requested and purchased by galleries, collectors and buyers. The income that contributes to my household. This may not necessarily be the art that fights its way out of my soul like a banshee screaming to be heard, but does that make me any less of an artist, or the pieces that I produce any less worthy? Why must it all be so black and white? When life, just like art, is technicolor.

The art world is a dignified, refined place. To be accepted and respected, we must first be humble. When I say that artists have to sell out, I mean that artists have to sell, and that there is often a disconnect between what artists want to paint, and what consumers want to buy. Our craft is our livelihood, and sometimes we must create artworks that fit a brief, and paint to please – but in doing so, we hope to build a network of support, upon which we can rely when the time comes to really make our mark upon the world. We must play by the rules so that one day we might have the knowledge, the confidence, the reputation and the support to be bold and to go our own way.