Imagine you are a doctor. The population you treat are sick. You have two medicines. One tastes bad and has some horrendous side effects but will over time make your patients better. The other tastes like honey and gets you high as a kite but has no real medical value, unless you count dying with a smile on your face. Oh, also the first one is very expensive, whereas the second is cheap and hence profitable.
Can we all agree that if you choose to sell your patients the second medicine, you are a shit doctor?
Your response to the idea of an artist Selling Out – recently under discussion here at io9 and here at John Scalzi’s Whatever – is likely to relate to whether you believe artists have any responsibility comparable to that of a doctor. For many people, and many artists, what the artist does is entertain. If it makes you weep or giggle or just occupies some spare time then the artist’s duty, as such, is fulfilled. The rest is accountancy.
In his book The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz tells how twenty years professional practice and 50,000 hours face-to-face with patients have shown him how human beings use stories to deal with pain. By placing pain and suffering in to the context of a story we give them meaning. And through that meaning we turn suffering in to experience, and fuel for growth.
Grosz’ is just one of hundreds of insights of how art is important to life. I spent a decade of my early career using books and reading to help people develop and grow, so I’ve been lucky enough to observe it in many people and in many settings. Books aren’t just an idle distraction or entertainment. They help us process life, deal with trauma, develop empathy, and overall to grow as healthy human beings through all stages of our life. Stories of all kinds do this, and art of all kinds, each in its own unique way.
Good stories. And good art. This is what people mean when they apply the word ‘good’ to art. Art that has purpose in our lives as part of our growth and development. Like a good doctor sells good medicine, a good artist sells good art.
Bad art is like the bad medicine above. It usually tastes good. More often than not that’s because it appeals to some basic human drives like status, violence or sex. And it gets you high. It’s a thrill. A buzz. A spectacle. Good art is sometimes these things as well. It’s using them to lure you in for the medicine. Bad art is only doing it to capture your attention. Some common examples of bad art? Most advertising. Most pornography. A lot of Hollywood movies. A lot of TV. A lot of commercial fiction. Most everything created as part of a franchise. That’s not to say these things are morally bad (some are, some aren’t) they’re just bad art.
Like doctors, artists occupy a position of earned trust. Most of us don’t know enough to know if our doctor is selling us good or bad medicine. And most of us don’t know enough to tell good art from bad art. So we rely on artists who have earned our trust. I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman since I was fourteen. Like millions of other people, I’ve found a kind of medicine in Mr Gaiman’s art. Not in all of it. Some works for me, some does not. But I have trust that, under absolutely no circumstances, would Neil Gaiman sell me bad medicine. It doesn’t matter how much money Neil makes from his work, he hasn’t sold out as long as that trust is unbroken.
Selling Out isn’t about selling your work, it’s about selling the trust that fans have placed in you. Popstar Lana Del Rey is a nice example of an artist Selling Out. Her first two singles seemed like an indie artist with talent and some kind of insight. But they were a lure, manufactured by a very smart marketing team for an artist with a nice voice but nothing to say. They built trust, on the back of which much money was made. Bad medicine.
The real question for artists today, I think, isn’t whether you will Sell Out, but whether you will build trust at all. It takes years to learn to make good art, and it’s harder work. There’s a ready market hungry for bad art, who don’t really care whether they trust you or not. Most artists today come pre-Sold Out. Will you be one of those, or something better?