Selling Out is about trust not money

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. Widgets

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?

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

8 thoughts on “Selling Out is about trust not money

  1. Bad art is what business thinks people want and often times people want what they’re told to want. Good art is what people need; but you don’t always want what you need.

    P.S. Don’t buy medicine from Neil Gaiman, he’s not really a licensed doctor, just a story-teller. Buy your medicine from pharmacies.


  2. The real question for artists today is weather or not they can afford health insurance and feed their families or even have a family. Your answer to this question is beautiful actually (I love Neil’s work and the man himself) but it pre-supposes a world were this is even an option, for many it is not. When I was younger I would think,”Famn that musician sold out!”, now that I am 45 I think,”oh, he/she needed to have a functional life”

    Art is a tool for living.


  3. An interesting piece, and I agree that trust plays a part – perhaps even a very large part – in our reading choices, but it’s tricky to compare medicine and art. You can verify objectively whether medication or other forms of treatment work (including the placebo effect). But words? Take Neil Gaiman, for example: I find a lot of his stuff tedious (and yes, I can supply reasons) – though quite effective medicine when sleeping pills are required.


  4. Great food for thought and I’m with you for the most part, though I wonder if ‘selling out’ is a binary thing; i.e. you either do or you don’t. Maybe there is a sliding scale and maybe motivation is part of the equation. Is redemption possible after selling out?

    I really love the idea of Neil Gaiman’s work as medication. I identify with that.


  5. There is a big difference between the idea of an artist and actually being a working artist. It’s easy to mythologize them. I even do it to myself I would say. But there are many ways for an artist to be an artist. I remember how everyone would dis cover bands when I was a young musician. I did it also. Later I realized, well, WTF it’s ok to play folk music, it’s ok to play classical music but it’s not OK to play music of your own current culture? You probably wouldn’t want the cover band musicians that worked 6th street in Austin TX to play originals any more than than their audience would want to hear you play covers. They did what they were good at and my crew did what we were good at.

    I learned something else about working artists when I went to Romania with my gypsy/tango/klezmer/punk band Luminescent Orchestrii. I was
    excited to finally hear real gypsies play gypsy music. We were at a
    wedding event before the wedding. There was a gypsy band. It was a
    violinist and a guy with an electronic keyboard. They took
    one look at us, figured out we were American’s a bust into Achy-Breaky
    Heart. I thought “how ironic” and that’s how I told this story for a
    long time until I realized, no…this is how most musicians in the
    world function, and this IS gypsy music, you learn music that people
    want to hear and adjust your set to the situation. I wanted to hear
    gypsy music? Well, i heard it. I heard professional working musicians
    responding to the situation they were in.

    Artist working in the U.S. have so little chance to make a living let alone “sell out” I wont fault any that do. I am just saying it really isn’t so black and white and so simple and the needs of the artist might be different from the needs of the people consuming the art.


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