Keep your integrity, make money, and disappoint your fans!
In this article I’m going to break down:
Why we, artists, hold ourselves back from making money.
If the marriage of art and commerce is possible.
Shepard Fairey's career and how he grew from a street artist to mega star working with big brands.
Should selling your art make you feel guilty? Many artists find themselves in arguments with modern-day content creators over the monetization of the creative BIZ.
YouTubers and digital designers are pictured as obsessed with the profit of it all, while the majority of original musicians, writers, and painters are still struggling with the romantic idea of being a true artist in the digital era.
Dirty money from THE MAN
From Picasso to Banksy, you can find artists and creatives who would be able to find the balance between art and money, but for many of us it remained a cursed taboo.
As artists, we need to develop a healthier relationship with money. Especially artists who didn’t grow up in upper-class families.
What if there was a way to sell without dealing with the devil? Can we combine these two opposing elements?
Here is a perfect example of a complex artist who found his balance.
An universal artist
He is considered as a rioter, a true contemporary artist, and managed an equal balance between his social media fame, big corporate assignments, and his commerce brand. He is Shepard Fairey, a universal artist.
Fairy's reputation was born in 1989 when he began placing his sticker design of Andre the Giant everywhere. Who knew that a tiny sticker could blow his name up? He became widely known during the 2008 U.S. presidential election for his Barack Obama "Hope" poster.
Over time, his career turned into a successful commercial collaboration with big names and brands and, as you could guess, he received many judgments from his original fans.
This week, I was working on a script for my digital studio and I discovered two different interviews of him including two opposing approaches to commerce.
Here, in an old interview from The Henry Rollins Show (2006-2007), Fairey describes his thought process behind attempting to balance art and commerce. But what he says about “the marriage of art and commerce” is not sitting right with me:
I decided , like Robinhood, I would take the money from commercial works and fund my own project to influence people so they can question the commercial sides of things.(6:10)
What we observe here is a great rebellion artist who wishes to not associate with the money of his works. I understand this is a very complex situation for an artist like him. He built his brand on questioning the hegemony, and is now working on big assignments with brands such as Nike.
That’s why he tried to defend himself in an article from 2003:
I put all the profits back into more stickers and posters for the street, because that is my love, not money.
For any artist, it is true that if you don’t believe you can make it on your own, you will always find yourself fighting“the commercial side”.
13 years later
But then I found this interview of him from 2019 with British Channel 4 news.
Something changed in him. He is no longer dealing with “the man” , he is done with trying to connect art and money, but is creating a new environment for the two worlds of commerce and art. He says:
I personally believe that it’s possible that capitalism and a livable planet can live together (9:40) … I believe that smart people can figure out ways to make products that they are proud of and sell them to people without ruining the planet at the same time. (11:05)
This time, you see a balanced artist that managed a biz and produced his own product aligned with his ethics, realistically. He is TRYING to shape a sustainable brand for the future of Earth.
He doesn't want to question the commercial world anymore, instead he is battling to create his own sustainable vision of it. He doesn’t have any “Robin Hood” idea of art in a capitalistic world and is trying to find ways to push his audiences and consumers. In his new approach, commerce is not a cheesy type of work, it’s a continuation of his creativity that impacts his audience’s lifestyle.
From street art to commerce
Shepard Fairey started working in an era where consumerism was booming. In a generation of Reaganism and conservative America, he found skateboarding and punk rock as a relief. Punk rock was a sort of rebellion for him, leading to his street art as a reaction to society.
He built up his identity through working without permission on the streets. But as a talented growing artist, he had to expand his work. He couldn't stay isolated and repeat himself forever in a rapidly changing world.
In the same interview, he answered the question of "Do you think of yourself as a street artist first and foremost"?
I think of myself as an ARTIST.
He disappointed some fans, but it would be too safe for him to keep the title of a "legend street artist" and not try to push the boundaries.
On the other hand, "capitalism" agreed to collaborate with him, and he got to work at the same places he did so rebelliously. All brands let him keep his style and work on his terms. If you don't call this a victory, you probably will never be at peace with any state of commercialism.
Fairey describes his balance by saying:
I feel comfortable with where I am operating within the very challenging ethical area of capitalism!
He didn't have this vision when he was younger, but as his inner artist grew, Fairey discovered he could push back against the boundaries and create his independent image within the system.
Have skin in the game
To achieve the balance between art and money, embrace the risk and create your own universe in this ever-changing world. Forget the traditional mind frames of art and media, try new forms like: commerce, gifs, memes, 3d printing, gaming, etc. Don’t distinguish between “high” and “low” forms of art.
However, this may come at a cost; questioning your integrity. But remember that just the title of an influential artist does not create a legacy; actions do. Stop playing safe, experiment, and also as Fairy says: GIVE A SHIT.
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