Songs for the Struggling Artist

Selling Out and Self-Deception
September 11, 2014, 12:56 am
Filed under: art, business, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , ,

On the You Are Not So Smart podcast, I heard that the generations behind me don’t know what the concept of “Selling Out” is. When asked, one interviewee thought it was when a show sold all the tickets. (It is, yes, that, too.) But – the idea of selling out, as in selling your artistic soul down the river for commercial success, is (supposedly, according to this show) not in the common parlance for the young.

It would seem that the current blend of market value and artistic value are now so mixed up, many people don’t even recognize them anymore. I find this disturbing. While I’d be happy to have an opportunity to sell out, I feel it would be important to know that I’m doing it and why.

But selling a lot of tickets and getting a lot of YouTube hits doesn’t mean your art is good. I enjoyed reading Penny Arcade’s post on this topic. She said,

“Today’s downtown performance world operates very much on a basis of popularity rather than on ability. It is very easy to feel like you are succeeding with your work when what is actually happening is that you are succeeding socially. “

Her perspective on the new landscape rings very true to me. Art should not be a popularity contest. And yet it feels like it is.

I heard an episode of RadioLab that I’d heard before. The last time, it set off a chain of responses, including anxiety and sadness. The thing that set me off then, and struck me again in hearing it a second time, was the story on self-deception. I don’t want to ruin the punch-line of the story (so maybe listen to the segment first before reading the rest of this.) but studies seem to indicate that people who are better at self-deception are more successful.

Initially, I  found this news depressing because I am very bad at self-deception. I felt that I had not yet achieved success in the traditional sense due to this self-deceptive handicap and I despaired at ever having any in the future. And it can be a handicap – when I asked some fellow indie theatre–makers how they keep going in the face of almost certain indifference of the world, one of them answered with, “I think you have to be a little delusional.”

This makes a lot of sense. I was much happier and more successful when I was convinced that my tiny theatre shows were going to change the world. Over the years, I’ve lost many of my self-deceptive abilities. When hearing this story for the second time today, though, I started to think about the competing impulses of cultivating self-deception and cultivating truth.

As an artist, I am (perhaps compulsively) interested in truth. I am curious about what is REALLY going on. I am captivated by the investigation of what is underneath.  Do I wish for Elizabeth Bishop or Dawn Powell or Remedios Varo to have been more delusional to achieve more “success”? Definitely not. But is a lot of the art that is “successful” delusional? Absolutely. And how much of that might we deem sold out?

It’s becoming clearer to me that selling art comes from a very different impulse than creating it. The best artists I know are not self-delusional, they question themselves constantly. The ones that are impossibly sure of themselves often find more success but that confidence can feel like a con when it comes to the content of their work.

For me, being clear about the difference between artistic success and popularity, between truth and big numbers, between selling out and investing in, helps me focus on the task at hand, which is (always) making good art. And the only way I know how to do that is by being as honest with myself as possible. The successful self-deceivers can succeed on their own metric, I’ve got my own.


photo by litherland

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